Stump the Geeks

Latest online scam is alarming computer experts

May 12, 2013 

It takes a lot to surprise the group of go-to geeks I frequently contact for this column.

Paul Rosenberg, for example, has experienced plenty of computer issues as the owner of the repair shop Love Your Computer in Chapel Hill. But when he received a call from a client about a scam combining elements of scareware, social engineering and outright fraud, he was concerned enough to alert me.

He’s seen the scam work a few different ways, but the end result is that users are tricked into expensive service contracts after being told over the phone that their computers are on the verge of a meltdown.

They also seem to have specific targets in mind.

“Every single person I’ve received a call from about this is over 50,” Rosenberg said. “They’re calling older users and trying to dupe them.”

One client, he says, received a call out of the blue one morning claiming to be from Microsoft. They told the man they received security alerts from his computer and that they could remotely access his system to fix it – for a price.

The technique is similar to that of “scareware,” fake antivirus software that saw a huge rise in 2010. But the human element – a real person on the line asking to access your computer – takes the social engineering to another level.

“The bottom line is that they’re manufacturing a crisis,” Rosenberg told me last week.

Trust your instincts

There are less fraudulent ways for companies to push users toward pricey contracts.

Use Google to search for “Canon printer support” or “Microsoft support,” and you’ll notice the official company websites often appear under ad-supported options that offer toll-free numbers and “instant tech support.” What you end up with is often something different.

“I have heard this story over and over again,” Rosenberg said. “Most people get to the point where they’re shaken down for $190 or whatever, and they stop.”

I don’t doubt that there are some legitimate tech support companies online that do help users and reach them through these paid Google links. But telling the difference between the good and bad actors can be difficult – especially for the average user.

I also have a problem with any company that tries to redirect users away from tech support they’ve already paid for. When you buy a printer from Canon or an operating system from Microsoft, tech support is built into the price. Remember that whenever someone proposes you fork over more of your hard-earned money for a fix.

Despite the brazen nature of these scams, avoiding them isn’t difficult with a little guidance, the most important of which is to trust your instincts.

“If it smells fishy, it probably is,” Rosenberg said.

Watch that URL

No legitimate software company will ever contact you about malicious information they “noticed” on your computer, Rosenberg said, so it’s safe to disregard messages like these wholesale.

When you’re looking for tech support, go directly to the manufacturer. Most software has built-in support (the “help” menu, for example) that can lead you directly to the company’s website without having to click on links in a suspicious email or a search engine.

“If you’re trying to reach Microsoft, don’t go to Google,” Rosenberg said.

And pay special attention to the Web address. It’s rare for a company not to own its own domain (check the part right before the “.com”), so imitators can be easy to spot that way.

It boils down, as it always does, to adopting a bit of healthy suspicion. I always find distrust is a good default setting.

Send technology questions to stumpthegeeks@newsobserver.com. Please include your name, city and daytime phone number. Sorry, we can’t answer every question.

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