'Tech-support scam' can breach PC privacy

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comJanuary 29, 2014 

  • Cold-hearted scammers threaten heat cut-off

    Department of Justice consumer protection specialists note there’s another scam making the rounds, one with a seasonal twist:

    “They call and say that your power bill is overdue and they’re going to cut you off,” said DOJ spokeswoman Noelle Talley. “People might be more willing to pay when it’s cold outside.”

  • Where to get help:

    North Carolina Senior Consumer Fraud Task Force

    Formed in 1998 by the state Attorney General, state Division of Aging and Adult Services and AARP to fight consumer fraud that targets older people.

    Online: bit.ly/1lkx42L

    Attorney General’s Office, Consumer Protection Section

    Phone: 919-716-6000

    Federal Trade Commission

    Online: 1.usa.gov/1e52o1u

    Phone: 1-877-382-4357

Beware of any unknown caller who poses as a friendly, concerned techie, offering to help with viruses on the household PC.

That’s the word from state and federal fraud fighters, who say the caller is likely a scammer trying to gain access to credit card, banking and other information.

“We started getting complaints at the end of 2011 and it’s gradually increased,” said David Fox, consumer protection specialist with the state Department of Justice. “And that usually indicates to us that it’s successful.”

The scammer typically begins by asking for the potential victim to sign in and give the caller remote access to the victim’s computer. The false premise is that the victim’s computer has dangerous viruses that should be removed, even though the caller is only pointing out routine information that any computer might display.

“They'll tell you that that means you have a virus on your computer,” Fox said.

In fraud-speak, this scam is called “scareware,” according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Last fall, the FTC announced a major international crackdown on tech support scams on these remote-access thefts.

At the commission’s request, a U.S. District Court Judge ordered a halt to six alleged tech-support scams and froze their assets. Criminal enterprises were targeted in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.

“The FTC has been aggressive – and successful – in its pursuit of tech support scams,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement. “And the tech support scam artists we are talking about have taken scareware to a whole other level of virtual mayhem.”

Instead of helping the consumer, the scammer can be installing malware, or dangerous software; obtaining pin numbers or other private information; or setting up a monthly payment to an illegal business. The total charge can be as much as $500, with a monthly payment of about $30 a month.

“They don't have to be successful very often,” given the high volume of calls placed daily, DOJ spokeswoman Noelle Talley said.

The North Carolina Department of Justice has tracked at least 150 complaints about the tech scam, indicating a much higher number of people who either rejected the scammer’s advances or perhaps got caught, Fox said.

In some cases, the scam artist will even threaten to come to the house of someone who doesn’t agree to go along, citing a specific time that he will arrive. Such a threat can cause real alarm and concern to an older person, Fox said.

The state’s Senior Consumer Fraud Task Force has a webpage of information of telephone scams. The justice department and other agencies have staffers make appearances at events geared to older people.

“Whether it's this or any other type of scam, we usually spend our time educating people,” Fox said.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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