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Like a bad penny, Microsoft scam turns up again

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The persistent “Microsoft scam” made headlines again recently – this time with a positive twist.

Last month, a U.S. District Court in New York, acting on charges filed by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012, ordered the operators behind several international tech-support scams to forfeit more than $5.1 million and to refrain from engaging in this practice in the future.

The operators, mostly based in India, targeted unsuspecting computer owners in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to the FTC, in most cases posing as technicians affiliated with Dell, McAfee, Microsoft and Norton.

The goal: To frighten you into thinking you have a virus or malware on your computer and then try to hoodwink you into paying the pseudo technicians as much as $450 by credit card to remove them.

To make matters worse, the scammers also ask for remote access to your computer – purportedly to fix the problem – which would allow them to install real malware that could put your sensitive personal and financial information at risk and make you a prime candidate for identity theft.

While the court action is welcome news, it certainly doesn’t mean these deceptive telephone calls have gone away or will anytime soon.

“I kind of think of scammers like cockroaches – you kill three and there’s 20 more that come out from inside the walls,” Rebecca Branch, deputy director of the New Mexico Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, told the Journal last week.

“While we’re very excited by the FTC and hope it’s a start of putting a damper on these kind of scams, by no means should you feel safe.”

Branch said there has been a resurgence of calls to her office about this scheme in the past few months, reflecting the cyclical nature of the more popular scams. She attributes the effectiveness of this one, in part, to a general “lack of knowledge” on the part of many computer users.

“I think it’s just because people have an uncertainty about a computer, a lack of knowledge in some circumstances,” she said. “There’s still that trust element.”

If you are unlucky enough to receive one of these calls, Branch’s advice simply is to hang up. But if you believe it’s possible you could have a virus on your computer and want to put your mind at ease, she said, find the correct consumer support number and share your experience with a legitimate representative.

“Anyone that cold-calls you, you just have to be highly suspicious of,” she said. “I hate to say that, but it’s the truth.”

I first wrote about this scheme last summer after I was contacted by an Albuquerque woman, who told me she had been the unlucky recipient of eight such calls – all from the same person, she believed – over a two-year period.

She quickly determined this was a scam and told him so, but that wasn’t enough to put an immediate end to the calls.

Since then, I’ve heard from many Albuquerque area residents by phone or email about this popular scheme, most recently from a gentleman who told me he received a similar call in mid-July.

The caller said he was affiliated with the “Windows Service Center” and that he had determined there was a “malicious virus or malware” being installed on his computer. As such, it was important to get access to his log report so he could install the necessary software to delete those dangerous files.

The recipient of the call proceeded to ask a number of questions that helped him quickly determine it was a scam. When he told the caller flat out that he was not about to let someone install software on his computer, the scammer hung up.

For its part, Microsoft provides information on the “Support” section of its website advising computer users on how to protect themselves from these tech-support scams and what to do if they already have cooperated with a phony technician.

If you do receive such a call, Microsoft advises:

  • Never agree to purchase any software or related services.
  • Make sure to ask the “technician” if there is a fee or subscription for the service; if the answer is yes, hang up the phone.
  • Under no circumstances give a third party remote access to your computer unless you are absolutely certain that person is legitimate.
  • And, of course, never reveal your credit-card or personal financial information to someone who claims to be a Microsoft technician.

Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at npappas@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.

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