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Don’t let this happen to you: Computer held hostage by scammers

The Microsoft Windows scam is continuing its destructive spread. I’ve heard from two city-area residents in the past week who fell victim, one of whom lost more than $2,400.

The scam, which usually comes your way by phone call or email, involves bogus Microsoft computer techs telling you that you have been hacked or that you have a virus they can fix.

Ed of Albuquerque got involved in a convoluted version of this scam in which his computer was “held hostage” while the phone callers demanded an increasing amount of money over a period of about three days. This is called a ransomware scam, and individuals and businesses nationwide are reporting losses up to $10,000 in a new version of it, according to the FBI.

“These financial fraud schemes target both individuals and businesses, are usually very successful and have a significant impact on victims,” the agency said in an alert.

In the end, the retired Albuquerque man was bilked out of $2,400, his bank account numbers, his credit card numbers, all the information on his computer and the computer itself – invaded so deeply and thoroughly that the experts he hired said it would be easier and cheaper to just buy a new computer.

From Ed’s scary and expensive experience, there are some lessons to be learned:

  • Ed was hit with repeated calls over months that claimed to be from the “Windows technical department.” When he finally decided to answer, he was told a computer virus was causing problems for other people’s computers. They said they could install protection software for a fee. He fell for it, and sent them a scanned check with his account number on it. Lessons: Don’t respond if you get this kind of phone call or see a pop-up on your computer claiming to be Microsoft or Windows tech support. If you feel uncertain, call the Microsoft Answer Desk at 1-800-426-9400 before you take the bait. Also, never send a personal check to someone you don’t know.

  • Once Ed gave the scammers access to his computer, they locked it up and began demanding money in increasing amounts before they would restore access. “I really view it as an extortion situation,” he said. Lessons: Always back up your computer files so you have less to lose if a hacker strikes. Use a reputable antivirus software and firewall, and maintain them with updates. Once you’re hit, you can try removing the virus by running a scan. That might help you identify and delete malicious files, the Better Business Bureau advises. If you are unable to remove the malware, you may need to have your computer’s hard drive wiped and your files and software reinstalled.

On the other hand, all is not doom and gloom in the world of scamming: The feds announced Wednesday they had shut down the largest-known English-language malware forum – Darkode – where hackers sold malware or solicited others to install it on victims’ computers. Targeted are more than 70 cybercriminals in the U.S. and 19 other countries, and 12 of them have been charged.

Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal.