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Feds Crack Down on Tech Fix-it Scam

Don't believe callers' claims that your computer has a virus that can be removed, by them, for a fee

The Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday announced a major international crackdown on “tech support” scammers, those cold-calling con-men who warn users about bogus computer malware infections.

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The FTC said restraining orders were issued against 14 companies believed to have conned consumers out of tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent “fix it” fees typically ranging from $49 to $450.

In the ruse, tech-support scammers cold-called consumers, falsely saying they were employees of computer giants Microsoft, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, or antivirus vendors like McAfee or Symantec (which manufacturers Norton products). They told users that they’d received a notification that their computer was infected with a malware virus.

Online advertisements were also used to recruit would-be victims to scammer-controlled websites, says FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

After extracting the bogus fix-it fee via a credit card payment, the scammer then got remote access to a victim's computer, possibly seizing control of files, passwords and online financial accounts.

This latest FTC action — part of its ongoing efforts to curb scams that also include the sale of phony virus protection — freezes the assets of the 14 companies and prevents them from using web-hosting and phone services.

However, consumers must still be cautious. With other tech support scammers still in operation, neither Microsoft nor manufacturers of computers or antivirus software will call users warning of an infection. When new viruses are found to be circulating, security companies send updates or warnings en masse to all subscribers of antivirus software.

So if you get a call from a tech support trickster, hang up — even if the phoning fraudster knows your name, address or your computer’s make or operating system.

The Tech Support Scam, also known as the Computer Repair Scam, was first reported by Scam Alert in 2009. Sporadic waves have occurred every few months since then.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has said that in recent months his office had received twice as many inquiries about this ruse than in all of 2011. And since summer began, several Scam Alert readers in other states — including New York, Arizona and California — have reported getting phone calls from self-described Microsoft employees who offer to "fix" their PCs or Macs.

Here's what you need to know to protect yourself:

  • Microsoft and its partners do not make phone calls or send personal email warnings about an infection of a particular computer. Nor do manufacturers of computers or antivirus software. When new viruses are found to be circulating, security companies send updates or warnings en masse to all subscribers of antivirus software.
  • Don't be fooled if a phoning tech support hacker knows your name, address or even the operating system you're using. Cybercrooks glean their targets through public phone directories and often simply guess your operating system by citing popular ones.
  • These crooks sometimes claim the alleged virus is connected to recent well-publicized scams. But this is just another case of scammers playing on news headlines. Earlier this year, for instance, following warnings about bogus Better Business Bureau notifications that contained viruses, scammers started mentioning this ruse in their calls.
  • Never follow instructions in an unsolicited phone call or email to download new programs, click on links to websites, provide usernames and passwords, or agree to any "security subscription" services.
  • For legitimate tech support, Microsoft users should call 800-642-7676 and Mac users should call 800-275-2273. Do not trust other phone numbers provided in calls or emails (they may connect you to scammers).
  • In some cases, legitimate tech support specialists may ask you to follow steps to temporarily provide them with remote access to your computer as they troubleshoot a problem that you've contacted them about. They will not ask for passwords to online banking or other sensitive accounts.
  • If you believe you've already fallen for this scam, you may need a reputable local computer repair company to remove any program that the hackers tricked you into installing. Ask a computer-savvy friend or relative to recommend one. AARP members can get discounted subscriptions offering tech support and other services from the Geek Squad.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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