Have you ever received a pop-up warning saying that your computer is infected with a virus? Or maybe you’ve heard about it from a friend or coworker. Some people have even gotten a phone call out of the blue informing them that their computer is at risk or has already been compromised. This is what we call the Tech Support Scam.
Over the years at IP Services, I’ve had the privilege to try and make the world a better place. Whether it’s reviewing online marketplace transactions for fraudulent credit card use or anti-counterfeiting investigations and operations, I feel like I’m making a difference. But there is one job that has brought me more joy and entertainment than any other. That job requires some acting on my part as well as observing and recording a tech support scammer…. while I give them access to a computer.
What are we talking about exactly? Well, have you ever received a phone call or had a pop-up on your computer that says something to the effect of “Your computer has a virus!” and then the obligatory “If you don’t do something now, you will lose your data forever!” followed by a phone number? Well, sometimes I get to set up a mock computer, call the number and watch the scammers do their thing. We go through the entire process while pretending not to know it’s a scam. Here’s some of what we learned.
Scammers use sales techniques like flashing text and messages of urgency pushed across the screen or over the telephone to get your attention. In sales, nothing moves a deal along like the added weight of “time sensitive” pressure. “We’re only offering this sale this week!”… “Oh but if you act now we’ll double the order” … “Call us now! We’ll fix your computer and save your data before it’s too late!” Beware the flashing lights! It’s part of the sales gimmick. It’s a way to put pressure on you (the one with the money) to go along with the salesman. And make no mistake, that’s who you are talking to on the other end. A salesman selling you a bill of goods that you very likely do not need.
When it comes to these tech support scams, the individual on the phone, or the other end of the pop-up, is only after one thing… your hard-earned money. They will say anything to convince you that there is a gremlin running around inside your machine and you are in serious danger. Of course, they will tell you the only solution is to allow them to connect to your computer. DO NOT LET THEM CONNECT!
There likely wasn’t an issue with your system before, but if you let that stranger who unexpectedly called you connect to your computer, chances are there will be something wrong with it afterwards. If you allow them to connect, they have direct access and can load all sorts of unknowns onto your system. That “fix” they are applying might be something as basic as deleting your internet cache. Unfortunately, it probably also includes the hidden download of a “keylogger” onto your system that will give them access to sensitive information such as credit card numbers and passwords.
During these tech support scams, the fraudster will run several scanning commands on your computer. They do this to try and frighten you into believing their claim is true. Some of the scans I have seen can be worrisome, especially the first time you see them. I remember my first case, about halfway through I started to believe the scammer. What if something was actually wrong with the computer? Oh no, the evidence would be compromised. This is all wrong, how do I exit the computer system? I had to stop and pinch myself. There was nothing wrong with the computer when I started this call. The fraudster was doing their job, and rather well, I admit. I went deep into character portraying a victim of the pop-up scam. And as a result, I was able to see and understand how and why people fall for these.
The Real Story
In my case, the fraudster had used the command prompt known as “tree.” Tree lists every file on the computer in a command prompt screen and presents the illusion of a scan. The scammer let tree run for a little while. Then the command process was interrupted with a message relaying there was a virus on my computer. It truly seemed believable but in reality, the scammer just knew more about DOS and command prompts than I did at that particular moment.
The real story became clearer when the scammer ran the same tree command scan again and typed a new message, this time with spelling errors. Wait a minute, computers don’t make spelling errors. That’s when it really clicked. This was all a magic trick designed to make me believe that Houdini could really float. It was even more entertaining knowing that I was video recording all the scammer’s actions as he tried to sell me on the trials and tribulations of firewalls and viruses. I knew this would later be used against them as evidence. I successfully scammed the scammer.
People work hard for their money. And I pride myself on being part of the system that gets in the way of these digital thieves and helps to protect the average citizen’s money.
Remember, no legitimate company is going to call out of the blue to tell you that your system is infected. More likely, a company will release a software update to make your system more secure through regular updating. Or your anti-virus software will update and take care of the problem. These companies are NOT going to call you to tell you they are your only hope.
If you’d like to learn more about these scams, how they work and what you can do to protect yourself, read our earlier blog post, Tech Support Scams Demystified.
You can also find additional information and details regarding tech support scams at the following sites:
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