Pro Tip: Be Careful of Scam Phone Calls

Scam phone alert

If only it was this easy.
Copyright: Shutterstock Paul Michael Hughes

I wrote last week about how to report scam emails to the proper authorities, but while scammers are clearly branching out into the digital realm this doesn’t mean that email is their only tool.  In fact, within the last month there has been an increase in scam phone calls that purport to be from Microsoft or the more generic “tech support.”

A few individuals in the Agile Impact office have received suspiciously similar phone calls in the last couple of months.  After ignoring a series of calls from 012345678 for several days, I finally decided to pick up. The call went something like this:

Me: Hello?

Caller: Yes, is this Megan?

Me: This is Megan.  Who is this?

Caller: I’m calling from Microsoft Tech Support to let you know that your Windows computer is sending us hundreds of error messages and it might be infected.

Me: Really? How did you know this?

Caller: Like I said, we’re receiving error messages from your operating system. 

Me: Are you sure?

Caller: Yes.

Me:  I have dozens of computers here at this location.  How do you know it’s me? 

Caller: Because of the error messages. Can I walk you through verifying them on your system?

Me: (sigh) Sure.

Caller: So, first thing I need you to go to the start menu so that you can open of the Event Viewer and see…

Me:  (interrupting) The, the start menu you said?

Caller: Yes ma’am.

Me: But I have a Mac.  I don’t have a start menu.

Caller: Then why did you say you had a Windows machine?

Me: I didn’t.  You did.

After that, the caller got angry at me and hung up.  Now, while I was a bit rude to the gentleman (I do not approve of scammers), there were a couple of red flags in the phone call that tipped me off to the fact that this was a scam.

  1. Microsoft, Windows, and tech support agents do not call you out of the blue to tell you about errors on your computer.  They have programs built into your OS for that.  You will never get a legitimate call from one of these companies to fix your computer.
  2. The number was off.  Most of these scammers are overseas but use VoIP technology to hide their location and phone number.
  3. Asking me to go to Event Viewer.  Now, I don’t have a PC at work, but I have one at home and I am well acquainted with Event Viewer.  It’s an application within Windows that aggregates every single log file for your computer, and is usually used to diagnose errors.  However, most of the events that it keeps track of are harmless errors that don’t even require fixing.  But to the untutored eye, the red exclamation points and yellow warning signs look a lot like virus warnings and can be used to trick you into thinking your computer is actually infected.

I ended the phone call early, mostly because even when my desire is to string along a scammer, I don’t have a lot of patience.  However, after doing a little bit of research online, a pattern emerged A to what would have happened had I stayed on the phone (and actually had a PC).

The caller would have shown me all of the errors in Event Viewer (or stopped programs in msconfig, CPU spikes in task manager, error logs in System Information, Prefetch files, temp files, directory contents and paths in cmd.exe, pings on a Mac, or any number of other options) and convinced me that my computer was in imminent risk of death and destruction.

After this, they would have a couple of options.  They could have me start a remote access session with them so that they can “clean my computer,” allowing them full access to just about anything they were looking for.  Or they could send me to download a program that is actually a Trojan or other malware file in disguise.

Either way, they would have been potentially able to access everything on my computer.  All of my files, documents, and information.  They could install a keylogger to grab my logins and credit card information, or they could turn my computer into a zombie bot.  They could have even locked me out of my own computer.

This scam is very well structured to bring in the unwary.  It provides enough evidence to anyone not well versed in computers that they might very well fall for it.  So what can you do?

Tell your friends and family.   Let them know that they need to be wary of cold calls like this, and that if they do get one, they should verify that they do have a virus with a computer repair company they trust, or their service provider, rather than letting a stranger on the phone have access to their computer.  Have them make sure their virus software is up to date, and remind them that the Internet is still a bit like the old west.

It’s wild out there.

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Megan Durham is the CTO of Agile Impact, and is the company's Jill-of-all-trades and general problem-solver. She is hard at work at absorbing the internet into her brain in its entirety.

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