Whistleblower: Tech-support scams scare victims into spending

  • Article by: JANE FRIEDMANN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 22, 2013 - 5:30 PM

Computer tech support scams have been around for years, and while the basic premise remains the same, they have evolved.

Early on, scammers sought victims by e-mail. More recently, they’ve cold-called people listed in public directories and on the national do-not-call list.

The latest mutation targets businesses, according to an alert by the Internet Crime Complaint Center, or iC3, on Wednesday.

In many scams, a company contacts you, assumes the identity of a major computer company, falsely tells you your computer has some grave deficiency and for a fee, the company offers to fix the problem.

The caller then gains access to your computer by directing you to a website and downloads malicious software. Various programs can root out your personal data, disable your computer’s security system or monitor your keystrokes. Sometimes you’re sold worthless software or software available for free elsewhere.

While regulators and computer companies have worked to combat the scams, the battle is far from over, in part because the only barriers to entry in the industry are a phone, a computer and a way to process credit card charges.

And profits are large. Tech support scams cost victims an average of $875, according to survey results released by the Microsoft Corp. in 2011.

Microsoft surveyed 7,000 computer users in the United States, Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Fifteen percent had received a call from a tech support scammer. About one-fifth of those allowed access to their computers or divulged credit card information. The average cost to fix damage to computers was $4,800 in the United States.

“Microsoft and other companies have made positive progress in making their software more secure,” but “we have seen an increase in cybercrimes that use deception and social engineering schemes to exploit people,” according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

Victim directed to website

The latest ploy goes like this. Scammers call a business to say its computer system needs to be updated in order for wire transfer functions to work properly. The victim is directed to a website, told to open a program and log in, at which point the caller has access to the victim’s account, according to iC3.

One victim shut off his computer when he noticed remote activity, but not before “the caller had loaded $950 onto a prepaid credit card from the business’s account,” the iC3 alert said.

Vern Miller, of Plymouth, had become frustrated with the sluggishness of his computer. So he sought help from a company he said listed a telephone number on a pop-up ad and offered free technical support.

The person he called had a foreign accent, he said, and claimed he was a Microsoft technician located in New York who could download “all kinds of stuff to clear up [my] computer. ... Then they got ahold of my computer and they started writing something.”

He reluctantly provided his credit card number. A charge of $199 showed up on his bill with the merchant name of “Live Tech Help,” he said.

Whistleblower called a man named Carl, who identified himself as the customer service manager for Live Tech Help.

Carl wouldn’t give his last name but said that his company is legitimate and that he will reconnect with Miller regarding its 30-day refund policy. The company advertises through Google AdWords, he said. Live Tech Help, which Carl said is located in Connecticut, couldn’t be found in a state business-registration search.

Miller told Whistleblower he hasn’t seen his computer’s performance improve since paying the $199.

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