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Natalie Rabicoff of Longview was using Facebook when two green boxes and a giant warning from Microsoft popped up on her computer screen: “Call now or you’re going to lose everything!”
Rabicoff said she’s not a high-tech person, so the message sounded serious.
“I didn’t know what in the world was going on, so as happened, I call the number,” she said. “That’s my first mistake.”
What Rabicoff didn’t realize at the time was that someone was on the other end of the line waiting to hack into her computer — and possibly take her banking information along with it. She was lucky that didn’t happen in her case, but the tech support scam she experienced is one that’s become widespread.
“It’s been fairly common, I’d say, for at least the past couple of years now,” said Jordan Ferrell, general manager of CPU Wholesale Computer Parts Inc. in Longview. “I would say on average we probably get 15-20 computers a week with similar stories.”
It’s common enough to have landed for the past few years on the list of top 10 scams reported to the Better Business Bureau. According to the agency, it could occur with a phone call or computer pop-up claiming to be from Microsoft — or Norton, Apple or other recognizable brand name — about a problem on your computer that can be fixed for a fee. It says if you give “tech support” access to your hard drive, the problem can be fixed. Instead, they could install malware on your computer and start stealing personal information.
According to AARP, tech support scams are a billion dollar industry in the U.S. It advises recipients of calls about issues on your computer to simply hang up. If the message comes via pop-up on your computer, don’t click on it, the association says.
Rabicoff said the pop-up message she got warned she’d lose all of her pictures and everything else stored on her machine. When she called the number to find out what the problem was, a man talking at 95 mph tried to “explain” the problem, Rabicoff said.
And at one point, after giving the man the specific error message on the screen (a trick designed to give him her computer’s IP address), he gained remote access to her computer and began trying to point out problems by drawing and highlighting things on the screen.
“I thought ‘I’ve lost complete control of my computer,’ ” Rabicoff said. “It was really unnerving.”
The man explained that to fix her computer, a technician would need to look at it. The cost was $199. Rabicoff didn’t take the bait; exhausted, she told the man she’d pick up the issue the next day.
The man got frustrated and hung up. Rabicoff shut down her computer and took it to a repair shop the next day, where she learned the whole thing had been a scam.
Ferrell said that’s what computer users should do if they find themselves in the same situation.
“If they’ve already let them in to the computer,” he said, “shut the computer down, keep it off the internet and bring it by any computer repair shop.”
The repair shop can remove remote access connections, he said. And as long as the computer is shut off from the internet, whether by unplugging a cable or turning off Wi-Fi, there should be no further danger.
Ferrell said anyone who gets a similar pop-up message should just ignore it and not respond in any way.
“You’re not really in any danger until you call that number,” he said. “When that happens, they’re going to try and trick you into letting them remote into your system. Once they’re in, they can really do whatever kind of damage they want.”
He’s seen various levels of damage.
“We hear stories ranging from these people are getting in and setting up passwords on their computers, telling them they have to pay the money to basically ransom their computer back to them, to just people that get halfway in and get scared and bring it in to make sure it’s clean of any kind of infection,” Ferrell said.
The pop-up message might lock up a web browser, Ferrell said, but the solution is just to reboot your computer. Ferrell said the most important thing is to know that Microsoft or any other company won’t contact you for something like that.
“No reputable company is ever going to contact you out of the blue to fix your computer,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen.”