Scammers are successfully using phone calls, emails and pop-up messages on computer screens to convince American consumers that their computers are infected with phony viruses or malware, warns a new report by the Better Business Bureau.
Scams involving computer technical support aren't new, but they continue to be widespread. Americans forked over more than $21 million to such schemes in the first nine months of this year, according to the FBI.
The scammers often claim to be with Microsoft, and they catch consumers by surprise, said Michelle Corey, president of the St. Louis BBB.
“It looks real. It looks like it’s coming from Microsoft,’’ she said. “There’s a pop-up. There’s a siren that goes off. And your immediate reaction is, ‘Oh my goodness. I’m going to lose everything in my computer system if I don’t respond to what they’re telling me to do.’ ’’
Her best advice to consumers is to stop and take a breath before you do anything.
Chances are, the pop-up window that just froze your computer screen with a dire warning about malware, is a scam. And you can often get rid of the message by rebooting your computer, she said.
“Bob” the tech guy who claims to be with Microsoft but sounds like he’s calling from an offshore call center, probably is. Nearly 85 percent of the fraudsters are calling from India, according to the report.
And whatever you do, don’t let someone have access to your computer to “fix” it, unless you have verified that they are who they say are.
Five Better Business Bureau offices, including St. Louis, teamed with the Federal Trade Commission and federal prosecutors to produce the report, which documents a variety of tech support schemes.
Sherry Thomas of St. Louis told her story at a news conference Monday morning.
She said a warning message popped up on the screen of her new laptop this year, and an automated warning sounded. Her computer froze, so she called the phone number on the pop-up message. A “technician” charged her $179 to fix her computer.
“It scared me to death because the computer was brand new — and I panicked,’’ she said. “Had I known that all you had to do was shut down the computer. But I didn’t know.’’
Thomas discovered that she had been scammed when she took her laptop to the computer store where she had purchased it and was told there was nothing wrong with it.
The scammers contacted her a second time, promising to refund the fee. The representative then claimed to have accidentally deposited $2,000 into her bank account instead of $179, and asked Thomas to buy iTunes gift cards to return the overpayment. This time, Thomas contacted the St. Louis BBB.
Thomas said she hopes her case will serve as a lesson to others.
“I wanted to let the people know what is going on out there,’’ she said. “I mean some people may say, ‘How did she let that happen?’ It happens. It can happen to the best of us.’’
Here’s more from the BBB report on how the fraud works:
* The scammers charge an average of $290 for their bogus services.
* They use four techniques: pop-up ads that might freeze your computer screen; phone calls from so-called “technicians” who claim to have detected problems with your computer; emails that include ransom-ware attachments; sponsored links that show up when you search for “technical support” on the internet.
* Although the tech scam targets Americans, less than 10 percent of the fraudsters operate in the United States. The scam is also prevalent in Australia and Singapore.
* The Microsoft Corporation reports that it receives more than 12,000 complaints every month about the scams.
* The study found that millennials fall victim to the scam more frequently than older Americans, but older Americans are more likely to report it.
What to do:
* Don’t trust or buy services from unsolicited phone calls, emails or pop-up ads.
* Never give control of your computer to a third party, unless you have confirmed that the person does work with a legitimate computer support team.
* Be careful when typing the address for a company website. Incorrect web addresses can trigger bogus pop-up ads. Anything that comes from “Micorsoft,” for example, is probably a scam.
* Don’t panic. Scammers want you to make a hasty decision. If your computer has been compromised, contact a trusted tech support company.
* If a caller claims to work for a reputable company, ask them to tell you their name or their employee ID, and in which department they work. Then look up and call that company’s official customer service line and ask to be directed to that employee. Do not use a phone number provided to you by the caller.
* Use quality antivirus software. Make sure you are running the latest version of the software.
* If you have been scammed, report it to the FTC or BBB.
Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard