It happens to all of us. You get a pop-up on your computer screen or a phone call telling you that your computer is infected. More than likely it is bogus. So here is how to handle a tech scam.
Tech scams have evolved over the years. They first started out as random phone calls, but have quickly progressed to using pop-ups in web browsers. And the one thing they all have in common is that they try to scare you.
Who hasn't gotten a phone call from someone saying they are from Microsoft or Windows Support. At one point in time, I was getting 2-3 per week. But they started to slow down when Microsoft started to prosecute companies for using their company name.
So, then they started to use ads on websites to scare you. Since the majority of ad networks do not actively monitor the ads that get displayed, sneaking in a malicious ad is not that hard.
Now I am talking about ads that open up a new browser tab or window that claims your computer is infected. Some of them will have an animated image that shows files being scanned or even play an audio file saying your computer is infected.
The bottom line is they want to gain access to your computer. If they can get remote access, they can literally hold it for ransom. The following is a true story.
A customer called one day telling that they had a pop-up appear telling them that their computer was infected. Believing that they were from Microsoft, they called the phone number and gave them access to their computer remotely.
During the remote session, the customer realized it was a scam, hung up the phone and disconnected from the Internet. They then called me. I showed up and started to clean up their computer.
But the first time I restarted their computer, it came up with a system lock. The tech scammers had put a lock on the computer in an attempt to get them to pay to unlock it.
Luckily, I was able to restore the registry from a couple of weeks earlier and got the computer unlocked. But it could have been a whole lot worse.
Now there is one important thing you need to remember, Microsoft will never contact you, either by phone or a pop-up web page.
How to handle a telephone tech scam
This is an easy one to spot. The name on the caller id will usually be something simple as Tech Support or something similar. I have even seen scammers use disposable cellular phones that just display a name, like Joe Blow.
Now the advice I always give for spam e-mail applies here, if you don't know the person, don't open the e-mail. Same thing holds true for phone calls. If you do not recognize the name displayed on the called id, don't answer it. If it is important, they will leave a message or call back.
If you do happen to answer the call, it is alright to just hang up. They cold called you, you don't have to waste any time talking with them. Now if I'm feeling like having some fun, I'll tell them things like "I don't have a computer", "I don't have Internet access" or my favorite "Which computer are you talking about?".
But if you really want to know if they are bogus, do a search on Google for their phone number. Make sure to use the complete 10-digit phone number (1??????????).
The phone number for a legitimate company will always appear right on top of the search results. You would be amazed at some of the results I have gotten.
How to handle a web-based tech scam
As I talked about earlier, web-based tech scams usually come from third party ads that are displayed on trusted websites. The ads bring up another browser tab or window. And sometimes they will open a browser in what is called kiosk mode (full screen with no toolbars / title bar and no way of closing them).
Now you can close a browser in kiosk mode by using the keyboard combination Alt + F4 (closes the active window). Or you can close a browser by using Ctrl + Alt + Delete and selecting Task Manager. Once Task Manager appears, right-click on the browser name (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, etc.) and select End task.
Of course, if all else fails, you can always just turn your computer off. Wait about 15 seconds or so before you start it back up. Once it is booted back up, open the same browser that you had the tech scam appear in.
You should get a warning about how it did not close properly and it should ask if you want to open the previously opened tabs. Ignore the warning, do not open any of the previous tabs and you should be good to go. You can always run a scan with your anti-virus software just to make sure everything is good.
I get asked quite often why the installed anti-virus program did not stop the web-based tech scam. It is because the scam was not a virus, just a malicious ad.
The bottom line
I can never say this enough, never give a scammer remote access to your computer! As long as they cannot get inside your computer, they cannot do any harm.
So, what can you? For phone tech scams: Use your caller id to screen incoming phone calls. If you do not recognize the name, let it go to voice mail.
For web-based tech scams: Install an ad blocker in your browser. Adblock Plus is probably to most popular ad blocker. If you encounter a browser page or pop-up that tells you your computer has been compromised, close the browser using one of the methods listed above. And never call the phone number shown on the page.
And if you feel like taking it a little further, you can always report the scammers to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). The FTC has a fairly simple on-line complaint form. Just make sure you have the company name they used and the phone number they called you with or displayed on your screen.
Federal Trade Commission
FTC Consumer Information on Phone Scams