If Someone Phones And Offers A PC Fix, Hang Up

Security software helps protect your computer against an ever-growing range of security threats and Internet nasties. But not all threats come via email or on the web: PC security scams can start with a phone call.

Picture by Jonathan Cohen

My best mate rang me earlier this week to tell me about an amusing but disturbing experience. The home phone rang and the caller said he was "ringing from Windows" about a security issue that had been detected on my mate's PC and which urgently needed fixing.

Smelling a rat (and a poorly-trained rat who didn't even know the word "Microsoft"), my friend said that the line was poor and could he have a number to ring back on. The caller said no, but he could ring back in a couple of minutes. My mate said he didn't think that would work. Then the caller hung up.

My mate was cluey enough to realise that the call was totally suspect, but wanted to know how the scam would have worked if he had stayed on the line. Having encountered variants of this scheme quite a few times over my career as a journalist, I was able to explain the probable plot.

Having persuaded their victim that there was a legitimate issue to be fixed, the most likely approach the caller would have taken would be to direct the user to a fake diagnostic site which auto-installed malicious software. A less subtle variation would be to direct the computer owner to a fake fix site and ask them to download the malware directly, pretending it was a security patch. Another possible approach would be to guide the user through how to enable remote access on their machine, "to install the fix for them".

Whichever route was used, the end result would be that the caller could install pretty much anything they wanted. The most likely candidates would be botnet software that would make the PC part of a global network used to send spam mail and other nasties, and keyloggers that could track activity on the PC, sending details such as credit card numbers or passwords to remote locations. In the cheekiest versions of the scam, the phony caller might ask for credit card details to charge for the service provided. My mate wasn't duped, but lots of people are. Don't be among them. You should not be fooled by a persuasive manner on the phone, or the fact a caller knows your name. Software companies do not carry out support in this fashion.

Nothing installed on your system via such a call will do your PC any good, and what gets added could make you vulnerable to identity theft, huge broadband bills and machine performance problems.

What should I do?

Here's the simple reality: Microsoft is not going to ring to tell you about a potential security issue and help you fix it. Neither is Apple. It's a scam, pure and simple. If you get a call that starts along those lines, I'd take the blunt and direct approach and hang up without any further discussion. Forget being nice: you are talking to a criminal.

If that's really not your style, then ask the caller for a contact name and phone number (which is what you should do every time you receive an unexpected phone call anyway). Chances are they won't give you one and the call will end quite abruptly.

They might offer to call you back, but that proves nothing. If they insist the issue is urgent, tell them you're not responsible for family PC maintenance and can't make any changes. Then hang up. (You can see why I think hanging up straight away is simpler on the whole.)

If you're the informal tech support for family and friends, as many Lifehacker readers are, make them aware of this rule as well. While you possibly don't want to encourage people to lean on you when tech problems arise, ensuring a relative doesn't let someone infest their machine with botnet agents and keyloggers is a lot less trouble than trying to remove them afterwards.

It's a simple rule: when someone offers a PC fix over the phone, hang up. Remember it.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?


Comments

    One thing you could do:

    Option #1
    Caller: Hello, I am calling form Windows...blah blah
    You: That's nice. I own a Mac.

    But my favorite also works on cold-calling from call centres:

    Option #2
    Caller: Hello, I am calling form Windows...blah blah
    You: Before we start the fixing the computer, what are you wearing?

      Do you happen to be facing south-south-east? What's your favourite colour?

        "While you're on the line, can I offer YOU great phone deals? I offer Thai massages at no extra cost!"

        mine is the good old sorry my parents aren't here at the moment but they will be back at (give time that i know noone will be home)

        but i'v only used that for telemarketers. I'v never had one of those calls but i would probably play dumb if i did.

      Beware, they're back. Same speel, I'm from the Computer Maintenance Dept of Windows Operating System. I tried the "I'm not the one who handles our computer maintenance, call back at 5 and talk to my husband" - response "Oh it's ok, I can talk you through it". I was smelling a rat, but as I'm not so good on the technical side and we have been having problems over the last few days, thought I'd string him along a bit longer to see where this was going. Just turn your computer on - see the key that has the windows icon on it, press that and R at the same time. I kept asking, what is this going to do ? Up pops a box, in which caller says to type cmd, so again I asked, no reply. I'm thinking sounds like command - I don't think so - BIG RAT !!!!! Asked for name and phone number, got fake ones of both I'm sure !!!! No harm done, but beware. I see the last post here was 2010 - they are obviously around again. Take care everyone . . . . .

    just ask
    is this the fix that fixes the screen that says 0x0e559 ?
    or ID10T error

    -say i pirated my OS
    -im using linux >>
    -dont own a computer
    -why dont you roll out the update using your automated update system

    ect you get the idea

    I had one of these call me the other night - went on and on and I just grunted in agreement. Then he asked me to press the Start button which of course, as a Ubuntu user, I don't have. When I said there was no start button, he directed me to various keyboard shortcuts to try and find the Control Panel. He even tried to direct me to http://logmein123.com so that the Microsoft technicians could help me.

    After about 20 minutes, I just hung up, but always fun to play with them a bit.

    I've had experiences similar to Hugh.

    I've put my number on the Do Not Call register, so any call like that immediately makes me assume it's an out-and-out scam.

    These calls mostly come through during the day, so if I'm there to answer it that usually means I'm on RDO or something & I'm probably bored anyway. So I just have fun with them.

    My main objective when I run with a conversation like that is to speak honestly. DAMNED if some criminal person is going to force me to lie, or be uncivil, to get out of the conversation. So this usually means I ask a lot of questions, because honest answers are unfortunately what they're scamming for.

    If you just keep asking them valid questions about why they would be monitoring your system or providing a service like that for free, they get confused, then cagey, then angry. I had one operator I was speaking with call her "manager" over to try & field my questions, but I just kept up with them & eventually Mr "manager" started arcing up & telling me "you're not a technical person, you don't know about these things." At that point I told him with a sigh that I needed to go now anyway & promptly hung up.

      Just to let you know Mike, you have to re-register after 5 years(The Do not Call Reg) and even if u are on the D.N.R, businesses you have dealings with are still able to call you because you have a "Business Relationship" with the company and also applies to competitions, they'll have a clause in the Terms and conditions that states their other companies are going to call you and sell you things and i'm not sure but i think some charities are exempt

    Ever since we got a skypeIn number and ditched the home phone we never got calls like these ever again. This was 3 years ago!
    I can't believe how gullible people are though. Even if you aren't a computer savvy person. Who would part with money over $100 dollars over the phone with some person who you don't know the real identity of?

    I actually kinda miss the telemarketers in a way. It would be fun to play around every now and then.

    I had one of these buttheads call me the other night, I knew straigh away what was going on so played with him a little bit until I became bored, then told him to stop lying a piss off and hung up. Really made me feel good actually:)

    This scam happened to my parents about a month and a half ago. They tried to get my mum to install logmein to "fix' the pc. Luckily my mother was so clueless it became all too complicated for her and they were unsuccessful. My parents didn't know that Microsoft wouldn't call and were just confused. These are the people that get dudded. Just mine were too useless for the scam to work.

    I have strung the guys along for a while. I have a Mac and was just pretending to do what they said then actually booted up Windows in a virtual machine to carry on a bit more.
    They get you to check the error logs in the machine (via the command line instead of just opening the logs)and count them up. They them tell you that this number of errors is why they got the alert. They then direct you to their web site to get you to type in the "error code" that appears on the screen. The is the code for them to remotely control your machine. Of course I didn't let them do it but I managed to waste 40 minutes of their time. It was my day off and I was feeling mischevious.
    I did get their number and although it is a Sydney number it divert to thier office in India. Way suss.

      How did you get their number? I've asked for it but they never give it and I don't have caller ID. I would have liked to get their number, call them back and help them 'fix' their computers some time.

        The phone number was displayed on the web site they asked me to go to.
        I can't remember the name of the site now.

        I asked for their phone number, her name and company details after she gave me a bogus phone number I asked for the company ABN so I could checkout their status as a company and the indian woman hung up on me.

    I love that I'm not the only person who's played with these people... they did the rounds of my town's phone numbers a few weeks ago and it was hilarious. They rang one of my best friends, whose dad runs a computer business.
    SCAMMER: "How many computers do you have?"
    FRIEND: "Uh... -pause- 22"
    SCAMMER: "...You have 22 computers?"
    FRIEND: "Yeah, something like that."
    SCAMMER: [click]

    Like AJ, they made me go into msconfig, load the event viewer, and then told me that everything in my logs was abnormal... then they made me open dxdiag and read out some specs, and told me that everything in there was a problem as well and that there was no doubt whatsoever that I was loaded up with viruses... at some point shortly afterwards I was laughing so hard that they heard me, and hung up.

    I had one call me a few weeks back..

    Told me she was from the 'Computer Maintenance Department'.. I asked of which company?

    She told me she knew I had a computer in the house.. gee, what a psychic, uh. Then she tels me shes calling from Sydney 'Australia'.. lol

    I told her I wanted her employers ABN and she acted all dumb.. After I explained what an ABN was and why her employer must have one if she is calling from Sydney..'we are an international company, we dont need an ABN'..

    Asked for it one more time and she paused for 10secionds then hung up.. bitch!

    I put in an incident to the Do Not Call site.. they couldn't do anything.. I kinda hope they call again..

    I've had this a few times, the last on i actually recorded to show some mates. In the end i had him so frustrated he was calling me "MR Fool"... maybe something to do with me following his instructions perfectly then all of a sudden (after opening msconfig, prefetch folder and giving him feedback) saying "Wait i haven't turned my computer on yet" and "Whats an Internet"..

    haha. I should post the call online actually

    If I got the call, I would have stayed on the line and pretend to be a sucker and see what they do - but not actually do it. I would say things like "What am I looking for; oh I see that, let me just click it; oh where's that, I cant see it" and make them walk through the steps and get them to tell me what to do but without doing it to make them think I am doing. Hopefully like you may have hinted, after you install it they could access your computer. Then they'll probably say I can't see your computer or something like that.

    I have fun when people call like that. Pitty I am using VOIP - don't get calls like that any more :(

    But I have compiled a list of things to say when telemarketers (or in this case scammers) call you. Have a read at http://www.jackcola.org/blog/87-how-to-stop-telemarketers-from-calling-you and http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2010/07/more-tactics-for-putting-off-telemarketers/

    I wish I could give you guys proof but I've lost it.

    I went to shop at my local supermarket a few months back. Usually when you look at the back of receipts you'd find special offers. Basically what happened was that at the back of my receipt, this business was offering a computer virus scan for $100. Who is that stupid to send their computer for a scan for $100?!

    Happened to me twice.

    Wish I wasted more of their time rather than hanging up on them.

    It would be interesting to know how many people they are snarring and how they make a profit out of it..

    Wasting their time is the only good reason not to hang up straight away, but it's a fun reason. I say I'll go get my husband, then just leave the phone off the hook.

    While they're talking, I whisper "Shibboleet" into the phone and get redirected to someone who knows a minimum of two programming languages, and they fix my PC problems on their end without purchase. It's magnificent!

      Shame it's all a dream...

    I can tell you what actually happens next.

    My less aware friend got the call. Was told they could fix the 'reported problems'. He was asked to download www.teamviewer.com (A perfectly LEGITIMATE remote desktop support software) and give them the access code once downloaded. This allowed them to join his session. They then asked for his credit card number while he watched as the cursor flicked around the screen, seemingly fixing his PC.

    Fortunately the alarm bells finally went off and he turned the modem off to disconnect and immediately called me (I do all his IT support). They did give a fake Sydney number for him to call back.

    It's essentially a credit card scam. They either want to phish your Ccard details or bill you for 'work done'.

    Despite the modem disconnect I slaved the drive anyways and ran a heap of tests to ensure no back doors etc had been installed in the 20 or so seconds of access they had. None had been.

    I know of several people who have had this 'support' phone call. It is worrying to think of how many people out there are getting burnt by this.

    I had one of these calls yesterday and again today. Said that he was a Windows technician from Global Computer Maintainence Department and that I had malicious files threatening my computer - both times I explained I was not able to deal with this now and started to get emotional (I have just had a death in my family) and I had a friend who did all my computer maintainence coming to visit and could he call them tomorrow? They caller said his name was Mike and gave me an overseas number to call back.
    Should I report this to someone?
    I just spoke to someone who had the same type of call and paid $400 plus for a 4 year protection program. They have now cancelled their credit card and stoppped the payment.

    A guy at my work told me to just leave the phone off the hook for half an hour to P them off.

    Does this work or can they hang up if I don't?

    Look out folks, they're back. Same speel, "calling from Sydney - Computer Maintenance Dept. Windows Operating System - it's extremely urgent, they have detected a major virus, blah,blah." My response, I am not good at all on the technical side, suggested he should talk to my husband, "oh no problem, I can talk you through it, it's easy "!! Mmmm, all sounding a bit fishy. So I go to the computer, was instructed to press Windows flag key and R at the same time. Meanwhile, I'm asking the caller "what will this do ?" - "Don't worry, just press them and I can talk you through" I pressed them and up comes a box - "now type in cmd" Again I ask, what will this do ? Now I'm smelling a really BIG RAT - So I go no further - Instead I asked for his name, phone number, repeat exactly where you are from . . . . and hung up. Please beware everyone and take care !!!

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