No one at Microsoft cares if you have a virus or malware on your computer. And that is a good thing.
Your Windows-equipped computer would have cost you $10K if Microsoft was really monitoring all of our computers for hiccups. We don’t want that. In other words, if Microsoft calls you, it is not Microsoft. It is the Microsoft scam.
This makes me furious, this scam. Out of my head furious. My clients are really great people. This is not just my bias. It is verifiable fact. I’m just insanely lucky to know and work with wonderful people. Therefore, bad actors targeting my clients make me crazy.
How the Microsoft Scam Works
Your phone rings and because you are a nice person, you answer. The person on the other end sounds very professional. He or she has a now-reassuring Indian accent. They explain they are calling from Microsoft and have detected serious and urgent problems with your computer. Your computer has a virus and if you’ll just let them remotely access your computer they will prove it to you and solve your problem.
There are two phrases here that should stop you in your tracks. The first is “I am from Microsoft.” Microsoft will NEVER NEVER NEVER call you. Not ever. They do not have the staff to monitor everyone’s Windows computers. The people you are talking to are criminals, not Microsoft employees.
The second phrase here that is a huge red flag is “remotely access.” Never let anyone access your computer who called you. If you call Dell, that is different. Think of remote access to your computer like your credit card number. Never give it to someone who called you.
What should you do?
You should say something rude and hang up promptly. I call this the “$%@# You” CLICK rule. You can insert whatever phrase you want in there. I don’t care if you say, “No thank you.” As long as you hang up immediately before allowing them access to your computer!
Don’t answer more calls from them. Turn off your internet for the day if you are concerned. It’s not necessary but it might make you feel safe.
What if you didn’t follow the $%@# You CLICK rule?
What if you let them remotely access your computer? That’s when they really get persuasive! These people are exceptionally good at this. Really, really good. There are a bunch of log files in your computer that look horrifying, even when the computer is in perfect condition and hasn’t got a bit of malware. They show you those logs from your computer as proof that you have terrible problems. Of course it is okay because they can fix your computer. For a couple hundred bucks . . . . Could they please have your bank or credit card number? By this time, you are so impressed with the great service you are getting from Microsoft, that it’s easy to feel like you should pay, right?
Most people who call me stop at the point where the person that is on the phone has been allowed remote access to the client’s computer but before giving out payment information. That’s good. But I would love to get the trigger for suspicion moved from the request for payment to the request for remote access. That’s why I’m writing this.
Please, please. If someone you don’t know and trust asks to remotely access your computer, do not do it!
What if you allowed remote access?
That’s a tough one. We can’t know for sure what the motives of your specific crooks are or were. Are they just after that ill-gotten $200? I suspect that is often the case. After all, just taking what you authorize for them is easy, fast, and clean. Lots of people never admit to making this mistake; they just let the money go.
Mark Clapp from CSA, Inc. in Glendive does a lot more malware removal than I do and Mark says most of the computers involved in the Microsoft scam lately have had no residual issues. He removed the remote access program to prevent the criminals future access.
What if the crooks planned to do something worse?
Sadly, the fact remains that you let a criminal have access to your computer. If your particular crooks happened to want to steal more or even steal your identity they have a good start. One possibility is that they might download and install a piece of software that takes a complete snapshot of all the files on your computer and lets them upload your files to their computers. (They unsuccessfully attempted this in the case that prompted me to write.) Another option is that they plant a keylogger program on your computer so they can trap your bank and credit card passwords.
So how worried should you be? The truth is I don’t know. I can’t know. We don’t know their goals.
First, if they got access to your computer, regardless of whether you paid them or not, you must turn off that computer immediately. If you don’t have control of the keyboard/mouse, just hold down the power button until it is completely powered down. It takes several seconds. If it is wired into your internet you might feel better if you unplug the cable that looks like a heavy-duty phone cord. Leave it off until you decide what to do with it.
Here are some choices for what to do with your computer:
- Have someone run complete virus and malware scans. Go through all the programs on your computer and uninstall everything you don’t recognize. This is a good idea about once a year anyway. It’s the least you should do after a scare.
- Format your hard drive and start over. This will wipe out anything they put on your computer. Your computer should run nice and fast again. This is NOT a DIY project because even if you kind of know what you are doing, you might not get it running again. You might not find all your software again, etc.
- Get a new computer. This is the solution if you are still running Windows XP or even Vista. This is also the most fun option. New laptops with Windows 10 and touchscreens really are pretty nice! The downside of this is that you are without a computer while you wait on the new one. However, you aren’t spending money on an old system. You might find some of this information about upgrading worth reading.
What other things should I do?
What to do about passwords and other ID theft related issues? First, realize I am not an expert on this. The following is not a comprehensive list:
- Change your passwords on accounts that have financial information attached. This step alone is enough to remember to hang up next time. We all have a million passwords. Start with the banks and credit cards. Change at least those immediately. And no, you may not use the same one for everything.
- Check out your credit reports. Read this Federal Trade Commision information on how to get your free credit reports.
- Remember to check your credit card statements and bank account statements carefully each month.
What if you paid them?
Bummer! Call the credit card or the bank as soon as possible and dispute the charge. That will probably work with the credit card. Credit cards are generally great that way! If you gave them a bank account or a debit card, I’m less certain what will happen but you should try.
Why does the Microsoft Scam work?
One of my clients who found these calls convincing told me she wondered if the people on the phone even know it’s a scam. I’m cynical so this hadn’t occurred to me; she might be right. Maybe they think they are working for Microsoft on a contract with an India call center. That would be easy to pull off, I think. Some of these are actually USA based and in those cases, surely everyone involved knows it is criminal. But of course the bulk come from India where US companies have spent lots of money training call center employees.
This scam and similar ones have been profitable for years and years. They have had time to perfect their craft and they have. They are extremely persuasive. Their English is better than the average Indian tech support person because it has to be. If you have fallen for this, please don’t feel bad. They are expert swindlers and they swindle a lot of people. If they haven’t called you yet please remember $%@# You CLICK when they call. Don’t listen long enough to be persuaded!
In an upcoming post, I plan a follow-up article about what you should do from a law enforcement view.