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Ask Deemable Tech: Tech Support Scammers

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Today we have not one but two related questions from different listeners.

Lenny writes, “Last week I received a call from a guy who said he was from Microsoft. He said they had detected that my computer was having problems. To prove it, he told me how to open my Windows log file, and when I did it was full of errors. So I paid him to fix all the problems and scan for viruses. Now I’m wondering if that was really a good idea.”

Sandra sends us a similar story. She says: “I was checking my email and all of a sudden windows started giving me an error message which said it had a virus. It included a phone number. I called the number and a man connected to my computer and fixed it. But now my computer runs slowly and this guy charged me a lot of money. Have I been hacked?” 

Neither Sandra nor Lenny were hacked. They were, unfortunately, the victims of one of the most popular scams on the internet these days.

Here’s how it works: crafty scammers convince people that their computer has a serious problem, and the only way to fix it is to pay the scammers money. In actuality, there is no such problem, and these people are paying for nothing.

This is such a major issue that Microsoft testified about it in front of Congress in the fall of 2015. These scammers love to impersonate major, legitimate companies like Microsoft, Apple, and HP, which can create problems for those organizations.

So, what can you do to make sure you don’t fall for this scam? Remember one simple rule: tech support will never call you out of the blue. You call them first.

And just to be clear, Windows error messages do not include a number for Microsoft tech support. If you see an error message that says you need to call Microsoft or any other company immediately, there is a good chance that you are seeing a fake error message. Maybe it’s just a clever web page, but do not call the phone number.

If you do talk to these scammers, they can be very convincing. They may do things like you show a Windows log file full of errors to make you think there is something wrong with your PC. The thing is, though, your computer’s logs are always full of errors, but they are little ones that are perfectly normal.

Unfortunately, both Sandra and Lenny let the scammers gain access to their computers. All of these scammers, once they have you on the phone, will ask you to run or download programs that let them look at your computer remotely. Do not do this! You should never let someone who you don’t completely trust have remote access to your computer. They can’t get into your computer unless you let them.

If you’re not sure if someone is from tech support, hang up on them, find the manual for your computer, and call the number in there. That’s the real number, the one that you can trust.

Sean Birch joined the WJCT team in late 2011 and was with the company until 2016.
Ray Hollister can be reached at rhollister@wjct.org, 904-358-6341 or on Twitter at @rayhollister.
Tom Braun is a writer living in Jacksonville, Florida. In addition to writing about tech and co-hosting WJCT’s Deemable Tech, he writes content for websites and blogs, ghostwrites ebooks, writes short fiction and has written a woefully unpublished dystopian young adult novel that is no doubt his ticket to fame and fortune. Before realizing his true calling as a writer, Tom worked for over a decade as a software developer. He enjoys board games and traveling and once spent a year living in The Netherlands.