Fake Windows tech support calls continue to plague consumers

A year after an FTC crackdown, scammers persist in trying to dupe PC owners

More than a year after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) heralded a major crackdown on fraudsters posing as Microsoft technical support personnel, consumers continue to receive calls from scammers.

"I received six phone calls about this Windows support scam," said Mariene Walmsley in an email to Computerworld last week. "The man sounded like [he had] a Filipino accent and wanted access to my computer to repair the errors. I finally told him [twice] not to call again."

Walmsley said the Caller ID on her phone identified the source as "Windows Support," with a phone number that had an area code of 425, which serves a section of western Washington State, including Bellevue.

Microsoft is in nearby Redmond, Wash.

Computerworld continues to receive a steady stream of emails about the tech support scams months after the FTC touted charges against six firms, most based in India, and an even longer stretch since Computerworld first reported on the fraud.

Another reader reported that she'd fallen for the fraudster's pitch.

"Due to my ignorance about this scam, I agreed to whatever she told me to do," wrote the reader, referring to the caller who claimed she worked at Microsoft. "I agreed [that] my computer [could] be remote-controlled by a certain software called TeamWeaver, paid for the service through my credit card, shared my personal details and credit card info and allowed the so-called 'technician' to install software such as Google Chrome, Advanced System Care 6 and CC Cleaner."

The scams are based on a combination of aggressive sales tactics, lies and half-truths. Callers pose as computer support technicians, often from Microsoft itself but also from name-brand computer makers such as Dell or large security companies like Symantec or McAfee, and try to dupe victims into believing that their computer is infected, often by having them look at a Windows log that typically shows scores of harmless or low-level errors. At that point, the sale pitch starts, with the caller trying to convince the consumer to download software or let the "technician" remotely access the PC.

The con artists charge for their "help" and often get people to pay for worthless software. Frequently the software is not only useless, but also includes malicious Trojan horse malware that steals online account information and passwords.

This kind of fraud goes back years, but became increasing common in 2010, picked up enough steam in 2011 that Microsoft warned Windows users to be on guard and in October 2012 prompted the FTC to file charges against six scam operators. Then-FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said that the fraudsters took "scareware to a whole other level of virtual mayhem" during a news conference announcing the lawsuits.

In May 2013, the FTC settled with two of the alleged scammers -- getting just $3,000 from one but a $964,000 judgment out of another -- and will announce a third later today, an agency spokesman said.

But the scams persist, signaling the difficulty regulators have in playing Whac-a-Mole, where for every suppressed fraudster, one or more new operators pop up.

The Computerworld reader who admitted falling for a scam said that the purported technician gave an email address associated with Liz Infotech, a company based in Kolkata, India, a known hub for support scammers.

Searches on Google revealed numerous complaints of bogus support calls from people who said they worked for Liz InfoTech.

A Wordpress blog titled "Liz Infotech Scam Free" purported to be the company's response to claims that it duped consumers. "Some competitor companies envy Liz Infotech Pvt. Ltd. due to the huge success it created by the hard work of its founder and all the people behind it," the blog stated.

Firms linked to scams have frequently asserted their innocence, saying others were masquerading as their employees, or that rogue workers exceeded their mandate.

The phone number captured by Computerworld reader Walmsley has also often been associated with other reports of fraud. Online searches found scores of complaints of fake support scams originating from that telephone number.

It is possible to spoof a Caller ID number, even if the call actually comes from outside the U.S.

The FTC has urged consumers not to cede control of their PCs to any caller, never to give out credit card or other personal information, or to simply hang up on such calls, as did Walmsley.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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