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Dealing with telephone scams
If you have become a victim of one of these, please jump right away to the immediate action drill.
You may be unfortunate enough to receive a call from criminals claiming to be Microsoft, or BT, or some other plausible household name. The caller will tell you a tale about something being wrong with your computer. Usually it won't be a virus – most consumers think that they can deal with viruses themselves – so it will be a tall tale about “data files” or some such rubbish. If you fancy some amusement, you can ask for further details, and you'll be treated to a bunch of meaningless techno-babble worthy of a Star Trek script writer.
It’s statistically likely that if you are not specially technically aware, you might get taken in by such a call. If you allow the caller to continue, you will be invited to go to a web site where you will download a remote access program. This web site will belong to a perfectly respectable third party that just happens to distribute remote access tools. The caller will then get you to run the software so that a “technician” can connect to your computer.
Having got the customer hooked, the cold caller will then pass you on to the “technician”, who will make your computer display a lot of error messages. These could be faked, but they are just as likely to be genuine system logs that look scary enough if you aren’t familiar with them. At this point you will be asked to part with your credit card details for a “fix” that you don’t need.
What happens next?
Unfortunately, you have had a criminal in your machine, so you can never be sure.
What are the dangers?
As this is a developing threat, no firm statement can be made about it. For the criminals involved, it is a big business, sometimes run from large offices with staff of dozens or more, in jurisdictions where UK Police find it hard to reach them. The chief attraction is money, and if the scammers can extract a credit card payment from their victims it is at least possible that they will not cause any lasting damage. However, greed is the primary motive, and a greedy criminal is likely to plant malware on a PC that might continue to search for passwords or financial information or highly sensitive files.
Just as bad is the possibility that a “ransomware” program could have been planted. These malicious programs act over a period of time to lock up all of the user’s files, before extorting cash for an “unlock” code that will (if the criminals are “honest”) restore access to the files.
Sadly, there can be no guarantees.
Immediate action drill
This is the most careful scenario. If you have anti-malware software installed, or it is installed after the incident, then a shorter fix would be to use it to carry out a scan of your machine, and then hope for the best. But there are no guarantees.