Earlier this winter we received an intense flurry of calls from customers who had been attacked by the “Windows Team from Microsoft.” These assaults are the modern version of the (now blessedly less common) telephone call to inform you that it has been reported your security has been compromised and you will have to take action immediately or suffer the consequences.
Nowadays instead of a telephone call, what is more likely to happen is a sudden, overwhelming pop-up on your screen, often with loud alarm sirens. Flashing instructions warn you not to turn off your computer, but to call a telephone number so that “our team of experts can rescue you.” If you do call that number a reassuring voice explains that everything can be fixed very quickly if you just follow his instructions. Next it will be discovered that your problem is much worse than anyone expected and you must be escalated to a “higher level of expert desk.”
Here starts the new scenario: This “expert” will explain that he will have to be paid for his service and that you must now go to the nearest department store or drugstore and buy a pre-loaded credit card from the kiosk near the cash. When you return home you must call him back and give him the numbers on this credit card. You will not be allowed to use your own credit card, because these crooks have learned that as soon as their victims realize that they have been bilked they will call their credit card company and have the charge cancelled – a strategy that you can’t use with the generic pre-loaded card.
Let’s suppose that you have allowed yourself to be suckered along to the next stage. (Don’t be embarrassed; hundreds of thousands of people just like you have allowed these criminals to earn millions of dollars every month, worldwide.) The expert will guide you to a place where he can take over your computer remotely and at that moment you have lost the game, set and match, because he is now free to deposit any sort of malware that he chooses on your computer and ensure that there can be another round of alarms and expensive “service.”
It is ridiculously easy to avoid all this mess: As soon as the alarms begin, TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER – contrary to the warning on the screen. This is one of the very few times when you should simply press-and-hold the power switch, for a minimum of eight seconds. Your computer will go black. Wait for several more seconds and turn it back on with the same button. The chances are excellent that everything will be back to normal and the whole episode is history.
You can get yourself into the same situation by inadvertently calling an incorrect number for the service department of one of the big name tech companies, like HP or Dell or your Internet provider. As we mentioned in a column last year there are lots of spoof websites out there now that carefully emulate the legitimate ones and entice you to call the same old crooked “service desk.” You must always be careful to call the correct number. If you go astray, the solution is the same as above: TURN OFF YOUR COMPUTER.
“Remote Assistance” can take two forms: First is to allow an unfamiliar and unproven stranger to take over your computer – not a great idea. Second is the Remote Assistance that many legitimate service organizations (including Compu-Home) use when possible to fix certain kinds of computer problems quickly and inexpensively. Used properly, Remote Assistance is an efficient way of you and your service person working together. You call your service provider and then log in to the Remote Assistance utility so that you and the technician can both see what is going on with your computer. You are communicating constantly on the telephone, and nothing is done to your computer without your approval. This strategy is only advised when you are one hundred percent certain that you know and trust the person at the other end. It is NEVER wrong to refuse a stranger access to your computer, any more than it would not be a mistake to be careful letting them in your door.