It is a very common occurrence in today’s world, you think you are speaking to someone legitimate on the phone about your computer, and the next thing you know you have given them control of it. The problem is they are not who they say they are. And the problem they have convinced you they are fixing does not even exist.
Remote computer repair scams have flooded the internet in recent years, and it is one of the most common scams out there. In this post we will look at what they are and how to avoid them. We will also look at knowing who you can trust.
How the scams work
Let’s look at a few common ways people are getting scammed: Fake warning messages, Google searches, and them calling you.
Fake warning messages
Fake warning messages happen when you click a bad link online, or go to a legitime website that has been hacked. In some cases malware that has infected your computer can also cause them. Typically a message appears on your screen that you cannot exit out of. The message informs you that something is seriously wrong with your computer, either it has virus infections or there are other problems. It provides a phone number to immediately call in order to resolve the issue, often stating that the call will connect you with certified Microsoft technicians. Here is an example:
If you proceed and call the number you will likely speak with someone who sounds trustworthy. I have had feedback from many people over the years who have fallen for these calls, and here are some of their comments, from memory:
- They sounded very legitimate
- They were convincing
- I didn’t have any reason to doubt them
- They cautioned me against going to any local shops
That last one is quite common. They do not want you to speak to anyone with knowledge who will tell you it’s a scam. One time I had a customer who had made repeated phone calls to the same scammer. In fact, the scammer was now calling him regularly too. He did not realize it was a scam though. I asked him how he first got into contact with this person, and he answered that it was through one of the fake popup messages I’ve mentioned (but he didn’t know it was fake). The customer then called the scammer and gave me the phone. I spoke with him. I told him I knew what he was doing and I had informed the customer. He got very angry. He went on a rant about how all the local shops are bad, and he was good, blah, blah, blah. He would not admit what he was really doing, but I knew.
Another way you may get scammed is by simply Googling (or “Bing”ing?) to find a remote computer repair service. Not all results are necessarily legitimate. Some could be scams. In this scenario, it is still you calling them, but you are even more likely to trust them because you found them, right?
Them calling you
This one was more common years ago before the more effective fake warning messages were a thing. But this still happens. You get a phone call out of the blue by someone claiming to work for Microsoft. They say they have detected problems with your computer and would like to assist with resolving them. If successful you then let them onto your computer screen remotely. The rest of the scam in all three scenarios is pretty much the same.
So, what are the scammers after? Most commonly they want you to pay them. Even though they typically come onto your computer screen and they do gain access to your computer, they may not be actually doing anything bad on there in terms of hacking you or planting viruses (although that can still happen – always get your computer checked afterwards). Most of the time they are only on your screen for show. They want you to think they are fixing something. Sometimes they run fake programs that display things on your screen that make it look like issues are being fixed – issues that don’t really exist. Sometimes they don’t cover their tracks very well after doing this. I once had a computer brought to me that this had happened on, and the fake technician left behind an interesting file. It was a “batch” file, which is a type of file that can run computer codes automatically. In this particular batch file, there was no malicious code – nothing doing sophisticated things behind the scenes to steal your personal information or hack your email accounts. No, nothing like that. It simply caused a message window to appear on the screen for the computer owner to see which displayed text at timed intervals – text that was meaningless, that was preprogrammed in the file before the tech ever accessed the computer. It would say things like:
Scanning for viruses…
80 infections found.
Virus removal complete.
Checking for operating system errors…
634 errors found.
And so on. So from the owner’s perspective, real problems are getting resolved. Once the technician is done and asks to be paid, the owner feels they are paying for a job well done, and then goes ahead and pays them. Often the charge is very high. I’ve heard of anywhere from $200-$900. And then they will tell them not to go to any local shops because they charge too much. Once they have been paid, it’s not over. They will continue trying to get money from you for as long as they can. They may want you to pay them for regular maintenance, and install bogus security software that comes with a monthly fee (I knew someone who was paying for this for years without realizing it was fake).
Avoiding the scams
So, now that you are probably scared of the internet, how can you be safe and avoid these scams? Here are a few tips:
- Warning messages that pop up on your screen about computer problems with a phone number to call are ALWAYS fake. They are never, ever, real.
- Microsoft NEVER does cold calls about having detected a problem with your computer.
- Be very careful of what you are clicking on online. While this may not be 100% unavoidable, carelessly clicking on ads or other things that are not related to what you are doing is a common way fake popups get on your screen.
- These scams are almost always coming from another country. The phone number usually won’t tell you this, however. They may be using a Canadian or US phone number that is being forwarded to their real country. India is an especially common location for these scams. If the person on the phone has an Indian accent, it is a red flag. However, do not be afraid of anyone with that type of accent, I must emphasize this. Some of the world’s best computer technicians and programmers are in India, and even companies like Microsoft use legitimate call centers there. But the reality is many or most of these scams come from there. But certainly there are other countries as well.
So who can you trust?
I guess now we are getting to the main point – who can be trusted? Well, the best way is probably to deal with someone you have met in person. I used to run a repair shop in Salmon Arm, BC, and almost every customer I had there dealt with me in person. I do remote support only now, but I still get calls from many of those customers because they know me, and they know they can trust me. But if you are looking for online remote support it is likely you have never met the technician in person, and you probably never will. So here are some other tips:
- Check out their social media page if they have one. Have customers left reviews or made comments on their posts? If so, click on some of their names, do they look like real people? Do the things they have said sound normal? This should hopefully give you a sense of who this company is.
- Since I am in Canada, and my customers are pretty much all Canadian, let’s talk about Canada. Is the company in Canada? There are plenty of remote support websites where it’s unclear where they actually are. That doesn’t automatically mean they are bad, but dealing with someone who is within the same country as you is probably a safer way to go. And if they claim to be from Canada, ask some questions that only a real Canadian would know the answer too
- Trust your gut. Most of the time people know something is not right. Scammers can sound very convincing on the phone, so your head might tell you it’s ok, but your gut often won’t. I’ve talked to many people who fell for these scams, and almost always they say they knew something didn’t feel right. In many cases, people let the scammers onto their screens but decided to hang up when money was asked for. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen a lot of cases where money was paid, and usually it’s after paying and getting off the phone when they realize they made a mistake.
Why you can trust me
If you have never met me in person, how do know you can trust me? What if this whole website is scam too, right? Well it’s not. But how can you know that? I’m from BC. I live in Calgary. Just ask me some questions about those places for starters. Have a look at my Facebook page, I’ve got quite a few followers there, most of them from BC, it shouldn’t take long to figure out that those people are real. And lastly, try me out just once and I’m sure you’ll feel comfortable after that. You will call me because you have a problem. I will do my best to resolve it. I will never make up fake problems, etc. And we’ll probably have a good chat on the phone too. Hopefully you will also find my bill to be reasonable, and based on the time we spent together working on your issues, billed at my reasonable billing rate. You can’t automatically trust someone you’ve never dealt with. It takes time to build that trust in a relationship. And that is one of my highest goals with each customer (in addition to actually fixing their problems!).