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The Avanti Group: Attacking us through our technology is scam 2.0


Your computer is fraught with perils.


Most of us depend on this piece of equipment for multiple tasks in our lives yet know little about how it works. That makes us vulnerable to those looking to take advantage of our lack of technological sophistication.


Awareness is the best protection. So I'm passing on the experiences of readers who contacted The Pilot last month to alert us to two different computer scams that tried to make them victims.


John C. Edwards got an unsolicited call last month from someone who identified himself as working for "Windows Technical Services." The company had a report, the caller said, that Edwards was having a problem with the Microsoft Windows operating system.


"You do have a Windows machine?" the caller confirmed with Edwards.


"I should have caught on right there," Edwards, 69, told me during an interview last week.


The Virginia Beach resident had struggled with a few problems with his Microsoft security update, so he continued with the call. The supposed technician said he needed to connect remotely to Edwards' computer. Again, Edwards was skeptical but proceeded.


The distant technician began to work on some programs behind other windows open on Edwards' computer screen. "I had a whole bunch of corrupted files on my computer, and they were going to help me get rid of them," Edwards said the caller told him.


After a short time, Edwards grew wary and cut off the call. He never paid any money and believes he thwarted whatever the caller wanted to accomplish, "because they've been calling me ever since."


Edwards was a target of a likely "tech support scam," as the Federal Trade Commission calls it. Callers pose as technicians from operations that sound similar to major technology companies - Microsoft, Dell or security software makers Norton and McAfee. Once they gain access to a consumer's computer, they claim to find some kind of problem and pressure the consumer to pay anywhere from $130 to $300 to fix it, said Colleen Robbins, chief of online threat initiatives for the commission.


The commission heard the first complaints about this kind of scam in 2008, Robbins said. In October, the commission sued six companies accused of operating fraudulent tech support and has since settled a case against one individual.


The first clue that these callers aren't legit: Microsoft and the other companies will never call you unsolicited to offer tech support.


The commission found no evidence that the phony technicians stole personal information from victims' computers. "They want consumers' money," Robbins said.


Still, she advised that consumers who gave these operators access to their computers should change their passwords, consider visiting a computer repair expert to check for a breach, and watch their credit reports for signs that personal account information was stolen.


And, she said, they should adhere to this lesson: "If you don't know who they are, don't let them into your computer."


Some unscrupulous actors will get into your computer even when you don't allow them access.


That's what Judith Martin discovered. Her son turned on her computer in early July and saw a frightening message pop up on the screen.


It said the U.S. Department of Justice had found some kind of illegal activity on her computer and blocked further use of it. The message instructed her to pay a $300 fee to remove the block by ordering a prepaid MoneyPak card - even suggesting retailers such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens that sell it - and providing the account number on the screen.


Martin, 71, realized someone was trying to swindle her.


The so-called "FBI virus" is a form of computer malware, sometimes called "ransomware" because it holds your computer hostage for money.


Martin, a retired high school math teacher who lives in Virginia Beach, didn't buy a MoneyPak but did have to pay a computer repair service about $100 to get the virus removed from her computer. "It was very unnerving, just the idea that they would try to do that to people," she said.


Cox Communications' technicians have helped its high-speed Internet customers remove the FBI virus. The virus typically attacks a computer when the user clicks a link on a website or in an email, which might appear innocent, said Sarah Weaver, a spokeswoman at the cable company's local headquarters in Chesapeake.


Once removed, the virus doesn't seem to cause lasting damage or recur - unless the consumer stumbles upon another tainted link, Weaver said.