Share this article

print logo

Users of computers, beware:?Hijackers are just a call away

You answer the phone.

A person, often with a foreign accent, quotes your name and address, claims to work for Microsoft and warns you of a report from your Internet service provider of virus problems on your computer. The person offers to lead you through easy steps to fix your infected computer.

What could go wrong?

Only everything.

The call is the beginning of a computer hijack, a well-worn fraud in Europe that has reached Western New York.

The Niagara County Sheriff's Office received two calls in the last month reporting this fraud, and said it is likely that it has been perpetrated but unreported many more times. Computer technicians said they have been getting calls from friends and neighbors to help repair computers that have been victimized in this fraud.

"These criminals are able to get their victims to log on and turn over full access to their desktops," said Sheriff James R. Voutour. "The criminals are then able to access everything on their computers, including bank account information and other personal information."

Locally, a 58-year-old Barker resident told deputies that she received a call at 11 a.m. Sept. 4 from a man who convinced her that he was from Microsoft by providing her with some information. She told deputies that the man told her that her computer was going to be infected by several viruses if she did not act right away and sold her software, valued at $304, to take care of the virus.

She told deputies that as part of the phone call she did give the man her credit card number and permission to access her computer remotely.

The woman was able to contact her bank and cancel the transaction, and also closed her bank account. She told deputies that she was afraid that the person who had accessed her computer might also have access to other accounts and personal information. The woman said she was in the process of changing all her account numbers.

In Ransomville a 71-year-old man told deputies he received a similar call at 9 a.m. Sept. 7.

The man said he was told that a serious computer virus was going to infect his computers if he did not take action right away. The victim said he followed a number of steps, which allowed the man to access his computer remotely. The victim said he could see the cursor being moved by the man on the phone and said once he saw what was going on he shut down his computer and hung up the phone.

Shortly after these cases, similar calls were received in Lewiston. In one case, the potential victim refused to provide information, but in another, the scammer removed several personal documents, which then caused the victim's computer to crash.

Voutour said victims who unwittingly cooperate in the scam usually suffer the same fate.

"Once the criminal gets the credit card, they download remote access software, giving them unlimited access to the users' account," Voutour said.

Microsoft warns on its website that its employees do not call people to fix computers or ask for money to make repairs on a person's computer.

The victims typically are elderly or inexperienced with computers and will see error messages on their computer that appear to be serious problems, but in truth are not indicative on any problems, according to computer experts.

Microsoft offers the following tips for people who wonder whether the solicitation is legitimate:

* Do not purchase any software or services.

* Ask if there is a fee or subscription associated with the service, and if so, hang up.

* Never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team with whom you are already a customer.

* Take the caller's information down and immediately report it to your local authorities.

* Never provide your credit card or financial information to someone claiming to be from Microsoft tech support.

Microsoft advises victims who might have inadvertently downloaded some malware to change the computer's password and any passwords on financial accounts and to scan the computer with the Microsoft Safety Scanner to find out if you have malware installed.

Microsoft Security Essentials is provided as a free program. If someone tries to charge for it, that, too, is a scam.

Microsoft surveyed 7,000 customers across the world in 2011, in the United States, Britain, Canada and Ireland and found that 15 percent of people had received calls from these kinds of scammers who are "phishing" for information and access to computers.

"Phone scammers rely on deception. The most important tool is in consumer education to prevent people from becoming victims in the first place," said Microsoft's director of international public relations, Richard Saunders.

Voutour agreed, asking people to be "very guarded" whenever they get a phone call from someone offering to fix their computers. People concerned that they may have been victims of cybercrime should call local police or the Sheriff's Office.