The voice on the phone said my computer was a mess. It was practically crawling with infected files. Immediate action was necessary.
I trusted the voice on the phone. It wasn’t as if it was a call from someone trying to scam me. I’d called him for help. The number I called was that of a reliable, well-known company that had provided me with dependable service for years.
At least that’s what I thought. Until it was too late.
Everyone worries about hackers, viruses, Internet scams: Corporations are hacked, the government is hacked. … It’s reached the point you halfway wish you didn’t have a computer. We take precautions and hope we’re safe — until a scam with a different twist catches us off-guard and suddenly we’re victims. That’s what happened to me.
Maybe telling my story will keep it from happening to you.
It started with a window that opened whenever I tried to use my email. It said that my computer was unable to connect to email and that I needed to enter my email password. I did — repeatedly. The password didn’t work.
What to do? The logical thing seemed to be to call my email service provider’s help line. Google provided a telephone number.
The person who answered said the only way he could help was for me to give him access to my computer. No problem. This, after all, was my email provider — a respected company whose name you’d recognize instantly. A pillar of the cyber world.
With my permission, he installed software that gave him remote access to my computer.
“I’m doing a scan now,” he said. “You have a lot of infected files.”
That was a surprise. The computer had been operating normally. Nothing had been locking it up or slowing it down. The only problem was connecting to email.
“You should be able to see the infected files on your screen now,” the voice said.
I could. A bar on a graphic showed the quantity of files growing steadily.
“They’re at .4 gigabytes,” he said. “That’s a lot!”
The bar continued to grow.
“Almost a whole gigabyte now. No wonder you were having problems. I’ll need to clean up your computer.”
The bar’s progress continued: 1 gigabyte, 1.2, 1.4 … It eventually stopped at 1.8.
“That was slowing your computer down a lot. When I’m finished, your computer will be a lot faster. It will work like it did when it was new.”
That was unsettling. The computer had always worked the way it did when it was new. And the program he was using for the scan was one I vaguely remembered being warned against. But he had to know what he was doing, right? He was a tech for an industry leader.
Once the “infected files” were removed, he said a firewall would need to be installed to keep the problem from happening again. He offered me three payment options. I chose three years for $299.99, and with a growing sense of unease gave him my credit card number.
Sleep didn’t come easily that night. The next morning, I took the computer to the store where I’d purchased it, a shop where the techs had skillfully solved problems for me in the past without charging a nickel. It took about 30 seconds for the problem to be diagnosed.
“You’re a victim of fraud,” the tech said. “You basically bought $299.99 worth of nothing.”
Worse, the guy I thought was fixing my computer had installed malware that made it vulnerable to things I didn’t even want to think about. The tech deleted the bad stuff and told me to call my credit card company immediately, dispute the charge and cancel the card.
I hated to do that. I’d had the credit card for years, had the number memorized. And companies that use it for payments would all have to be notified.
A hassle. But better than having scammers use it to charge a big-screen TV or a trip to the Bahamas.
Told what happened, a friend said the same thing had happened to a friend of his in Seattle. In his case, it was close to being a financial disaster. He didn’t have his credit card with him when the scammer asked for it, so he gave him his bank account number. If he hadn’t had second thoughts and called his bank right away, his previously sizable account would have had a zero balance.
To find out how common this sort of thing is, I spoke with Dale Dixon of the Better Business Bureau.
“It’s more common to have the scammer call you,” he said, “but the scammers also know how to push their phone numbers high into the Google search results for legitimate companies. I’m sure the companies are out hunting these guys, but it’s too pervasive a problem to effectively do much about it. The minute one is taken down, another five pop up. It’s the nature of the world in which we live.”
How do we protect ourselves?
“When you search for a number to call, make sure that you’re on the official website for the company you’re looking for,” Dixon said. “Don’t rely on the first results of a Google search. Once you’re on the official site, you’re going to find a legitimate phone number.”
Another important thing to remember, he said, is that “customer service for legitimate companies is never going to charge you an exorbitant fee for a service you may already have (like the firewall my computer already had). They’ll be very upfront about any fees. They’ll tell you right away about any charges, and you can make the decision whether to go ahead.”
I was lucky. Like the guy in Seattle, I dodged the bullet before the scammers could wreak havoc with my computer and my credit card. Here’s hoping you’ll learn from my mistake.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.