A "virus" warning popped up? Don't call that number! Don't get scammed!
Whether you have a Windows computer or a Macintosh, this could happen to you.
How it starts
You're using your computer when out of the blue a "virus" or "infection" or "suspicious connection" warning pops up on your screen. It will probably use a variety of technical-sounding phrases to tell you that there's a problems, and that you are at risk for all kinds of scary consequences ("computer damage," "data corruption", etc.). You might see multiple pop-ups. At the end of this text there is a phone number you can call to get help.
In addition you may see a "blue screen" or other colorful text and images, claiming there is a problem with your computer.
You may also hear a man's or woman's voice coming from your computer, telling you that this is urgent, call immediately, you are at risk, etc. Or you might hear a siren noise.
Don't believe it! This is a scam, pure and simple. These messages and sounds are all designed to scare you, make you leave your common sense aside, and intimidate you into calling that number.
The message on your screen will probably have an "OK" button that, when you click it, closes and then immediately reopens the alert, making you feel trapped, and reinforcing the illusion that you have only one option, to call that number.
Don't fall for this! Just because it says there's a problem on your computer screen doesn't make it true.
What happens if you call
You will reach someone who will claim to be able to help you. Everything they say is designed to move you through their agenda:
- Convince you that there is a problem with your computer, which there isn't. (Yes, it's possible that your computer might have some infections, but calling a stranger on the phone is not the way to deal with them. Trust me.)
- If you ask them who they are or who they work for, they will tell you anything to convince you to move forward with their agenda - Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc.
- They will use anything and everything you tell them about you or your situation to reinforce their scare tactics and manipulation.
- Their next step is to have you download some software into your computer to permit them to make a remote connection, giving them live control of your computer.
- Then they will run fake "scans" that "prove" that you have "infections" in order to further convince you that there is a problem. I call this the "floor show."
- Their goal is to convince you to pay them to "remove" these supposed "infections." They may also try to sell you a service contract. The "scan" was free, but the "solution" carries a fee.
- If you agree and pay them, probably anywhere from $40 to $200 by credit card, they will pretend to "fix" the "problems," but they are most likely installing software that may monitor your activities and steal your money and identity and passwords instead. In essence you'll be paying them to infect your computer, and in the long run this may cost you far more than the charge for just this "fix."
- If you refuse, they may try to lock you out of your computer until you pay them.
Signs this is a scam
- You can't tell where this "alert" came from, it is intentionally vaguely phrased. If you have antivirus or antimalware software (and you remember what it's called), wouldn't that software identify itself? If you don't have any protection software installed, why would a protection alert appear?
- You are feeling pressured and rushed and trapped into calling that number.
- You have no idea who you are calling. Why are you trusting your computer to a complete stranger?
- The person you speak to is vague, manipulative, and doesn't explain what is going on.
- You can hear that they're in a large room with other people handling similar calls.
What you should do when this happens instead of calling
Don't call that number. Do anything else instead. I suggest:
- Take a breath.
- Don't panic.
- If you're hearing an urgent voice or siren from the computer, turn your volume or speakers off.
- Look at what is actually going on: You are probably looking at a web site. There is some text on the screen. Your browser might be "stuck" in an alert. That's it. Nothing is going to explode, no one's going to die.
- Don't believe anything it says on the screen, no matter how convincing or authoritative it sounds.
- Try to terminate the web browser.
- Try to restart the computer, or try powering it off and on again.
- If yours is a newer computer, it might have a very clever setting that "remembers" exactly what you had open (programs, documents, web sites) when you turned it off, so that when you turn it back on again, it reopens everything just the way it was. Unfortunately, in this instance that's exactly what you don't want, since you may end up stuck in that fake "virus" alert all over again.
- Try a different web browser.
- If you can't figure out how to get out of that alert, contact someone you trust to help you, or get a recommendation from someone you trust. Try to be patient, this may take a little time to fix.
What you should do if you did call that number and let that stranger get into your computer
- Hang up right away. There is no need to be polite or to explain yourself.
- Immediately turn your computer off, forcing it to power off if necessary. That will terminate the remote connection.
- Turn your computer back on again.
- If you find that you're still stuck in that fake "virus" alert, contact someone you trust to help you, or get a recommendation from someone you trust.
- Also have that trusted person check your computer for infections and malware.
- If you authorized payment to that stranger on the phone, immediately call your bank or credit card company, report that you were scammed, and contest the charges.
- Don't beat yourself up about this. Anyone can be fooled, especially if they're taken by surprise with just the right phrasing in just the right moment. Yes, I have also been fooled from time to time.
- Learn from this. Next time the scam may present itself in a more sophisticated way--Better phrased text, better graphics, a less-generic, more-targeted pitch. They might even use the name of someone you know and trust.
How did this happen?
From the growing number of calls I'm getting from my clients about this problem, here's what I think probably happened:
- You were using your web browser.
- You were searching for something, or you indirectly started a search.
- You clicked an interesting link in the search results.
- You landed on a malicious web site that started this process, i.e. that web site immediately put up a fake "virus" alert, designed to keep you trapped.
Or, you might have clicked a link on some other web site, or in an advertisement, or in an email, and then landed on a malicious site.
This is relatively easy to make happen. All the scammers have to do is:
- Create the malicious web site, which simply displays the alert and won't close when you click OK.
- Put a number of popular keywords on it - Sex, money, health issues, popular product names, celebrities, news items, etc., so it's likely to be found when people search for those things.
- Submit that web sit to search engines like Google and Bing.
- Set up their toll-free numbers, gather and train their people to answer the phones.
- Sit back and wait for people like you and me to search around, find their site, and click on it.
Where to go from here
- Be skeptical.
- Don't believe everything you read on your computer screen.
- Don't give strangers access into your computer. Only work with people you trust, or recommended by someone you trust.
- Keep your computer's operating system and antivirus/security software up-to-date.
- http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2015/2015_01_31.html - A Voice on the Phone Told You What? Don't Believe It!
- http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2011/2011_05_18.html - The "mugged in London" scam - Prevent thieves from breaking into your email account
- http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2010/2010_11_30.html - My computer is infected? Or could this be a scam?
- google: scareware
- google: fake virus alert
If you're confused or frustrated by something on your computer, I like to say, "You can do it!" You might just need a little encouragement, or information, or change of perspective, and that's where I come in.
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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.