Where Computers Go


Tips & News for Better Computing

Avoid Fake Help Screens

I’m sitting out here by a lake in Suwannee County, about ten miles or so from our Live Oak office. The weather is beautiful. It’s probably 68 degrees with a strong breeze, a beautiful sunny sky, and low humidity. Around here, low humidity is the really amazing part. Soon, summer will begin and these cool days will be gone until November or December.

As I sit here outside, I got to thinking: what better thing to do while you’re enjoying the sun, birds, and nature than write about computer threats? Right, nothing. So let’s get started.

The threat I’m covering today is not brand new, but I’ve been seeing more victims lately than ever before. It’s essentially a fake help -- or warning -- screen that appears on your computer. You’ll see a professional-looking corporate logo (often a Microsoft logo) and a phone number to call for help. The fake warning screen will tell you that your computer is infected, or otherwise trick you into calling a bad guy.

Heck, let me walk around and enjoy some of this sunshine. One of my employees, Dalton Weatherford, can tell you more. Here’s a colorful summary he sent me yesterday:

“Thank you for calling Microsoft support. For quality purposes, this call may be recorded...”

This line is more often heard these days with an accompanying “Blue Screen of Death”, or virus alert with flashing lights and sirens. It happens unintentionally, and is never anybody’s fault. It’s scary though. One moment, we’re browsing our favorite website, then moments later the screen changes and we’re being told that our computer has a nasty virus and we need to call technical support or else all of our data will be lost, or deleted. All of our music. All of our videos. Pictures of the baby, or the family BBQ from last year, gone. It sounds intimidating.

It’s just that though, intimidation. The perpetrators have no idea who exactly will call in, but they all know the same thing: they have the “knowledge” over the average user. They’ll use big, technical talk to confuse, and most times frustrate, the average person. They use the same tactics as the companies that “call on behalf of the IRS”. They assure us that our computer is infected, or being used to transmit malicious content over the web. They try to scare us into doing what they want us to do, which is to pay them.

But there’s hope. In cases like this, it takes just knowing the game to save ourselves from headache. Knowing the game will also most certainly save us our hard earned $199.99. More importantly it will help us protect our information from the true malignant users.

-Dalton Weatherford

As Dalton pointed out above, knowledge of the scam is the best line of defense. Even anti-virus software will often allow these fake warning screens to appear. After all, they’re just pop-up ads or messages. They don’t take any harmful action against your computer without your help. They rely on you to read the screen, call the number shown, and allow the bad guy on the other end to remote into your computer.

As another great trick, these warnings often promise free help. A lot of people will think, “Free help, no credit card required, it sounds like this is a great service from Microsoft.” This call will only be free for a few seconds, though.

Once the bad guy gets access to your computer, he’ll quickly install malware (malware = bad software). The specifics of what they install are up to them. They might install software that encrypts your data so they can demand money to give it back. They might install software so your computer runs nefarious tasks in the background on their behalf.

When you first saw the fake warning screen, it may have promised free help. Now, you’ve let the bad guys in. At this point, you might be asked for your credit card number so the bad guy can continue to “help” you with your problem.

Don’t forget: it’s likely that your computer wasn’t infected with anything to begin with. The person who said they’d help you is now your enemy. Before they ask you for money, they will almost certainly do something bad to your machine. Then they’ll ask for payment. Even if you pay them, your computer will still be left with bad software on it after they’re gone. You may also see additional fraudulent credit card charges in the near future.

Before giving out a credit card number, most people realize they’ve been scammed. It’s easier to fool someone into calling for fake help then it is to get payment. At this time, most victims will hang up the phone. Sadly, though, a few of our customers have actually paid for continued help. It’s upsetting to see people get victimized. That’s why we’re writing about the problem. We want to build awareness, and allow the bad guys a few less victims.

It never hurts to err on the side of caution if you see a warning screen on your computer. Be suspicious if you see a pop-up that tells you your computer is infected and asks you to call a phone number. This is one time you can ignore a problem, and it will probably just go away.