Computer service scams quietly bilk thousands from victims

By Michael Lloyd

A little-known con is costing UK residents thousands of pounds, and experts say it's on the rise. Scammers call victims, pretending to be computer software service personnel. They'll claim there's a problem with your computer and that they can fix it for a fee or if you give them remote access to your system.

Though this scheme has the potential to harm thousands of victims, you may not have heard of it because it's not quite as common as some other scams, such as online shopping fraud. Therefore, you may be unprepared if you're the recipient of such a call. Arm yourself with knowledge of what this scam is, how to handle it and what to do if you've already been a victim.

According to a report from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in the year ending September 2014, non-investment fraud, which includes computer software service fraud, accounted for the largest share of fraud offences in 2014 -- just over 91,000 of the 212,000 total offences. Computer service fraud accounted for about 17% of non-investment fraud; only online shopping and auction frauds and miscellaneous frauds that did not fit into a particular category ranked higher. These numbers were all higher than the previous year, showing that this scam is growing.tech-support-scam

Data from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) shows that between June and November 2014, Brits lost at least £691,446 because of this type of scam, and some victims lost up to £6,000 in one go.

How the scam works
A Financial Fraud Action UK (FFA UK) spokesman said in an emailed response to questions that computer software service fraud is when thieves pose as trusted computer service organisations, such as Apple, Microsoft, TalkTalk or BT.

The thief will say there is a problem with your computer, such as a virus, error report or slow operating speeds. He may even try to convince you he
is an expert by asking you to perform tasks such as accessing system
files on your machine.

"The fraudster may attempt to take payment for this unnecessary service,
or attempt to gain remote access to your computer to carry out the ‘work'," the FFA UK spokesman said. "Once the fraudster has access to your computer, [he] will then often install malware -- malicious software which enables them to steal personal or financial information or perform unauthorised actions on the device."

The criminal may ask for a debit or credit card to fix the problem and if you hand it over, you could lose hundreds of pounds from several unauthorised card transactions. Though many potential victims know the signs of a fishy caller, many who do not possess the same computer savvy fall for the scheme. According to the NFIB, the average victim for this type of scam is around 59 years old, and more than half are female.

Warning signs of a scam
Even if you are a savvy consumer, scam tactics are always changing, so you might not know what to look for.

Be wary of any calls from a withheld number; a "blocked" or "private" phone number will show up as such on your caller ID, even on a mobile phone. The caller will often get right to the point without much introduction, and start asking for your information right away. He will not ask you to confirm your identity or answer any security questions.

Immediately hang up on any call that is in any way suspicious. If you really are having problems with your computer and the caller happens to guess your software provider correctly, explain that you will hang up and call a published customer service number. In any case, never give any financial details over the phone.

"Computer firms do not make cold calls and offer to help with possible computer problems," said the FFA UK spokesman. "If in doubt, hang up the phone. If you are having genuine problems with your computer, make your own enquiries based on information you have gathered independently -- don't ever accept help from people calling out of the blue."

Beware that the caller may get nasty if he thinks you're onto him, especially if you string him along. He may get pushy and urgent about getting your information, or may use strong language.

Procedure for victims
Those who have already fallen victim need to take action. Your first step is to contact your card issuer and cancel the card to prevent further transactions. Whether or not you get any lost funds back will be at the discretion of the issuer, the FFA UK spokesman said. Your bank may deem you liable if you willingly handed over your card details.

Then, report the incident to police. Give any information you gleaned from the incident, including the name, company and phone number the caller used.

If you allowed the fraudster to access your computer, change all passwords that lead to personal information, such as online banking. You'll need to have your computer checked out by a qualified engineer to identify and remove any malware.

Finally, spread the word. Tell your friends, family and neighbours about the scam. The more people who are aware, the better.

See related: Protect yourself from vishing scams, Old-style scams increasingly used by fraudsters

Published: 11 August 2015