You’re working on your computer when suddenly, your screen is taken over by scary warning messages and even an alarm sound on your speakers.
It’s a tech support scam, and it happened to Redondo Beach resident Beverly Morse.
“It was a very bizarre moment,” explained Morse, who is a lifelong writer and photographer.
The popups looked like they originated from Windows Defender and said there was a virus detected and not to shut off the computer. There was a toll-free number to call for help.
“It’s looking like a threat that if i don’t press one of the buttons like the one that says accept, I’m going to lose the program I’m working on and maybe everything else that’s on my screen,” explained Morse.
She panicked but grabbed her phone and started to record the screen, then dialed up her daughter to help her decide what to do.
“I didn’t want to turn [my computer] off cause I didn’t know if it was telling the truth or not,” said Morse.
Turns out Morse narrowly avoided a scam that has tricked so many into handing over personal information, credit card data and more.
“It’s such a huge industry right now it’s scary to see how much it works,” said Chris Hadnagy, an expert in social engineering scams.
“You see a screen comes it says your computers locked, and you need to call this number to get it unlocked… when you call that number, they of course want to you to pay in gift cards or cryptocurrency,” explained Hadnagy, CEO of Social-Engineer, LLC.
The problem is that you’re not calling Microsoft (or Google or Yahoo or any other tech company they impersonate) but a call center filled with scam artists, trying to get you to install software that lets them take over control of your computer.
One you do, “they lock the computer and tell you that you need to pay a fee to have those errors wiped off,” said Hadnagy.
They say “if you shut your computer off you’re going to lose data, if you unplug you’re going to lose data… they’re usually lying,” said Hadnagy.
“Microsoft will never have a pop up for you that has a phone number for you to call. It’s just not how we do things, said Mary Jo Schrade, an executive with Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit.
They’ve been tracking these so-called tech support scams since 2014.
“There have already been over 40 raids of call centers in India,” said Schrade.
If it happens to you – take a pause and don’t panic. If there’s a warning message coming out of the speakers, turn down the volume.
Although it looks scary, hackers haven’t gotten into your computer just yet. The best thing you can do is to turn off your computer completely or use the key combination of CTL+ALT+DEL to quit the program you’re using. Typically, it’s a web browser.
You can also go to the website microsoft.com/reportascam to explain what happened.
As for Morse, she pushed the power button on her computer and avoided a major headache.
Her advice for others: “People don’t tell me what to do, certainly not people I don’t know.”
Bottom line: if you see a pop-up window that urges you to call a tech support number or if a tech support operator calls you, it’s bogus.
The other important thing to do is to make sure your computer is always backed up. You can use Mac’s Time Machine option and Windows Backup. Both are built into those operating systems and can help get your computer back up and running if you get into a sticky situation.