Criminals are so clever it makes your blood boil. When one trick doesn’t work, they’ll try something new, or they’ll revive a proven winner. By “winner,” we mean a crime so devious, sinister and effective that criminals use it over and over to steal people’s money.
There are plenty of “winners” criminals can use, but one of the most effective isn’t a phishing email or ransomware virus. Instead, it’s a good old-fashioned telephone scam. In fact, there are actually 86 million scam phone calls every month in the USA. Let’s look at how one of the most successful phone scams works and what you can do to stay safe.
Imagine you’re home eating dinner when the phone rings. On the other end is a person claiming to be a representative from Microsoft. They say they’ve detected a problem with your computer and, if you let them log in, they can fix it for you.
The person is so patient and accommodating that you can’t help but follow their instructions. The next thing you know, they’ll be saying that to really fix the problem you need to tell them your credit card number. Or you’ll suddenly find your computer loaded down with data-stealing malware or a ransomware virus.
And if you start to get wise to the scam and push back, you could suddenly have the caller shouting at you or even threatening to kill you. That’s scary.
Everyone gets these types of calls, but you don’t have to be the victim. Here are several surefire steps to keep phone scammers at bay. And be sure to share these with your family and friends so they aren’t fooled either.
Refuse to pay
You know a big red flag is when someone you don’t know calls and says they need your personal information, like your Social Security number, credit card number, or access to your computer. You wouldn’t fall for that, so warn others who might, whether it’s your parents or your kids.
No matter how pushy the caller sounds (“It’s urgent!”), don’t give them your personal information. Otherwise, before you know it, you’ll have a useless computer that’s overrun with viruses.
However, many scammers don’t ask for payment up front. Instead, they try to maneuver you into a position where you don’t have a choice but to pay, such as getting control of your computer back. You want to make sure you’re off the phone with them before they get to that point.
If you’re reasonably sure that you’re being scammed on a phone call, hang up. For example, Microsoft will never call you about a virus on your computer, so that’s a sign you should end the conversation right there. In fact, Microsoft’s official suggestion for handling these phone scams is: End the call as quickly as possible.
Take your time
If the call isn’t obviously a scam, and you’re not sure if you’re speaking with a legitimate Microsoft customer service representative, don’t let the caller set the tone and pace of the call. A scammer will do their best to alarm you and get you to take action before you’ve fully thought things through.
Feel free to slow the call down as much as you need. If the caller keeps trying to speed it back up, then you should just hang up.
When someone calls you, you’re in charge. Don’t let them bully you or scare you. If you have elderly parents or young kids, you may need to drum this message into them: It’s OK to ask questions.
However, you need to be careful with questions you ask. Many times, scammers are employees of state-sponsored hackers. In other words, your “Microsoft customer service rep” could be calling you from Russia, Iran, or another faraway country.
If they’re an employee of a sophisticated crime ring, and there’s a good chance they are, their livelihood depends on you taking the bait and paying up. So, they’ve got scripts and they’re well rehearsed to give you perfectly reasonable answers for the basics.
Asking for a name, company name and a call-back number won’t rattle them. If they’re claiming to be from Microsoft, you can always hang up and call Microsoft customer support to see if someone with that name really works there.
However, many times the caller will say they’re calling from a Microsoft partner. That’s harder to verify and quick online searches might turn up a real company that’s a Microsoft partner, just like they said.
Instead, ask questions about their reason for calling that they can’t know like, “Which version of Microsoft Windows am I using?” Sooner or later, they’ll hang up on you (good riddance) or they’ll run out of answers. Busted!
Common sense is a strong defense against this type of scam, and many other threats, but you can’t rely on it alone. Make sure you have a strong internet security system, so you don’t have to worry about viruses, malware or ransomware attacks.