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What I learned playing prey to Windows scammers

Fahmida Y. Rashid | July 8, 2016
Three months of phone calls prove Windows scammers are more skilled at social engineering than you think

U.S. victims should report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission and provide the name of the scammer, as well as the originating phone number of the call. I don’t have Caller ID, so I couldn’t track the number, and in several cases, when I tried to dial back to track the last incoming call, I got the message that the number was blocked. The sheer number of calls I fielded made me question the wisdom of maintaining a landline -- at least if the calls had been going to my cellphone, I could potentially block calls. Alternately, I couuld whitelist calls I recognized and ignore the rest. 

They know which buttons to push

In the past, I’d dismissed these scammers as bumbling criminals preying on clueless and naïve computer users, but after 60 or so conversations, I’ve revised my assessment: They're skillful social engineers. At one point, when I’d managed to irritate “Nancy” enough, she asked, “Do you know who you are talking to? Do you know I have the authorization to cancel the license key for your computer?”

I stopped for a half-second to remind myself that she couldn’t do that. It helped that at the time of the call I was working on a Mac, but I sympathize with the victims who don’t want to take the risk. These scams are effective because they’re utterly convincing to nontechnical users. Even someone who has been reading about the latest news and staying well-informed can be tricked because the callers are good at hinting at all the things that can happen. The people making these calls are polite and charming -- unless, like me, you’ve been annoying them for 15 minutes with questions. They are confident and sound like they know what they are doing, which is why they are successful.

“We are calling you to find out why your computer is downloading all this hacking software and who are the persons who are trying to get into your computer to steal your personal information. That is illegal. That is against [sic] cybercrime.”

That’s the only point I agreed with from those calls. What they are doing is illegal. If you get the call, hang up. Don’t engage, and we will eventually starve the scamming beast into ceasing operations.

 

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