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Fed up with bogus computer support calls, man turns tables on scammers

Gregg Keizer | Feb. 10, 2016
Played along with scammer using a Windows PC whose 'My Documents' folder was loaded with malware


Seth was weary of the calls from bogus Windows support technicians, and decided to, if not get even, at least give them a taste of their own medicine.

"I was really tired [of the calls], and I really hate computer scammers," said Seth, whose last name Computerworld withheld for privacy reasons. "I got fed up."

Like millions of others, Seth had been on the receiving end of scammers' phone calls, who rang up and told him that they were with "Microsoft support" or "Windows support," then proceeded to claim that they had detected malware on his machine.

"I would get these calls three or four times a year," said Seth in an interview, adding that the calls would continue for a week or more, then end, only to resume months later. He would hang up on the callers or tell them he had no computer or was running a Mac.

But that wasn't enough to stop the pestering; the calls continued.

Those calls have become all too familiar to Americans: In a hearing before Congress last year, David Finn, the executive director of Microsoft's Digital Crime Unit, said that the calls victimize an estimated 3.3 million people and rake in $1.5 billion annually.

The classic tactic involves cold calls -- unsolicited telephone calls -- where callers pose as computer support technicians, frequently from Microsoft itself, and try to convince victims that their computers are infected, often by having them look at Windows' Event Viewer, a log that shows scores of harmless errors. At that point, the hard-sell pitch starts, with the caller urging the consumer to download software or let the "technician" remotely access the PC.

The con artists charge for their bogus "help" and often get people to pay hundreds for worthless support plans or software. Frequently, the scammers use their access to plant malware on the PC, which later surreptitiously harvests online account information and passwords, or they steal files from the system during the call, when they have control of it.

Seth knew that ... he had done research. So he decided to turn the tables.

After a spate of calls late last year, he dusted off an old, unused PC, scrubbed the hard drive and installed a fresh copy of Windows Vista. He installed a handful of programs, like Mozilla's Firefox browser. But the key was Windows' "My Documents" folder.

In that folder he placed several files, folders and compressed archives, with names like "Passwords," "Credit info" and "Bank Info." A "Pictures" folder contained what appeared to be a handful of .jpg-format images. "Everything in this folder was fake," Seth said.


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