My brush with an online scam

I am guilty of going around pretending that I’m sort of superwoman who can do absolutely everything and anything without any help at all. Of course that’s utterly ridiculous, and it transpired this weekend that I have a particular blind spot when it comes to all things IT related.

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So when I called up what I thought was the support line for my printer’s manufacturer seeking advice on how to set up a printer, some cyber criminals sitting in a murky office in, I suspect, India may have thought all their birthdays had arrived at once.

I recently bought a printer for my laptop. It’s been sat in the box for at least a couple of weeks because I really, really don’t enjoy setting things like that up. However, I was feeling productive and got stuck in to the task on my Friday night (because that’s how exciting my Friday nights are).

It defeated me. And when the go-to IT solution of switching off and on several times didn’t work either I knew I was in trouble. Googling my problem I noted that Canon – the manufacturer – had a support page with phone number, so I made a mental note to call that later when I was free.

Later arrived but I hadn’t bookmarked the page so instead typed “Canon support UK number” into Google. A number came up. I didn’t pay much attention to it, mainly because my little man was ranting something about FIFA ratings in my right ear, so just dialled it.

(You see what I’m doing? I’m already planting the excuses about “being distracted”, or “being interrupted” because I feel mighty stupid that I very nearly fell foul to the sort of scam that we all silently think we’d never fall for. So read on, and take note, dear reader.)

A lady with an Indian accent answered. So far not too unusual. In fact, it may have been more suspicious had she spoken with a broad Brummie accent or Yorkshire lilt (nothing against those particular regions – just pointing out that the typical call centre experience often leads to Mumbai).

I told her my story, complete with my own theories about why things weren’t working because I didn’t want her thinking I was a total numpty (but she had me the minute I dialled!).

She instructed me on how to allow them remote access to my PC. Yes, really. And this is when big loud alarm signals really should have been ringing but they weren’t and do you know why? I was just really pleased someone was helping me (and I genuinely thought I was calling the official product support line).

I did get a bit irritated when I saw that they were moving the cursor at a whole lot of nothing, and started to ask some questions but at this stage I was just frustrated that they weren’t really addressing what I thought was the issue. She asked me a couple of questions like what my name was and what I used my computer for, and I suppose I should be grateful for my reserved personality in moments like this, as I didn’t really say much. I did think this was a little odd.

They put me on hold a lot. While on hold I started to feel slightly uncomfortable about the fact strangers were rooting around my PC but still I patiently waited, just relieved someone was looking into something and not suggesting I switch it off and on. She came back on the line and told me I needed a USB cable and that they’d made some worrying discoveries about my PC.

She asked me if I’d shut off the drivers. Well of course I hadn’t done that I didn’t even know what they were. She suggested someone else had hacked in and done this. Now I started to feel a bit unnerved but I was also beginning to slightly trust this woman.

A black panel popped up with lots of white text. The white text turned red and she pointed out that I had a virus and that people had hacked in and were “watching me”. I could spot the names of my personal files in among the data, as well as the word Trojan – a well-known virus.

Now I was feeling scared both because the information she was telling me was extremely worrying but also because my gut was telling me that I’d been dragged into something slightly sinister and strange. She was very knowledgeable and convincing but the occasional sentence flagged up alarm bells; she was not consistently talking to me like a professional customer service worker but more like a friend giving me a warning.

She offered to speak to a company called Level 7 on my behalf. They were based in Cornwall and were cyber-crime specialists; the best in the UK apparently.

This was starting to sound a little bit made up. She put me on hold again while she spoke to them, and this gave me an opportunity to rifle through my thoughts. I remembered that I hadn’t really paid attention to the number I’d called. I googled Level 7 (although she’d told me not to touch my computer) and nothing credible surfaced. I know enough about search engines to know that cyber-crime specialists with a glowing reputation would be easy to find in a search ranking. I questioned why I was on hold and what she could be doing behind the scenes with full access to my PC, and my heart nearly burst out my rib cage. I hung up the phone and shut down my computer immediately.

I googled “technical support scams” and uncovered examples that closely matched this experience. I think the aim of the scam is to persuade people to pay to have their computer fixed and I hung up before they had a chance to ask me. However, I was more terrified that they’d gained access to my personal data and banking information.

Thankfully there have been no repercussions, and thanks to the wonderful support from my bank, I am safe and secure again.

So here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Think twice about calling a number you find on Google.
  • If anyone asks to access your PC remotely alarm bells should ring.
  • If you do let someone in, cut off the connection by shutting down your machine immediately.
  • Make sure you have anti-virus software.
  • If you suspect you have been hacked, call your bank immediately. Mine were absolutely brilliant and helped me with all sorts of digital security measures.
  • Update your anti-virus software and carry out a full scan. You can download a system like AVG to do this.
  • Run an online virus scan using something like TrendMicro.
  • And follow your gut. If something just doesn’t feel right, get out of the situation.

I still haven’t set up my printer properly, though, but I’ll be relying on local IT specialists in future!

This type of scam recently featured on Watchdog so you can find out more about it on the iplayer.

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