Anatomy of a scam: computer virus scam

The Computer Virus scam is one of the biggest phone scams of recent times—both in Australia and globally.

Man with laptop, phone and tablet

Initially the scammers – who are based overseas – pretended to be from Microsoft or Windows (and hence the scam was tagged ‘Microsoft Imposters’). With time the scam has taken on several variations often tailored to target specific localities – countries, states, even suburbs

But how did it actually work? How could savvy citizens be caught out this way? Here’s how it unfolded.

The scam begins …

Imagine you receive a call at home. The caller claims they are from (or have a relationship with) Windows, Microsoft, Telstra Bigpond or even the ACMA, and have detected a virus or ‘issues’ with your computer. You might be asked: ‘Has your computer been running slowly lately?’ You’re then told that viruses or malware have been inadvertently downloaded onto your computer while you’ve been using the internet.

The scammer shows ‘proof’

You’re now concerned that your computer has been compromised. To confirm the diagnosis, the caller asks you to open Windows Event Viewer on your machine to check if it is infected. Several error messages are listed and this reinforces their claims, even though errors are common and usually harmless. The caller tells you that these are of significant concern and offers to refer you to a ‘technician’ who could fix the problem—for a fee.

You might be transferred to a ‘technician’ who asks you to log on to a third-party website so they can remotely access your computer to fix the problem.

Sounds feasible, right?

Enter the scam

At this point, you’re offered a number of solutions that seem to make perfect sense. Depending on the intent of the particular scammer involved, the ‘technician’ might:

  1. Install an antivirus program on your computer—typically the kind that you can download for free from reputable companies—and charge up to $250 for the service.

  2. Ask for your credit card details but install nothing. Your details might then be sold to other parties or used for fraudulent purposes.

  3. Install malware on your computer—this enables your computer to be controlled remotely for other illegal and harmful activities.

  4. Access and steal personal and financial details from your computer.

And, hey presto—you’ve been scammed.

And it doesn’t end there

As public awareness of the scam has grown, some people have reported a further twist. After receiving a computer virus call, a new caller will falsely claim to be from a foreign government, foreign law enforcement body or your bank, and offer to recover money initially lost in the scam—again, in return for a fee.

Outsmarting the scammers

In a world of global and borderless communications, these kinds of scams will only become more common. In response, government agencies in different countries are working together across borders to tackle these global problems. However, it’s also important that you’re aware of some basic tips to avoid becoming a victim.

  1. Suspect: Don’t accept anything at face value—if it sounds unlikely or too good to be true, it probably is. Never use a number given to you during a suspected scam call. If you have concerns about your computer contact your internet service provider using help line details they provided when you joined or a number published on their official website.

  2. Think: Recognise the signs—if you’re being pressured to act, disclose personal details or send money to a stranger, it’s probably a scam. For example, Microsoft never makes unsolicited phone calls about its products.

  3. Report: Act quickly—tell SCAMwatch and stop scammers in their tracks.

  4. Ignore: Never respond. Just hang up, or delete the SMS or email after reporting.

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