Being caught out by professional scam artists is a horrible feeling.
With the all-important benefit of hindsight, many people are left very embarrassed at being tricked by something which, on reflection, always seemed a little dodgy.
This can lead to crimes going unreported, which allows some fraudsters to continue using the same tactics year-in year-out.
Edward Harmer, of Courtmount Grove, Cosham, ended up on the wrong end of a classic cyber scam that has been doing the rounds for at least three years. The con usually starts with the victim’s home phone ringing and a caller asking for the householder by name.
‘I’m calling from Microsoft,’ goes the familiar script. ‘We’ve had a report from your internet service provider of serious virus problems from your computer.’
This is followed by dire forecasts that if the problem is not solved, the computer will become unusable.
A trusting owner is then told to log on to their PC and asked to open a program called Windows Event Viewer which, to the average person, looks like a long list of errors, some labelled ‘critical’.
Duly convinced of the problem with their computer, the owner is talked through downloading a program which gives remote control of the machine to the scammer.
Then after various ‘fixes’ have been installed to address the problem the caller demands a fee – usually totalling more than £100.
The only catch is there was never anything wrong with the computer, the caller is not working for Microsoft and the owner has given a complete stranger access to every piece of data on their machine.
This is what happened to 76-year-old Mr Harmer when he was contacted from what he believes to be an Indian call centre and fed all the typical lines.
‘I had seen my son talk through a problem with someone from Microsoft,’ he said. ‘The only difference was, I now realise, it was him who called them.
‘But I didn’t twig and was eager to show that I could follow their instructions and fix the problem. He was so patient with me and it took around two hours for the process to be completed. It was only afterwards when I thought about it that something didn’t ring quite true.’
An investigation last year by The Guardian established that this scam – which grew in scale during 2010 – is being run from call centres based in the Indian city of Kolkata, by teams believed to have access to sales databases from computer companies.
Targeting computer owners who are inexperienced or elderly, the callers convince their victims by speaking with authority and playing on their lack of knowledge.
Mr Harmer handed over his bank details and had £130 debited from his account by the fraudster, but said he has now learned his lesson.
‘I feel like one of those suckers and a bit stupid really,’ he said. ‘But I wanted to warn other people so they don’t get caught out.
‘When I spoke to the police they said whole areas can be targeted, so hopefully by letting people know I can stop it happening to others.’
Microsoft denies any connection with the companies that call people up offering these services.
News consumer rights expert Richard Thomson gives this advice: ‘Nobody rings you up out of the blue to do you a favour. They’re ringing to rip you off.
‘In the same way you wouldn’t give anyone your personal banking security details over the phone, giving a stranger access to your computer online is an open invitation to infect it with Trojan and key logging software so they can continue to rob you blind without you even knowing.
‘Despite Microsoft’s repeated warnings about online lowlife posing as their security staff, the company never, ever, cold calls customers in this way or requests remote access to individual computers.
‘Anyone who has received such a call and has given the caller access to their computer should immediately have their machine checked over by a trusted competent person to remove any harmful software.
‘If they bank online, the bank should be alerted immediately, and tedious though it may be, it’s vital to change all passwords giving access to personal information.’