My neighbor called me the other day with an interesting tale. He'd received a call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft, who said they'd detected errors on his computer and were calling to help him fix it. He wanted to know if this was legit.
It's a scam I've encountered before. Had my neighbor continued with the call, the scammer would have talked him into opening remote access into his computer. The scammer would then "prove" the computer needed fixing by opening up error logs, which are always full of cryptic-sounding messages even on a working computer.
Next comes the big sell: various levels of "support" costing hundreds of dollars. Even if you say no, they're already into your computer, logging every key you type and siphoning your bank info and other juicy details. You're left with a computer which, if it wasn't infected before, certainly is now. And you're out several hundred bucks at best, life savings at worst.
My neighbor was lucky. This particular scammer was clumsy on the bait and switch, but you can't always count on that. Some scammers are so slick they'll convince you that you're talking to your own mother. They take advantage of those who aren't tech savvy by using jargon and playing into our fears.
Rest assured, there is no magic data center where someone can see, out of all the information on the global Internet, one tiny computer in McHenry County, Illinois. It's technically impossible. Also, Microsoft doesn't proactively call people for tech support, nor do any other tech companies.
Tech support scams aren't new. Con artists will try everything from pop-up windows to spam emails to fake search engine ads, but they also employ offline methods like phone calls, snail mail, and faxes. Everyone is a target, as this random call to my neighbor shows.
Other scams include phony freebies and surveys that earn scammers money every time you click. My favorite is fake antivirus – viruses that pretend to be antivirus software.
It's important to recognize and avoid these scams. Listen to that voice inside you that asks, "Is this legit?" If it doesn't sound right, back away.
Your best bet is always to go to the source. Call Microsoft, go to Dell's web site, email HP's customer service. But don't click links in email, on social media sites, or in search engine results, because they may be fake links to the scams.
The same goes for everything else. Receive an email notification from Facebook? Don't click the link, go directly to the site. Someone texts you an offer? Check their web site to see if it's real. Don't share freebies like "win an iPad" or "complete this survey for a gift card". Ask your friends to stop sharing them, too.
Use strong passwords that are unique for every site. If you don't remember the last time you changed them, do it now. Make them super strong by using a password tool like KeePass or 1Password. Remind yourself to change them again in six months.
You'll find links to other articles about fake tech support calls, plus resources to help you avoid such scams on my Tech Tips blog.
• Triona Guidry is a freelance writer and IT specialist. Her Tech Tips blog (http://www.guidryconsulting.com/techtips) offers computer help and social media advice. She can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @trionaguidry.