Con artists are using old-fashioned technology to gain access to consumers' newfangled technology.
I pride myself on knowing all the latest scams, but I had never heard of this one, so I'm assuming you haven't either. Here's how it works: A crook calls you on the phone, poses as a technician from a big company like Microsoft, and claims he's detected a virus on your computer. He (or she!) then asks for access to your computer in order to "help" you.
From there, the scheme can devolve into several different money-making ploys, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The con artist may:
Ask for remote access to your computer and then change your settings in a way that makes your computer -- or the information on it -- vulnerable.
Enroll you in an expensive -- but worthless -- computer security, maintenance or warranty program.
Trick you into installing malware that then snags your private information, like passwords or financial details.
Ask for your credit card information and steal it or use it to bill you for fake services or services that are readily available for free.
This is where my oldest and best advice comes into play. I always advise: "be the hunter, not the hunted." In other words, learn to be skeptical of any stranger who comes at you claiming urgency and demanding money.
Instead, take the time to do your own search. Find a published help line number for your hardware or software manufacturer or Internet service provider and dial it yourself. Don't rely on any phone number or website the caller provides, as it may be a fake.
In fact, be careful where you look up the contact information you need. A large company's home page is a good place to start. An online ad is not so reliable, because the FTC says con artists have begun boldly placing ads containing false information in order to build an aura of realism around themselves.
Does this scheme sound sickeningly familiar because you've already fallen for it? If so:
Use legitimate security software to run a scan and see if there is malware or virus activity on your computer.
If you gave the caller any passwords, change them for the account in question and any other accounts for which you use the same passwords.
If the caller charged bogus services to your credit card, call the card company and insist that those charges be reversed.
If you think personal financial information may have been stolen, order your free credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com, created by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and check for suspicious activity.
If you verify that you are a victim of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission has an entire website to guide you through fighting back, and you can find it here: www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft2012/