Sometimes even the best anti-virus and anti-spam solutions don’t help.
It happened a few days ago, in the early afternoon. A friend and I were both working on separate computers in different rooms, each busy trying to get our work done. The phone rang and I was oblivious to it, as I usually only answer my own cell phone.
I was barely aware of what was going on as I had a deadline to meet on a product review, and continued my work. My friend came into the room carrying her cordless phone with a puzzled look on her face. She asked me to take the call as she couldn’t understand what the party on the other end was saying. I asked who was on the line and she told me that the person on the phone was calling from India and had told her, “You’re in front of your computer and we’re getting error messages.”
This had baffled her and she asked who it was. He replied with a name that she couldn’t understand, said that he “worked for Microsoft” and repeated that she was in front of her computer and that they were “getting error messages.”
When she asked him how he could see what was on her computer, he replied, “We can see all the computers in the world.”
That’s when she decided to let me deal with him. It was unnerving in that she doesn’t have a Webcam, and then after a couple seconds of brief conversation, I took the call, and asked to whom I was speaking. He fumbled, answered in some unintelligible fashion and finally the third time I got it: his name was “Handel Baker”… or so he claimed. From his accent it was clear that he was not from Louisiana or from the Bronx. He then ordered me to go to the computer and told me that the computer was getting error messages and that they were seeing them.
I asked him who he worked for, and Handel Baker replied, stumbling with his words as if reading from a script, “I work for Microsoft. We are a Microsoft Solution Provider. I am a Microsoft Certified Professional. Go look at your computer screen and I help you with your errors. Maybe you have a virus.”
I replied, “I’m on a Mac, not on a PC.”
I didn’t tell him that my friend was on a Windows PC and that it was behind a pretty heavy firewall on a secure network, but he seemed confused. I further stated, “I’m using a MacBook Pro, and there is nothing strange on my screen.”
Poor Handel Baker was very confused now, and was getting irritated, and his already-poor English skills were rapidly breaking down as he tried to respond. I interrupted and again asked him who he worked for, who was his employer, and he replied something to the effect of “PC Outpour” or “PC Output”… maybe it was “PC Outhouse” for all that I could understand. I asked where his company was located. He replied, “We in California… California. Look at your screen!”
He was obviously getting upset, as he was not even responding in understandable English at this point. Repeatedly I asked him to slow down and talk so that I could understand him, and again I asked him the name of his company. I couldn’t even begin to understand his broken response, so I asked to speak to his supervisor. This really upset him, and I had to repeat my request four or five times… and finally I got through to him. He said, “You wait. I get my supervisor.”
There was a pause as he put me on hold, then I waited. After about a minute, all I heard was the dial tone. Handel Baker had hung up.
I could have left it with that, but my security-conscious side had been roused, so I immediately checked the phone number on the phone handset, and it came up as 855-791-1191. Did a quick Google search on that number and it came up with quite a few results, actually thousands of them, and this is just one of them. There were many more, such as this one where the same phone number is mentioned, along with a company name in one case. It was amazing how many others had gone through similar events with calls from this number, and not just in the U.S.
It didn’t take long perusing these messages, such as the detailed one here to discover that the phone number matched one particular company, PC Output, with support starting at $169.99 per year as of this writing. Further, checking their About Us page and found that PC Output is owned by Innate Global Solutions, which is located in Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, and known to many as Calcutta, where they have other business. That’s a long way from California.
And as far as Handel Baker being a “Microsoft Certified Professional” there is no indication on their site that they have any of these on their staff. Microsoft has issued an advisory about scams that use the Microsoft name fraudulently.
The first call of defense against scammers such as this outfit is to get your phone registered on the National Do Not Call Registry. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched the National Do Not Call Registry to give Americans a choice about getting telemarketing calls at home. FTC Fines are now $16,000.00 per violation, which is enough to make some of these scammers think twice.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, and it’s not just confined to the US, either. In July 2012, The Guardian (UK) wrote an in-depth article about these calls from India, with the same scenario mentioned above, and there were quite a number of reader comments on this issue. A Canadian blogger wrote of a call that went, "Sir, we have reason to believe that your computer has been hacked," explaining his experience with a cold-call from India. This virus scam has grown to epidemic proportions in Canada, now accounting for over 70% of frauds reported daily to the Canadian Anti Fraud Centre (CAFC), and causing them to post this alert and remedy.
In the US, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is a co-sponsored by the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C), and if you’re a victim, complaints may be filed here. Complaints filed at their website are processed and may be referred to federal, state, local or international law enforcement agencies. And sometimes there are winners in these complaints, as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) does go after them, and won a judgment of more than $8 million against one of these scareware scammers that was operating under a variety of names. In this case, 300,000 of those who were stung in this scam are getting refunds. And it looks like the FTC is cracking down hard on some of the other Indian call centers as well.
One a related topic, it’s been reported that India has emerged as the world’s top source of junk mail as spammers make use of lax laws and absent enforcement to turn the country into a center of unsolicited email. As it was reported, an average of 79.8 percent of email traffic in the three months to the end of September was junk, and of that, 14.8 percent originated in India, 10.6 percent came from Indonesia, and 9.7 percent from Brazil. Some of these figures vary, as can be seen here, but India’s call centers are in the lead. Spammers run the gamut from legitimate marketing firms and advertisers who have adapted telephone cold-calling techniques to the computer age to "phishers", who solicit personal data from naive recipients to defraud them, as previously described in my first hand experience.
So what can you do?
Microsoft advises that you should just hang up on phone scams such as this. One could also respond with a carefully directed (in)appropriate phrase in the Bengali or Indian languages. It might make you feel better, but then they’re likely to respond equally in English.
When it comes to dealing with scumbags and scammers like this, remember to put your brain in motion before putting your mouth in gear or your fingers in motion on the keyboard. As always, good old fashioned common sense is your best defense.