Scammed! A Warning

That day in December, my bursitis had flared up and I’d lost a filling, but what really bothered me was that my computer wasn’t working and I felt stupid. I’d fallen for a scam. What’s more, I’d just read an article about how often that happens to older Americans like me. We lose almost $13 billion a year to scams and identity theft. No wonder we’re a favorite target of con artists! I couldn’t help wondering: Would I have been so easily fooled a decade ago?

Here’s what happened. I was online, googling something, and I landed on an unfamiliar website. Ten seconds later, a popup message appeared on my screen, saying my computer was now at “high risk” because there was a “network error issue.” Apparently, something bad had been downloaded. I could click on the popup for help or there was a phone number to call. The words “Microsoft Partnership” were in the text somewhere. I get popup messages from Microsoft all the time, usually offering the latest versions of its products.

I was suspicious, but I felt I couldn’t afford to ignore the warning, so I went to the Microsoft site. Sure enough, some partnerships were listed. After dithering for a few more minutes, I called the phone number from the popup. On a very poor connection, I got a man named Joe.

I allowed Joe to download remote-control software onto my computer, though I had a sick feeling about it. Among other things, the poor phone connection worried me because a lot of scams originate overseas.

For a long time, Joe rummaged around in my computer. Finally, he rebooted the machine in safe mode. I had no idea what that meant but it sounded reassuring. Then he checked my control panel, and it showed that the Windows security center service was turned off. Neither he nor I could turn it on again, and I couldn’t get into any of my Microsoft programs. (I learned later that the service and most programs are always shut off in safe mode.)

Joe said he could reinstall “all services” but the company would have to be paid first. He then transferred me to another man, who tried to persuade me to go to a website to authorize payment. At that point, all my alarm bells belatedly clanged and I hung up.

But now I had a computer that seemed stuck in safe mode, and I was barred from programs I use continually. I also had to face the fact that I had given a stranger access to all the information in my computer. Fortunately, I don’t keep a list of passwords or account numbers there, but a lot of clues to my finances were still lying around.

Repairing the situation has taken a great deal of time. With the help of my computer guru (I should have called him the minute I saw the popup), I scanned for viruses and malware. There weren’t any. Then we made sure Joe hadn’t set up proxy servers so that whenever I went online, I’d do it through a server he controlled that let him follow my movements. Again, no problems.

I set up fraud alerts on my credit cards and transferred my savings to a new bank account. Then I called Equifax, one of the three largest American credit agencies. You can place an alert with any one of them and it will be passed on to the other two. Now if Joe (or more likely a confederate) applies for a bank loan in my name, or any other form of credit, when the bank checks my credit record with one of the three agencies, it will be warned that I’m apparently a victim of fraud. After that, it’s unlikely to agree to the loan.

I’m ashamed of the way I was taken in, though I feel better since reading a New York Times article by Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time (2016). She argues that people are conned, not because they’re stupid or greedy, but at least partly because they need to believe others are trustworthy. That explains why my conversation with Joe was so stressful. I was torn between wanting to believe him and my gut feeling that something was wrong.

There are reports online about tech-support scams like the one I fell for, and there are websites that provide advice for their victims.  My computer guru tells me that when he googled for information about such con jobs, he found a website that had already had 2 million hits! Obviously, I’m not the only one who’s been conned, and I can’t blame it on my age.