Thursday, January 16, 2014

Beware of “Microsoft Technical Support” Scam!

N.B. Warning: Some bad language in videos!

OK, this is not related to economics, but a personal and maybe even “public service” post.

If you have ever had a person with an Indian accent make an unsolicited call to your house and tell you that:
(1) they are from “Microsoft Technical Support” or “Windows Technical Support” or the “technical department of Windows operating system” (!) or something like this, and that you have viruses or “errors” on your computer, or

(2) that your licence or registration for Windows is expired or invalid and that you need to renew it through them,
then you are dealing with scammers and criminals! Hand up the phone immediately and do not engage with them!

Now please note I am not trying to draw unfair attention to the ethnicity of these scammers, but the fact remains that they seem to nearly always have Indian or subcontinental accents, and a lot of the actual criminal investigations of these scams indicate that they are based in India.

There are plenty of video recordings of these scams on YouTube. There is one interesting one below where they rang Jerome Segura, a senior security researcher at anti-malware company Malwarebytes! He played along with them in their scam of type (1) above, and shows in this video what these criminals will do to your computer if you let them get access to it (fortunately, he was using a Virtual Windows machine, so no serious damage was done).

Some of these scammers get incredibly rude when they get caught out as you can see in the next video where they ring someone with an Apple Macintosh. (Warning: there is very bad and extremely offensive language at the end of this video from the scammer!!)

Microsoft has a good warning on the whole scam here:
“Avoid tech support phone scams.”
Microsoft says explicitly on its website that “You will never receive a legitimate call from Microsoft or our partners to charge you for computer fixes.”

Today I had 5 calls with these persistent bastards trying to scam me.

Fortunately, I did not fall for it at all, and knew it was scam within 20 seconds of hearing them start talking. I have heard of the scam before, and even had similar calls before. I normally just listen for 30 seconds and hang up.

Today, however, I was curious to see how these scams operate. First, a woman calling herself “Eleanor” (a fake name certainly – like all the names they gave!) said she was from “Windows Technical Support” department, but when I asked her directly whether she worked for Microsoft Corporation she dodged the question.

Then she told me that my version of Windows had expired or had invalid licences and that they needed to help me renew them.

Next I was handed on to a man called “Sam.” He directed me to the “run” box on Windows and asked me to type in “msconfig” and then when the “system configuration” box came up, he made me click on “services” and made me count the number of “stopped” services. I did not bother counting but let them stay on hold while I googled this particular scam on the internet and some minutes later gave the number “42” (which might have been roughly half the number).

At that point, there was a cry of “My god!” from “Sam,” who proceeded to inform me that this was very bad news indeed. He then said that the “stopped” services are evidence that my Windows licence had expired and a “certified Windows technician” would help me solve the problem and restart the services. But all of this was lies and fraud.

Next they tried to make me go to a site that would have allowed them remote access to my computer. I will not give you the site name, since this is probably irresponsible, and I did not actually go to the site but googled it, which quickly confirmed that it was part of these scams.

At this point, once they were urging me to download the site, I stalled and finally had enough, and asked the person point blank: “So are your mother and father aware that you are a liar and criminal and involved in fraud?” The person immediately hung up.

But, lo and behold, within minutes I get a call back from “Eleanor” asking me “what happened?”

I replied directly – becoming increasingly astonished by their persistence – that she had directed me to someone who was telling me lies.

Would she please confirm, I asked, whether she worked for Microsoft? After minutes of lame evasion, I finally got an answer that their “company” was not Microsoft, and was given the name of some fake company (in one of the later calls I got a completely different fake company name from another person), but even despite my continued scepticism, they continued to push the scam in the course of which they seem to have genuinely lost the connection twice, but recalled me within minutes.

I was handed over again to another man whose name was spoken quickly and inaudibly (I think it was “Mike”) who also tried to convince me to open this malicious site. By this time, I was asking: “so how much will this cost me?” At this, they at last started to admit that I would be charged some fee for this fraudulent “service.”

Then I got disconnected again and after they re-dialled me, I was finally told it was cost me about $200. “That’s a lot of money,” I said. Why, I continued, don’t I just take it to my local IT shop?

At this point, they became very pushy, and said I could not get it fixed there, and then after trying to get me to give them remote access to my computer yet again (unsuccessfully!), I ended the nonsense by finally telling them I was totally aware it was a scam from the beginning and used some bad language myself to make the message clear. After that, no more phone calls!

I read on the internet that some very tech savvy people can use a Windows Virtual machine to get the scammers’ email, PayPal accounts and even IP addresses for police and proper law enforcement authorities, but I am not really confident enough to do this myself.

But what interests me is this:
(1) how do these people get your phone number?

(2) do all the Indian people you speak to on the phone always know they are involved in these scams? The initial people whom you speak to seem to be just reading from scripts and perhaps not even be very computer literate. Do the criminals employ people who do not really know they are working for criminals?

(3) I read that the scammers use voice over Internet protocols (VoIP) technology that hides their identity. So there is no way you can even get their actual phone number?

(4) it was very difficult for me to get these people to explicitly and fraudulently say they work for Microsoft, even though that was what their initial statement implies. When pressed repeatedly, they seem to give fake company names.
Actually, (2) really does interest me, because I have wasted a great deal of time listening to these scamming videos on YouTube, and given the brazen and persistent behaviour of some of the scammers involved I started to wonder if they themselves know they work for criminals.

Some of the videos are pretty funny. Take this one below of an Australian responding to one of these scams (Warning: more bad language at the end!).

So beware and do not fail victim to these scams!

More Reading
Arthur, Charles. 2010. “Virus phone scam being run from call centres in India,” The Guardian, 19 July

Solon, Olivia. 2013. “What happens if you play along with a Microsoft ‘tech support’ scam?,” Wired, 11 April 13


  1. In answer to your question about how they get your number, I think it is a reasonable theory that they simply dial phone numbers at random until the find a sucker who will play along. They then put that number into their database and sell it to other organizations that make money off these kinds of scams.

  2. A few remarks:

    (1) The people behind this scam, hire people from India, because it's effectively an English speaking country and labour is there quite cheap. Whether the people who make the actual phone calls know they are involved in a scam, maybe but many Indians are desperate in need of some job, that they can easily persuaded to collaborate.

    (2) When a phone caller say they are from Microsoft, say that you don't use Windows but Apple or Linux. Look how they will react.

    1. Regarding (1), I suspect that maybe some of these people do not know they are involved in crime. They would then be genuinely insulted and confused when some potential victim in the English speaking world tells them to sod off or uses other such bad language.

    2. But then there must be many, many who do know perfectly well they are involved in crime.

  3. Been with Apple since 1985. Never owned a Windows machine and never will. If I ever use anything other than Apple it will be a Linux system. Never had a problem with malware.

  4. I just asked them for my postcode to confirm that they knew I was a customer (they claimed to be from BT). The guy ended up giving me a fake postcode... as if I'd fall for that. They seem like idiots to me.

    1. Yet a lot of people do get scammed by these people.

      This claims to be an inside account of these companies, but of course who can know if it is true or not?:

    2. Of course people fall for it. Most people have no idea how computers work. Especially the older generation of people like my parents. At work they deal with tech people who fix all their problems for them.

      The best way to ensure that people avoid these scams is to have their internet providers either call them or email them. So far as I know they don't. I think the government really has to press companies to take more responsibility for this. Although I'd imagine some of your more imaginative libertarian readers can come up with some BS free market solution to this... right? ;-)

  5. How do I make the calls stop? They call multiple times a day, early mornings to late nights. I have been telling them off, asking to be removed from call lists, hanging up. Nothing works! Yesterday they told me they had sent someone to my house. This started months ago and now they are calling my daycare center also daily. Please help me get rid of them!

    1. Yeah, these guys are a plague.

      Perhaps simply disconnect the phone at times when they tend to call. Get your friends/family to use your cell instead.

      The best way to avoid wasting time is just hang up as soon as you get a call from them.

  6. I kept "Sam Michael" on the phone for 20+ minutes today, he with the "I'm from Microsoft Technical Support and you have a very bad virus" and me with the "you sound like such a nice person, why are you trying to scam people?" routine. After several rounds of this, I agree to follow his instructions, which lead me to my Windows Event log where there is apparently evidence of "Red Error virus!" Since I can't delete any of these, he says my computer is in trouble. This is where I start shaming him: "That's not true; you can't delete anything from an operating system log! I know that, but lots of other innocent folks don't! You deserve a better job, your family didn't raise you to steal from people, why are you dishonoring yourself and your family? I'm going to pray for your mother and father and you that you find a job where you offer good to the world, yada yada yada..." His protestations that he's legit trail off and his final comment is a weak "oh..." before he hangs up on me.

  7. I get these calls ever second day.. its always.. the same thing.. but as soon as i hear the Microsoft bit i just switch off and tell them to stop scamming people, well this morning i lost it and just random screamed at them then put the phone down. Made me think i need to get a whistle, every time they call to blow that whistle as hard and loud as my breath could possibly do. They take from the older generation without a blink of an eye, no body can do anything to help with this scammers and they are getting more persistent.. So next time depending how i feel i will give them the police stations number or just blow that whistle for all the people they robbed!!

    1. Tell them you have an Apple Macintosh, not a PC. This is often a good way for them to get them to hang up and stop annoying you.