• Don't give control of your computer to a third party who calls out of the blue.
• Don't rely on caller ID. Criminals spoof caller ID numbers and may appear to be calling from a legitimate company.
• Never provide personal information or financial information to unsolicited callers.
• If you need tech support, look for a company's contact information on their software package or your receipt.
• Never give passwords over the phone. No legitimate organization calls and asks for passwords.
Sources: Federal Trade Commission, Microsoft.
Barbara Williamson had been pecking at her keyboard, toggling between email and Facebook, when the call came.
Within minutes, the caller -- who claimed he was a Microsoft rep -- had taken over her computer. Then he threatened to lock it permanently if she didn't pay $450 for anti-virus protection.
Williamson was dumbfounded. She'd quizzed the telemarketer to be sure he was from Microsoft. In response, he'd led her through a few keystrokes he said would show a unique identifier on her laptop, one he claimed only she and Microsoft could see.
"He read me the number, and it was right," said, Williamson, 65, a retired corrections officer.
Turns out those keystrokes allowed the scammer remote access to her computer, and he was reading exactly what Williamson was looking at.
Scams of this sort have been a thorn for consumers and authorities alike, though it's unclear just how many people fall prey to them.
"It's definitely an ongoing thing," Federal Trade Commission Spokesman Jay Mayfield said.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul A. Engelmayer on July 10 ordered six operators of international tech-support scams to pay more than $5.1 million for violating the FTC Act, which bars deceptive commercial practices. The FTC in 2012 cracked down on tech support scams wherein callers posed as representatives from legitimate companies and told consumers they detected malware on their computers.
The FTC received nearly 38,000 complaints last year about scams where someone was an imposter posing as a business' representative. There is no strict category for tech support scams, and complaints are classified based on how consumers define scams when they report them.
Williamson can't recall the exact steps the telemarketer walked her through to get into her system. She realized he'd gained remote access when her cursor jumped around without her prompting. Shortly afterward, the solicitor directed her to a website describing anti-virus packages for sale. She considered buying one for $450, but when he wanted her to wire money through Western Union as a personal transaction she became suspicious. That's when he locked her computer. She hung up on him and contacted Microsoft and Dell to get her computer working again.
"It's pretty easy to get remote access," said Colleen Robbins, an FTC staff attorney. "Be wary of who you're doing business with."
Microsoft and its partners never call consumers asking for money to fix computer problems, a spokeswoman for the company said.
Let logic dictate when telemarketers woo you, said Kasandra Helms of the Tennessee Better Business Bureau.
"Microsoft is not just going to pinpoint you," she said. "Lots of people have problems with their computers."
Contact staff writer Mitra Malek at email@example.com or at 757-6406