Hackers held Becky O’Neill’s computer hostage last week and wiped it clean when she failed to pay up. Now the 72-year-old great-grandmother says she wants to tell her story so others aren’t victimized.
Six weeks ago, O’Neill got a call from a man who said he was with “Microsoft Service Management.” He asked how her computer and antivirus software were working. He spoke with an American accent, and they talked for several minutes.
“He was very nice,” said O’Neill, a Winchester resident. “He called me ‘dear.’”
Last Friday, the same man called back. He told O’Neill her antivirus software wasn’t working and that her computer could be infected with hundreds of viruses. He asked for information so he could check it out.
Without thinking much of it, she gave the man enough basic information about her computer for him to gain remote access to it. Soon she saw her cursor moving around on her screen, but her hand was on the telephone, not the mouse.
A different voice, this one with an Indian accent, came on the line and told O’Neill she could pay $197 for a year of virus protection, and more for lifetime coverage.
She refused, then watched, horrified, as the unseen hand wiped her entire desktop clean. The Dell desktop she shares with her husband, Dennis, lost documents, photos, games and other software.
“It was a matter of three, four seconds and everything was gone,” she said.
Today, O’Neill says she feels violated and embarrassed. The retired educator said her impulse to trust people is what did her in.
“I thought they were being helpful. I really was gullible. For a few days I wouldn’t tell anyone but my husband, I was so embarrassed,” she said.
“I hate the thought that I’m so gullible.”
But after posting on Facebook about her debacle, she was surprised by how many friends had similar stories.
It’s a story Microsoft has heard many times. For several years, cybercriminals posing as tech support for Microsoft and other well-known companies have conned their way inside personal computers via the telephone.
Microsoft has made an effort to warn that cold calls from people purporting to be Microsoft techs are scammers since the company started receiving complaints in 2010, according to Samantha Doerr, Microsoft’s director of public affairs for its Digital Crimes Unit.
“Microsoft will never cold call a consumer and ask for their credit card number to charge them for a service they don’t need,” she said.
Tech support scammers operate by calling numbers available in public directories. They take advantage of reasonable concerns about viruses and trick people into giving over remote access to their computers, according to a fact sheet by the Federal Trade Commission.
Two years ago, Microsoft released the findings of a survey that found tech support scams cost victims an average of $875. Nearly a quarter of the more than 7,000 survey respondents said they were deceived into following some of the scammer’s instructions.
In looking for a victim, tech-support scammers cast a wide net, as with email phishing scammers, according to Sean Mackey, co-owner of Megabyte Computer Services on West Harvard Avenue in Roseburg.
“They’re just phishing using phones now,” he said.
Mackey said he can usually save many of a victim’s lost files by running recovery programs.
The scam is endemic in the Roseburg area, particularly among a generation of people who didn’t grow up connected to digital devices, Mackey said. He tells customers to remember that scammers usually know little more than a person’s name and phone number when they call.
Roseburg man Tom Davis recently received a phone call from a man claiming to be with “Microsoft Management.” But Davis said he wasn’t fooled.
“I’m so leery of phone calls. I just hung up.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.