Posted by: David Harley | July 27, 2013

Support scams: still out there

It’s been a while since I picked up the phone and found myself talking to a support scammer. That may be in part because I’m less likely to pick up a call that is flagged as ‘International’, ‘Withheld’ or ‘Unknown number’. But when I do pick up a suspiciously anonymous call, it’s usually a different kind of scam, PPI reclaim voice spam (mostly automated), and so on.

I haven’t missed it a bit. So when I got a phone call from someone with a hard-to-parse Asiatic accent came on the line and started a familiar spiel, it was never likely that I was going to play along for any length of time. Life is too short.

The spiel, by the way, runs something like this. Your mileage may vary.

“Am I speaking [or ‘Can I speak to’] to Mr Jones?”

Actually, the name they usually use isn’t Jones, and I sometimes get calls that appear to be legitimate asking for the same person, so I guess it’s a wrong entry on a directory or customer lead list somewhere. My rule of thumb is that if the caller apologises for bothering me and rings off, it’s probably a legitimate call that neither of us have any interest in. Though if the intended call was a sales call, that might raise a question as to whether they’d checked that the number was registered with the UK’s Telephone Preference Service, a “do not call” list. Still, if they thought they were dealing with a customer, it’s a grey area at worst.

In this case, as in most of the support scams I get, the fact that I wasn’t the person the scammer was expecting made no difference at all, though he did apologise profusely for getting my name wrong. On this occasion, though, he didn’t go into the ‘you are leaking viruses onto the entire Internet’ spiel: instead, having ascertained that I actually had a computer, he started to tell me about computer errors and how they were worse than viruses because anti-virus software doesn’t detect them. As he didn’t seem deterred by my bursting into laughter, I told him that I’m a security researcher specializing in exposing support scams. As he didn’t seem to know what a support scam is, I started to explain it to him, but he rang off. So I don’t know exactly where he was going: no doubt he was going to ‘prove’ to me, perhaps with Event Viewer or Assoc, that my system was at risk. But while I’m always interested in the latest scammer ploys, sometimes you just don’t want to waste a Friday evening scammer baiting.

If you’re not familiar with this class of cold-call scam, here’s a paper a quartet of us presented at Virus Bulletin last year. It’s pretty comprehensive. My PC has 32,539 errors: how telephone support scams really work

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

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