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Tips for handling computer virus pop-up alerts: Money Matters

September 2, 2018

Tips for handling computer virus pop-up alerts: Money Matters

Q: In your column last month, a reader asked whether anyone else had encountered a problem with their computer screen going all red and a security alarm popping up, along with a voice saying their computer was locked and they needed to call a specific toll-free number. The message also said that turning off the computer would cause all of the data on the computer to be wiped out. The alert was supposedly from Microsoft.

I too had my computer frozen. It scared me to death. I didn’t know what to do except I knew not to call any number or click on anything. I just shut down the computer until the next morning and called Microsoft. They said to turn the computer on. All was well. Microsoft also said they never send out alerts like that.

I also got a phone call from Sigma Trade on Aug. 10. Phone 1-518-329-9670. They left message that my computer has been hijacked and all information would be lost if I didn’t return the call. I ignored it. My computer was just fine. I’ve gotten every scam that seems to come along. The grandmother call, the IRS, Google account compromise. I sure wish something could be done about these people! I love your columns. Thanks for keeping us informed.

C.S., Chagrin Falls

A: I was surprised at the flood of responses I received from local folks who’ve encountered the exact same scam -- red screen and creepy voice and all. This of course is the latest variation of the your-computer-has-been-hijacked scams that have existed for years.

I reached out to Jay Randall, an information technology expert at RSM US LLP in Cleveland. I asked him how we can try to prevent such computer pop-ups and what we should do if it happens.

The bad news, Randall said, is that there’s little you can do to prevent such a bot/ scam message from hitting your computer or phone. It doesn’t matter how careful you are with what web sites you go to. It doesn’t matter what firewalls you have on your network. No kind of good behavior guarantees you’ll avoid these potential viruses, he said.

Now, certainly, visiting questionable websites or surfing carelessly puts you more at risk. But just because you get this pop-up or a similar one doesn’t mean you did anything wrong or could have avoided it. In many cases, the bots attach themselves to reputable web sites, whose IT departments simply can’t keep up with all of the threats, unless they’re a bank or something. “It’s a huge challenge,” Randall said. The bad guys almost always are outside of the United States, Randall said, so it makes legal intervention very difficult.

The good news, he said: 99.9 percent of the time, the threats are empty and the fraudsters don’t really have access to your computer or the ability to wipe it out. If you simply ignore the request to pay a ransom of $399 or whatever, nothing bad will happen. The scam is profitable, though, because enough people fall for it, he said, adding, “It’s a numbers game.”

There are three things you can do AHEAD OF TIME that can help you if you do encounter a problem:

Install tools on your computer that will help you if you’re afraid you’ve encountered a virus. MalwareBytes is a good one and it’s free, Randall said. You must do this before any problem occurs.Back up your data/photos/documents regularly onto an external hard drive.Identify a trusted and smart relative or friend who can walk you through resolving any problems you may have at some point. Someone who is a tech whiz is a good bet.

If you see a pop-up like this or anything that asks you to call a number or click on a link or go to a site because there’s a problem with your computer, here’s what Randall said you should do:

Don’t panic. Don’t call the number. Don’t click on anything. No matter what.Shut your computer off.Disconnect it from your network. Best bet, turn off your WiFi router.Run your MalwareBytes software or other trusted anti-malware program that was already installed on your computer. Don’t worry that you may not have the latest version. What you have should be enough to knock down most viruses and clean your computer in most cases, Randall said.Reboot your computer.If all looks good, reconnect to the internet and allow the latest version of MalwareBytes or the anti-malware software you’re using to update.Then re-run the software, and reboot the computer again. You should be back in business worry-free. If anything seems odd, don’t enter personal information into your computer until you consult with someone knowledgeable.

Randall concluded with this advice about scary pop-up alerts: “There is not a legitimate organization that operates this way. It’s always bad.”

Q: I read your article about the pop-up computer scam. This happened to me about a week ago. I thought it seemed very suspicious so I took a picture of it and shut down my computer. I have not seen it since. Picture attached.

M.M., Fairview Park

A: Thanks for sending it along. I’ve included it with this column.

Q: Regarding internet scams, I wanted to share a recent experience. I use the internet for consulting, so I panicked when a pop-up screen appeared, informing me that my Mac was compromised. I could not get rid of it by shutting down the computer, and it reappeared after the computer was unplugged and re-booted.

I called the number on the screen and was informed that my IP address was compromised and that I needed to have this remedied.  When I questioned the validity of the company, they reminded me that it was ME who called them, not a random robo call. They had what appeared to be valid answers for every question I asked, so I gave them access to my computer and a credit card number.

For some reason, after several minutes, I unplugged the computer and called Apple support.  They confirmed that it was indeed a scam, and walked me through a “repair” of the damage at no charge, eliminating the virus which had been downloaded. They also had me install MalwareBytes, an antivirus program as protection, and my credit card company refunded the charge. I am writing this note, because I am a retired physician who directed a regional medical department for a major Cleveland hospital. I consider myself a sophisticated cons umer. If this happened to me, I believe it could happen to anyone.

Initials withheld, Cleveland

A: Thanks for your email. As my former colleague Sheryl Harris (now director of consumer affairs for Cuyahoga County) often says, we have to remember these bad guys do this full time. Screwing us over is their job. They have come up with every right answer, every way possible to ease our skepticism, every reason why we need to do what they say right now. All of us may be plenty smart in our own ways but sometimes we don’t react quickly enough to a professional con-artist.

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