Thursday, 13 December 2012

Spotting Computer Scammers

I'm sure everyone has had the cold-call saying 'I am calling from Windows, your computer has a virus' or something very similar. Obviously not everyone is technically adept or highly computer literate, so I thought I'd put together this very simple (I hope :)) guide to spotting scammers of this type.  I've been involved in IT since studying for my O Levels in 1985, over six years in Internet Technical Support helping customers understand their problems, so hopefully I can do the same for you.

If you're not interested in the explanation feel free to skip down to the One Simple Rule at the bottom, however I hope you will persevere with the explanation.

I will only use two items of IT jargon, and will explain them before I begin.

ISP. Your Internet Service Provider is the company you pay for Internet access - in some cases such as Virginmedia, Sky and BT also for your telephone and TV services.  Only they have your contact details such as telephone number and postal address.

IP Address: This is a unique number assigned to your Internet connection by your ISP when you connect to the Internet.  This means if there is a problem of any kind your ISP and only your ISP can contact you to let you know.

That's the jargon out of the way :)

The Facts

  • The only way to trace any virus back to your computer is by the IP address.  However this will not identify you personally, only the ISP you are with.  Think of it like a postcode.. all that tells anyone on its own is what town you live in or near.
  • To identify you and your actual address is only possible if the request is made by a member of law enforcement, such as the Police or a solicitor, to your ISP and must be in relation to a criminal investigation for which there will be a warrant.
[Addendum: 20.12.12: I have just taken a scam call who asked to speak to me by name.  When I pointed out the only company who could legally link my IP address to me personally he hung up.  It seems they are using a - presumably stolen - database of names and telephone numbers.]

The Signs

Ways to tell immediately that the person is a scammer:
  • Empty phone line before they speak.  Generally the call connecting to one of their staff abroad.
  • Calling 'from Windows'.  Windows is a product not a company.  There are teams within Microsoft, which is the company, who work on Windows, but they have nothing to do with consumers.  Ever.
  • Calling from Microsoft.  Microsoft will never call you.  They have no interest in individuals who may or may not have viruses on their computers.  It's not their problem.
  • Wrong terminology.  Computers get viruses, worms or Trojans.  They do not get germs - as I explained to the person who made the mistake of waking me up at 0800 this morning to try and scam me.  Bad mistake - I was tired..
  • Ask what ISP you are with.  As above they cannot have obtained your telephone number anywhere other than your ISP in this instance.  They won't know who it is.. another clear indicator - as if you needed one - that it's a scam.
  • Ask how they obtained your number.  They can only have obtained it from your ISP (which we've just shown they don't know).

In a nutshell, if someone telephones you and says your computer has a virus, and they are not from your ISP they are lyingFact.

Another Fact.  Your ISP will not ring you about this kind of issue.  They have far more to do than telephone individual customers about possible viruses.  If you consider an ISP with a million customers, and only 10% had viruses that's still 100,000 people they'd have to call.  That is a pointless waste of time and resources.  ISPs don't do it for that very reason.  You may conceivably get an email from them if there is a really serious problem, but if you do I would urge you to telephone them on a number you know, not one from the email, to confirm it's not another type of scam.

I have only ever been contacted regarding a perceived problem with my Internet connection by my ISP once in the 17 years I have been online, and that was by email.  Never by phone.

One Simple Rule.  There is no direct path between your computer's Internet connection and your telephone number, therefore anyone - other than your ISP who won't - who telephones you about problems with your computer is a liar.


  1. Good post and worthy of a read from the not so computer literate!

    I actually know a person whose computer was ruined by this scam. The sad thing is he then got done again.


  2. Thanks Julian,

    Although I sort of know most of that it is a very good and clear explanation that should be provided free with every computer and/or broadband connection.

    I often tell them that either they are lying to me or their employer is lying to them.