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Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts

Security researcher turns the tables on a caller peddling fake fixes for malware supposedly infecting his Windows PC.

11 Security Sights Seen Only At Black Hat
11 Security Sights Seen Only At Black Hat
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Have you ever picked up the phone to hear the following: "I'm calling from Microsoft. We've had a report from your Internet service provider of serious virus problems from your computer"? Of course the caller offers to help, offering a free scan, which invariably leads to warnings over mass malware infections, and the offer of paid technical support to assist.

Security professionals know to steer clear of such scams. Since they persist, scammers are apparently tricking sufficient numbers of consumers into forking over their cash--$250 or more, in some cases--to fix the virus infections identified by the caller's in-house technicians. Windows phone scams--targeting PC owners--appear to have begun in earnest in 2008, and been on the rise ever since, according to the Guardian. Meanwhile, their popularity is fueled by "the availability of cheap phone calls and labor in countries like India," according to Which?, a U.K. consumer rights group.

To fight back, many people try to tie up the cold callers on the phone for as long as possible, or even provide them with fake credit card numbers. But after receiving repeat calls, one malware researcher decided to see what exactly the scammers were doing by granting them access to his virtual test machines, which he used to record their activities. "The goal was to find out who they were and exactly what the scam was. Luckily I was able to get hold of information such as their internal IP addresses, the PayPal accounts used to wire money, and the numbers they are calling from," said Kaspersky Lab security researcher David Jacoby in a blog post.

[ Don't risk legal troubles to fight cybercrime. See Strike Back At Hackers? Get A Lawyer. ]

Here are seven facts he learned about the scams.

1. Caller Claims To Be With Microsoft
Microsoft support scams are a type of social engineering attack, which succeeds not through attackers' technical sophistication, but rather by tricking people via smooth talking and playing on their fears. In Jacoby's case, he said the caller pretended to be from a department--non-existent, by the way--at Microsoft that was following up indications that his computer was either broken or had been infected by malware.

2. Windows Errors Easy To Find
To make the case that his PC showed signs of malware infection, Jacoby said the woman who called him instructed him to open the Windows Event Manager, so that he could see numerous error messages which she said indicated that his system had been compromised. "The event viewer does show error messages, but not directly related to an infection," said Jacoby. "Almost all computers have errors in the log files, especially if the computer has not been re-installed lately and is running a lot of programs."

3. Windows Processes Used For Sleight Of Hand
Jacoby said the scammer then instructed him to execute a DOS command to reveal the system's unique ID and allow her to verify that it was referencing the correct--infected--system. The caller then read out the license ID, and asked Jacoby if it matched the ID he was seeing on his screen. It did, but that was because the DOS command he'd run revealed the ID for a file extension that ships on all Windows PCs. The caller then instructed him to run the "verify" DOS command to see if his Windows license could be verified, and said that an "off" setting--which Jacoby saw--would indicate that the license couldn't be verified. But in reality, this setting is only used to "enable/disable operating system verification that data has been written to disc correctly," he said, and has nothing to do with the Windows license.

4. Scammers Wield Drama
But after the second DOS command returned an "off" response, Jacoby said the caller began "screaming 'oh my god!' in my ear, she was super upset that my license was not verified; according to her this meant that no security patches could be installed." After recommending that Jacoby allow her technician to directly access his PC, he agreed. "I was running everything in an empty virtual machine," he said, and found that the organization offering to repair his PC was using free--and on its own, legitimate--remote-administration software known as AMMYY.

5. Remote Access Scans Trigger Falsehoods
While he was still on the phone with the caller, Jacoby watched as the remote access tool administrator--on his PC screen--opened an old certificate, which said that it dated from 2011. At this point, the woman who had called him claimed that his PC hadn't been updated since 2011, and told him that he needed "to install security software which will protect me against viruses, malware, Trojans, hackers, and other things." He agreed, and watched as an application ("G2AX_customer_downloader_win32_x86") was installed and run on his PC, which indicated that he had "successfully updated the software license for lifetime."

6. Social Engineering Tricks The Scammers
After the supposed fix, and with the caller still on the line, Jacoby was given a PayPal account into which he was supposed to pay $250. When the fake credit card data that he supplied to the caller didn't work, he asked the caller to browse to a website where his friend, he said, had left credit card data in plain text. After the caller browsed there, he captured her IP address, disconnected the call, and reviewed which phone numbers the caller had used. "After collecting all the information, I have now contacted all the appropriate people, such as the security team at PayPal [and] various law enforcement agencies with the hope that we can stop these people," said Jacoby.

7. Scammers Avoid Attack Software
To recap, the Microsoft Windows malware phone scam succeeds in part because it's a social engineering attack: Callers tell Windows owners to input a few commands into their PC, then "interpret" the results to highlight how the system is infected with malware. Furthermore, the remote-access tool used by scammers typically doesn't trip any security alarm bells, because such tools can be used for benign purposes, such as actual customer support. "The software that they were using was not malicious in any way, which means that no security software can detect these types of scams," he said.

Jacoby, of course, had a test machine at the ready, which was devoid of any sensitive information. The average business users or consumers, however, typically have some type of sensitive data stored on their PC. In other words: don't try this type of security research at home. "If you ever get a call 'from Microsoft' stating that there are some indications that your computer is broken or infected--please hang up," he said.

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Mnad
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Mnad,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/19/2013 | 11:18:17 AM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
I had a similar call - not my first. This time I decided to play along. I sat without any computer, but answered his questions as if I did. When he tried to have me bring up the run command, and tell him what I saw there, I said it says "This page is unavailable." He was confused, but tried to help me work through it. He had me bring up the IE window, and directed me to type in the address bar, "www.t(as in Tom)e(as in Edward)" etc., to bring up TeamViewer.com, then push enter and tell him what I saw. I said "This page cannot be found". They passed me between supervisors, and for the last two, I said I saw these letters: y(as in yes) o(as in owl) etc. I asked him what he thought that could mean? He was silent a minute and then read, "You are an idiot?" I said "That's right. Why don't you guys stop doing these things to people's computers, and go and get a real job!".
He was still silent, so Ijust hung up.
orienb
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orienb,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/1/2013 | 7:32:23 PM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
I was phoned today and informed that my INTEL had malware. The caller convinced me to allow him access to my computer after showing me that my computer had errors and warnings. I became more and more suspicious when he asked me to purchase protection. I ended the call saying I had to leave for work. We were connected for 30 minutes, and a malware program was installed. I unistalled it right away after disconnecting and restarting my computer. Do you think my files have been compromised? Do you have any advice for me?
MPSS
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MPSS,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2013 | 1:34:51 AM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
I got a similar call today.....I figured it was what it was ...A scam......So I thought I would have a bit of fun with this Indian guy who barely spoke understandable English. Having been born and raised in Latin America (I also had lived in India for a while) I decided that I would continue my conversation in my equally barely understandable Latino/ English (acted) accent, I asked how he was able to get my home phone number which by the way I was asked to repeat about three times because he had difficulty understanding MY accent he responded saying some gibberish BS that my URL that had appeared on his server and my phone number was attached to it ..(Again his answer was finally understood after having to repeat his question veeery slowly a couple of times).....Then he proceeded to ask if my computer was a Mac or Windows...( not OS) ....This poor idiot's English accent was so bad it was laughable and then of course purposely so was mine......... Sooo after about five minutes of this parody of both asking each other to repeat what we were trying to say to each other .....He hung up so I won out.......
MHHS
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MHHS,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/19/2013 | 12:57:10 PM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
i just received a call from the Indian, saying called from Microsoft and wanted to check any if my computer has crush or anything. she explain all, and manipulate my computer, finally ask me to buy this and that. so Shit she turn off all my firewall, install the team viewer and advance system care and show me the computer scan and problem found and keep saying "o my god". then i said if i have more than a computer might go for the life time cost me 499 dollar. bu ti need to ask my family. i try to turn of the team viewer and she keep putting the cursor away. at last i hung up and check the scam online, phew..............i'm so close.
she said she is going to call back tomorrow for my answer. ooo man if we can do any thing to get these people hung.
Tom LaSusa
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Tom LaSusa,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/11/2013 | 5:37:24 PM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
Same here Joey. I got a call on Friday. I knew instantly it was the scam, but I went along with it for a few minutes to see how far I could take it. I finally said "You do realize I know this is one of those scam calls right?" The guy laughed and said "Oh you are a clever (censored)." And added a few more colorful metaphors before hanging up.

They're a classy bunch, yessir!

Tom LaSusa
InformationWeek Community Manager
Joeyzbrown
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Joeyzbrown,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/10/2013 | 3:24:13 AM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
I too got a call from a company in India. When I told them to take me off their "list", the man called me a "son of a b***h" and I should go f*** my mom.
Mathew
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Mathew,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/14/2013 | 10:33:54 AM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
Hi Glenda -- Great approach, and here's hoping your efforts help the authorities track the scammers down.
Best,
Mathew
Glenda
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Glenda,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/12/2013 | 9:25:28 PM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
I live in Toronto, Canada. I just received a call exactly how it was described in this article. I told them I didn't have time to stay on the phone and if I could call them back. They gave me a phone # 416-915-3536. I then called back and when I asked more questions they hang up on me. Next step is to report it to the authorities.
GmaCarol
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GmaCarol,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2012 | 1:01:24 AM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
I received a call last week and basically hung up. I received another call tonight and it made me wonder if this really was a scam. I kept asking him how I could be sure this wasn't some scam.I asked him to give me information that he couldn't supply. He kept telling me I needed to hold down the windows key and ther "r" key at the same time. I wouldn't do it and he became extremely rude saying he was just doing his job trying to help me. He finally yelled at me and said if Ididn't want his help then he would just let me continue to have problems with my computer. I told him I wasn't having any problems. He finally hung up on me.
Wideawake
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Wideawake,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/10/2012 | 12:36:52 PM
re: Microsoft Windows Support Call Scams: 7 Facts
I just had a call from 'John Miller' who claimed to be from Microsoft and warned me of all the dangerous threats etc on my PC. He sounded very Indian and I kept him busy for at least 25 minutes. While he was talking , I decided to Google 'Windows 7 scam' . I decided to let him waste more of his time and after a while I started laughing out loud. I told him 'Nice try' AND then hung up.
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