On Friday morning, I got a phone call that initially I took to be a computer sales call. The person who rang had to my British ears a strong accent – and a familiar one: my workplace computer used to be a Dell, and by the end of its working life I was making a lot of calls to Dell Support Helpdesk. A lot of work in the US IT industry is outsourced to India.
The man asked me if my name was Mrs EdinburghEye, and I said it was, because I never argue with call centre staff about using Ms.
Then he asked me if I had a desktop computer, and – confirmed in my belief that this was a sales call – I asked him who he worked for.
“Windows,” he said. “Do you have a desktop computer?”
“Windows?” That was my first clue that this wasn’t a normal sales call. Microsoft don’t need to employ call centre staff to aggressively market Windows. “Are you claiming to be calling from Microsoft?”
“I am calling from Windows,” the man said. (I don’t think what I said was fitting into his script. From now on, he sounded slightly hesitant, as if he was trying to find a line that fitted.)
“Where did you get my number?”
“From our research and development department,” the man said.
What? again. “Who is your employer?”
I think you could fairly call my tone of voice at this point a snarl. I was about to leave for work when the phone rang, sales calls irritate me, I do try not to take this out on hapless call centre staff, but this man had obviously been scripted not to say who his employer was, which meant (I thought) it was undoubtedly some firm I wouldn’t take a computer from if they paid me –
And there was a pause. And a click as the man put the phone down.
I thought, well, he won’t last long in sales if his reaction to an annoyed customer is to put the phone down on her. And I went to work.
But on Saturday morning I discovered that this wasn’t a sales call, or not the usual sort.
The scam always starts the same way: the phone rings at someone’s home, and the caller – usually with an Indian accent – asks for the householder, quoting their name and address before saying “I’m calling from Microsoft. We’ve had a report from your internet service provider of serious virus problems from your computer.”
Except I didn’t follow the script. If I had, I would have been directed to go to my computer, open “Windows Event Viewer”, told that there were various “critical” problems on my computer that the man from Microsoft was calling me to fix… and directed to download software which would give the source of this scam control over my computer. For which I would then be charged a fee of £185. And my computer would belong to the scammers.
For years a standard spam tactic has been to claim that they have scanned your computer and discovered you are hosting viruses (or something else unpleasant) and you should click on this link to download software protection or to clean your hard drive. This seems to be just another variation, except that the spammer is doing it by phone.
The advantage of email scams has always been that the cost of sending out an email is zero – so a spammer can send a billion emails and if even 0.0001% of them fool people that’s still a thousand victims to be played. Phone calls have a cost – no matter how little the call centre employee is getting paid. But perhaps people are by now so wary of spam, the non-zero cost of a phone call is made worthwhile by a higher rate of success. Apparently this particular scam has been going on since 2008, expanding since 2010 when the scammer started doing well enough to afford call centres:
Investigators who have spoken to the Guardian on condition of anonymity say that one man, based in the city of Kota in Rajasthan, is behind the centres running the scams.
He has provided fake documentation to a number of payment companies including PayPal and Alertpay, a Montreal-based online payment company, to set up accounts which route money to a bank account in Kota with Axis Bank.
Though people on dozens of web forums have recorded their experiences with the scammers, police and trading standards officers in the UK are powerless to stop them.