CREATED Nov 15, 2012
Reporter: Kevin Keen
TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Pictures of your children, videos of their birthdays, bank statements and tax returns. They’re all files on your home computer that are important to you.
Now imagine an online crook taking it all from you and holding it for ransom. It’s a 21st century threat, and victims in Tucson don’t want you to also fall for it.
For Robert Nelson and George DuVall, it started with a phone call. The caller claimed he was from Microsoft.
In separate phone calls, the man told Nelson and DuVall -- who don't know each other -- that their computers were infected with viruses. At first, they were skeptical.
“I said, ‘Well, how do I know you're from Microsoft?'” Nelson explained to 9 On Your Side. “He seemed shocked. He said, 'Well,' he says, 'How would I know that computer is sending viruses and stuff if I wasn't from Microsoft?'”
Nelson ultimately believed the caller. Duvall did, too.
“I just went along with it like a puppy being led to the slaughter, I guess,” DuVall said. “That was just: follow instructions and I will.”
The man's instructions led both Tucsonans to turn on their computers and type in a special code, which allowed the caller to take control of their computers from afar.
“Pretty soon, he says, “It's really infected,’” Nelson said. “He said, 'You've got all kinds of viruses on there.'”
In both cases, the man on the line said he'd clean it all up if the victim paid up. The price: $199 for an immediate fix plus one year of protection or $399 for a fix and three years. The exact prices varied in each call.
“I mentioned the fact, 'Well, I'll just take it down to the gentleman that repairs my computer for me,’” DuVall said. “They told me -- ensured me -- 'No, someone else couldn't fix this.' They had to fix it.”
Nelson also said no. Both said the caller, increasingly rude, made it clear: If they did not pay for repairs right now, their computers would never work again. Their pictures, videos, documents and bank files would disappear.
“They were holding my computer hostage more or less for a ransom,” DuVall said. “Unless I paid that money, they wouldn't fix it.”
Both men hung up. Duvall's computer stopped working. It never had a password before and now it did. The caller had created one and DuVall couldn't log in.
Both men called professionals for help.
“A lot of people bring their computers to us and say, 'Our computer's been hijacked!’” said Gary Pierce, owner of Western Communications in Tucson.
Pierce confirmed: This is a scam. He said the caller is not from Microsoft, but is a slick scammer running a sophisticated operation.
Pierce explained it all starts when you click on a link in an unknown email or web page. That downloads a virus, and the bug searches your computer for your phone number. Then, the scammer calls the person and tries to get them to give up control of your computer and make you pay a ransom get it back.
“When they try to do this, it's basically coming in to your home and saying, with a gun, 'I want your money,’” Pierce said. “It’s like the pirates that are off of Somalia. They get the ship. They say, 'You want your ship back, you gotta pay us.'”
Luckily, Nelson and DuVall didn't pay a penny.
Pierce said customers first started coming in with this problem -- which some call "ransomware" -- about six months ago.
“It's becoming more active right now,” he said. “There are more people that are coming to us.”
A dozen people have come in and he's able to help.
Microsoft is well aware scammers are using its name. The company wrote to 9 On Your Side: "Our advice is simple; treat callers as you would treat strangers in the street - do not disclose personal or sensitive information to anyone you do not know."
Nelson and DuVall ended up paying around $100 each to have their computers repaired. They feel scammed, but at least they can laugh about it.
“I'm more mad at myself than anybody else,” Nelson said.
“There's a sucker born every minute,” DuVall laughed. “I hate to think, 'Well, I was one of those suckers.' But I guess I was.”
Microsoft stated it does not cold call customers and people should be wary of anyone claiming to work for the company unless they’re expecting the call. If someone tries to charge you for a service, Microsoft recommends just hanging up. Western Communications also recommends you use antivirus software and make sure it's working.
Microsoft lists more advice on its website.
The advice may seem obvious to you, but 9 On Your Side’s recommendation is to make sure everyone in your house -- including children and the elderly -- know it.
Microsoft wouldn't say how it plans to combat the problem. Western Communications said Microsoft is trying to track down the scammers -- who are likely overseas -- using its anti-virus software.