Arzella “Sally” Moser is a retired banker in Hayward, Calif., who said she should’ve known better than to be sucked in by a tech support scam.
“I used to be a signature expert,” said Moser, 76. She helped to detect forgeries while working in the fraud division of what is now Chase bank.
Yet she and others — many of them elderly — are among a large number of people targeted by companies pushing a growing scam: bogus tech support. Microsoft said it received 153,000 reports last year from customers who “encountered or fell victim to tech support scams,” a 24 percent rise from the prior year.
Moser is among several Bay Area residents who recently shared their accounts of how they were targeted, while Microsoft and Mountain View-based cybersecurity firm Symantec described warning signs that a company or caller may not be on the level when offering online support services.
Moser and many others became victims of a scam whose accused perpetrator ran Hayward-based Genius Technologies. Parmjit Singh Brar, operator of Genius, reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in June. He must pay $136,000, although under the settlement he neither admits nor denies the allegations.
The FTC accused Brar of working with telemarketers to trick elderly Americans into buying fake tech support services. The telemarketers claimed to be from well-known tech companies and told people their computers were at risk, the FTC said in a June press release. Those who allowed remote access were charged money to get outdated security software installed on their computers, and their personal information was stolen, the FTC said.
The FTC settlement also bars Brar from operating tech support services again.
Brar’s attorney, Guyton Jinkerson, said he had no comment on the matter.
It’s unclear at this point whether Moser — who was scammed out of more than $3,500 by a few different companies — and other victims will get their money back. The FTC judgment was for $7.6 million, but it was partially suspended because of Brar’s inability to pay the full amount, according to the FTC.
“We are evaluating whether a refund program is feasible in this case,” said Juliana Gruenwald, an FTC spokeswoman.
Moser recounted how it all started for her. She got a phone call one morning not long after logging onto her computer to find a message that she had been hacked.
“They told me there was a Russian spammer who attacked my system,” she said. “Then they asked, ‘Do you do banking online? Hopefully they haven’t gotten to your banking. Give us $300 and we can correct this for you.’ ” After that first amount, which was charged to her credit card in 2015, her computer worked fine, she said.
Then she said she was shaken down again in 2016, and a couple more times last year. In April 2017, she wrote a $1,918 check to Genius Technologies and sent it to a Newark address.
A copy of her Genius Technologies paperwork shows that it even asked customers not to “allow anyone to access your computer on a call you receive.”
Eventually, Moser said she used her age to her advantage, telling the callers that she didn’t remember owing them money.
Another company she paid has been reported to the FTC at least a few times, according to documents obtained by this news organization as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. The FTC was careful to note that it has not necessarily verified all the complaints. The email address and phone number the company provided to Moser are unreachable and appear to no longer be in service. This news organization is withholding the name of that company because the complaints are unverified.
So, what should people do to avoid being scammed?
“If you think there’s a problem with your computer, take it to a friend or take it to a computer repair shop,” said Kevin Haley, director of product management for security response at Symantec. “It’s sort of like with your car. You have to find a mechanic you can trust.”
In addition, Symantec — which owns Norton antivirus and other security software — would never call a customer about a frozen computer, he said.
“Right there, 100 percent of those phone calls are scams,” Haley said.
The scams also take other forms: Last year, Symantec blocked 154 million phony messages suggesting a problem with users’ computers.
Louis Stephan of Concord, who’s 83, said he got a message that appeared to be from Microsoft when his computer froze up.
He called the number in the message and reached someone who offered him different tiers of “protection” for his computer. He said he eventually paid a total of $1,100 to EZFix Solution, at a San Diego address — which turns out to be residential. But his story has a happy ending: He barely lost any money.
“I told them I would tell the FTC,” Stephan said, when he asked for his money back. He said in the end, he only lost $35, the fee to put a stop payment on the check.
This news organization placed multiple calls to EZFix Solution. The first time, a technician would not divulge any details, including where he was based. The second and third times, somebody promised to call back with information about Stephan’s case but did not do so.
Microsoft said in a recent blog post that it would “never proactively reach out to you to provide unsolicited PC or technical support. Any communication we have with you must be initiated by you.”
Haley said scammers may not be “content with stealing your money. They want to do other things as well.” In some cases, thieves want to steal more information or use others’ computers to mine cryptocurrency.
Another Bay Area resident, Frank Cameron, said people who claimed to be Apple tech support asked him to buy thousands of dollars’ worth of Google Play gift cards so they could fix viruses that were supposedly on his Mac. Over three days in May, the 81-year-old Los Altos resident went to Walgreens, CVS, Whole Foods and Safeway to buy the cards. He then scratched off the back of the gift cards to reveal their codes and scanned them into his computer. Cameron lost a total of $7,400.
Since then, Cameron has refused to allow anyone to access his computer remotely. He said he is a retired electrical engineer who is “pretty experienced with a computer.”
“They were pros,” he said. When they called, the caller ID showed “Apple tech support” but had no name or number, he said.
Last fall, the Better Business Bureau warned against such scams, saying, “Don’t believe Caller ID.”
TIPS ABOUT TECH SUPPORT SCAMS
If you receive an unsolicited phone call or email about your computer, it is most likely a scam.
If you receive an unsolicited pop-up message on your computer, examine it closely and look for signs that it may be fake. They include misspellings and bad grammar, or poor-quality graphics and images.
Examine emails in the same way, because scammers may be trying to trick you into clicking on a link or opening a file.
Microsoft says its error messages and warnings never include a phone number.
Symantec, which makes Norton antivirus software, says it will call you only if you request a call.
Search online for the number you are asked to call. If other people have reported that number, it might come up as a suspected scam.
Search online for the address where you are asked to send a payment. If it is a house, you might want to think twice.
If you are tricked into giving someone remote access to your computer, change the passwords on your bank account and other accounts.
If you are scammed, contact your bank and the FTC, where you can file an online complaint. The Better Business Bureau also has a scam tracker.
Take notes and save paperwork, which could come in handy when you’re filing a complaint.
Sources: Symantec, Microsoft, Mercury News research