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'Trust your instincts': Local computer experts warn against phishing scams

Padraic Morton stands in front of his business Computer Concierge in downtown Hudson. Morton said he has seen a rise in reports of virus scams. File photo1 / 2
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Over the past couple of months, Reubin Herfindahl has seen numbers of people coming into his computer repair shop, Digital Brigade, increase dramatically.

Herfindahl said up until recently, he'd see one or two people reporting so-called "Call this number, you have a virus" phishing scams each week. A few weeks ago, he had a dozen customers who had problems related to such a scam. He said numbers have stayed similar.

Herfindahl said the "Call this number, you have a virus" phishing scam starts with a phony webpage.

"Somebody opens up a webpage, and it locks their browser on their computer up," Herfindahl said. "It says you have a virus, you're at risk, please call this phone number to unlock your computer."

The message often threatens that people's data will be erased, or makes a similar threat.

Padraic Morton, of Computer Concierge repair shop in Hudson, said he's also seen an increase in people falling for such phishing scams.

"That is actually on the rise," he said. "In the past couple months, I've seen a significant incase of it."

Joseph Kmiech of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Division of Technological Services (DoTS) said with most of the college students just returning now, there hasn't been much of an increase in phishing scams reported on campus lately. But, he said overall it's a common problem these days.

Derek Williams of Home Town PC repair in Prescott said he hasn't seen an increase in incidents of this particular phishing scam.

"It's been happening for the last 3.5 years," he said. "I've been educating all my customers about this for awhile."

He said he sees scams like this once or twice each month.

Blake Munthe, New Richmond Computers (258 S Knowles Ave, New Richmond) said: "We get a lot of calls about scams pretty much all the time. Basically if they are asking for money, especially money orders through Walmart, it is a scam."

The scam

The scam is actually a simple one, Morton said.

Here's how it happens: Scammers set up a website that includes code that doesn't allow computer users to close their browser the usual way. It may include a bunch of pop up windows that keep opening on the computer screen, Morton said.

The screen that comes up often is designed to look like a Microsoft or Apple page, and often includes alarm type noises, and brightly-colored warning signs.

The screen tells the person who's found this site that their computer has a virus, and they should call a certain phone number.

If someone calls the number on the screen, the scammers will usually ask for $300-$400 to "fix" the computer.

However, at this point, Morton and Herfindahl said, there is most likely nothing wrong with the computer.

The scammers usually want to do a screen connection so they can "fix" the computer, after they're paid by the victim.

Both Morton and Herfindahl said that this is the point at which any viruses or malware would likely be installed on the machine.

What to do

If a person happens upon a "Call this number, your computer has a virus" website, Morton, Herfindahl and Kmiech said, don't panic. And definitely do not call the number on the screen.

The easiest thing to do, they said, is just to turn off the computer. Press down and hold the power button, then restart your computer.

If your web browser asks you if you'd like to restore the webpage, they said, click "no."

Another option is clicking "Ctrl+Alt+Delete" on a PC to get to the task manager screen, then selecting your web browser, right-clicking and selecting "end program."

You can also use "Force Quit" on a Mac.

Morton and Herfindahl recommended running a virus scan at that point.

If someone clicked on anything on the scam site, or called the number, Morton and Herfindahl recommended taking the computer to get checked out. Both said they perform virus scans for free.

'Trust your instincts'

If you do happen to call that number or find yourself victim to any such scam, River Falls Police Investigator Jennifer Knutson said don't be embarrassed to call the police department.

She said she hasn't seen an increase in numbers of "Call this number, you have a virus" scams lately. But different types of scams are reported weekly to the RFPD.

"Some are phone calls, some come in the mail, some through email," Knutson said. "Thankfully most people don't fall victim to them, but there are a few who do and usually the effects are embarrassing, costly, and disheartening. My advice: Be aware! If it sounds too good to be true, it is! Trust your instincts."

Hudson Police Chief Marty Jensen said neither he nor his staff has seen any "Call this number, you have a virus" scams reported lately.

New Richmond Police Chief Craig Yehlik also said he hasn't heard any reports of that scam in New Richmond, but said that doesn't mean it's not in the area.

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department has not seen any change in reported scams, accourding to Lt. Wade Strain. Strain said the department only gets occasional complaints.

"Our advice is to not open or respond to any emails in which you don’t know the sender or author of the query and don’t give personal identifying information," Strain said. 

The RFPD has been dealing with a different scam lately, Knutson said.

"Recently, the Police Department phone number is being used to call (people) and tell them that they owe money to the IRS and if this money is not paid, then the police will come and arrest them," she said. "People then call the number back and see it belongs to the Police Department and panic. The Police Department will never call asking for money. Neither will the IRS. These calls can be reported to the Police Department."

Yehlik said New Richmond police have heard reports of a similar scam in their area.

It's always a good idea to report any scam, Knutson said, whether you fall for it or not. She said scams can be reported to your local police department.

Scam safety

Knutson offered some advice for keeping safe from scams.

"Do not give personal information out over the phone," she said. "Research! If it sounds fishy, it probably is! Ask questions. Keep account information and passwords private. Contact the Police Department if you have been a victim. Do not be embarrassed and not call."

Kmiech said DoTS holds cyber security awareness events on campus, particularly in October, which is Cybersecurity Awareness month.

He recommended anyone looking to learn more about cyber security and avoiding online phishing scams visit stopthinkconnect.org.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(715) 426-1048
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