I did a little more digging after getting yet another fake technical support phone call last week, and I’ve done some thinking on my own. If you want to troll these criminals when they call you, here are some ideas.
Try to get a phone number. The next time they call, I’m going to pretend I’ve been trying to call them. “Great, I’m glad you finally called me back. Hey, listen, my buddies and I have a lot of computer problems, you know, so I’d really like to have a reliable number to reach you at because I’m sure a lot of my buddies will be calling you a lot. I tried calling, let’s see, let’s see, 800-642-7676. That’s not the best number to reach you at, is it?”
Play dumb. Tell the guy the know-nothing technicians at work tell you not to open strange e-mail attachments or go to gambling sites, but that takes all the fun out of your computer, and you bought your computer to have fun. So you open everything that people e-mail you, and you click on every ad that you see because you’re curious what’s going to happen. Oh, and you don’t believe in antivirus software either, because it makes your computer really slow. You know, because you tried it.
Fire up a really old computer if you have one. The overwhelming majority of the things they try to have you do won’t work on a Windows 95 or 98 computer, so if your old Windows 98 box is still sitting in the basement for sentimental reasons, start it up. You’ll frustrate them for quite a while when they can’t figure out how to bring up Event Viewer or Services, because Windows 9x didn’t have that functionality.
Stump them. Here are a couple of easy problems that you can stump them with to prove they know less about computers than my preschooler. Take all of the RAM out of a junker computer and keep it handy. Power it up when they call and you say you need to start your computer up. When the computer powers on, all it will do is beep at you to tell you it can’t find any memory. A real computer technician can diagnose that problem in seconds. If you don’t want to do that, tell the caller when you power up the computer, you get a black screen that says “Missing Operating System” in gray text at the top.
Either of these simple problems will probably get you transferred to a “senior technician” who also won’t have any idea what to do with these problems, since you actually have to finish reading Chapter 1 of a book on PC repair to know how to fix either of them. But you’ll tie up two of these criminals for a few minutes and you’ll force them to tell you that you need to take the computer to a store to get it fixed. Be sure to ask if you’re still going to need their services, because I’m sure that backpedaling will be entertaining.
If you let them connect to your computer, mess with them. I don’t recommend letting them connect to a computer that you care about, but if they want to connect to your computer to show you something, use a virtual machine or an old junker PC and be sure to maintain control by periodically unplugging the network cable. Make them explain what they’re about to do, and watch them closely. If it looks like they’re going to do something bad like delete files–if they type the word “del” at a command prompt, for example–unplug the cable again before they have a chance to hit enter. They won’t understand why their session keeps getting disconnected, and if you play the least bit dumb, they’ll think there really is something wrong with your computer rather than suspecting you. They’ll work it into their sales pitch, too.
Trace the call at the end, or at least make the threat. Tracing their call costs money, and getting AT&T to say how much money isn’t easy (as best I can tell it costs $10 in St. Louis), but if you’re feeling generous and want to help your fellow Americans, at the end of the call, dial *57. Then you call AT&T at 800.288.2020 to discuss your options. I also found links for the same service that Centurylink and Verizon provide. Cable companies also offer this service as part of their phone package; Charter charges $20, whether the trace is successful or not. If I haven’t listed your phone provider, a Google search on your provider name and “call trace” will likely turn up the details on the service available to you, perhaps with the associated price.
Even if you can’t afford to spend $10 each time these criminals call you, I suspect the threat of doing so may be effective. A year ago these criminals would honor my request to be put on a no-call list, but the last couple of times I’ve made that request, they’ve simply said they don’t care about U.S. laws in India. Perhaps if you tell them that you’re happy to punch *57 and spend $10 to trace their call and get the FBI and FTC investigating them, they’ll be more interested in making sure they don’t call you again. Remember, they’re calling to sell you dubious services that cost hundreds of dollars, so in their mind, $10 is nothing to you. The question is whether they think their lame caller ID spoofing is enough to defeat a phone trace. If you convey confidence that it’s not enough and that you know more about the phone system than they do (feel free to mention you know this guy named Dave who used to work for a phone company–I worked for Charter Communications for a few months), they’re going to be more inclined to doubt their dubious precautions. They called you to play on your fears; this is a chance to turn the tables and play on theirs.
And get on the no-call list. Many states have no-call lists and so does the Federal Government. Sign up for one or both of them to ensure they’re committing two crimes, and not just one. Then file a complaint at the appropriate web sites, and if you traced the call, be sure to note the time and date of the call, the name of your phone company, and that you successfully traced it.
Disregard their threats. These criminals can get extremely nasty when they feel threatened, and they may very well threaten to break your computer or to cancel your Windows license. When you’re done messing with them, unplug your network cable if you’ve allowed them to connect to your computer–and keep in mind that they cannot cancel your Windows license, and if they’re not connected to your computer, they can’t break your computer either. These criminals have some well-rehearsed lines designed to make themselves sound knowledgeable, but all they really know about computers are a handful of parlor tricks to scare you and a handful of parlor tricks to convince you that they’re actually fixing something. Everything they’ve ever said to me was technobabble, and everything I’ve ever read in online accounts of other people who’ve dealt with them is similar technobabble.
So stay confident. Calm and confident is even better, but these criminals will try to rile you up if you turn the tables on them. Set the phone down on the table for a second, walk away, and count backwards from 10 if you need to. If they make a threat, you can simply say something like, “That’s destruction of property. That’s a felony in Missouri, on top of the three other state and federal laws you’ve already violated by calling me and attempting to commit fraud, and the crimes you’ve committed by taking money from other people you’ve called. You think you can ruin my computer. I know I can ruin your life, so now would be a good time to re-think the choices you make.”
I can’t guarantee any of this will work, but you can probably string these guys along for 30 minutes and keep them from scamming one other person, which isn’t altogether a bad thing. And maybe, just maybe, if a couple of people star-fiftyseven them, we can end some careers.