Fake Microsoft help line can fool even 'computer literate'

Jim Musson lost $648.50 while believing he was getting help from Microsoft support.

An Edmonton couple says they were scammed out of more than $600 by a call centre in India pretending to be a help line for software giant Microsoft.

Jim Musson, 80, and his wife Alice Musson, 75, of Edmonton, have had to cancel their credit cards, close their bank accounts and change all their passwords.

“This took me off-guard because I thought I was talking to Microsoft,” said Jim Musson, a retired school principal.

“I thought I was on safe ground.”

The Mussons have both been computer-users since the 1980s.

They own two iMac desktop computers, using them for research, emailing, and banking.

Jim Musson said he has even published books using his Mac.

“I’m computer literate, but I do not know the technical aspect of computers,” Musson said.

Musson was looking for help with Microsoft Entourage, an email and personal information management program for Macintosh computers.

Musson used Google to search “Microsoft Help”, and called the toll-free number for the first search result, which had “microsoft-support” in both its link and address bar, or URL.

The agent, who gave his name as “Alex”, asked for permission to remotely access Musson’s computer.

“He asked if he could help me,” Musson said. “He was very polite. He had an East Indian accent, but I didn’t think anything of that because some of the best technologists in the world come from India.”

The company Musson called was actually not Microsoft but a separate company, V tech-squad, with addresses in Palo Alto, Calif., and Gurgaon, India.

Alice Musson was listening on the line as her husband is nearly deaf.

“Jim kept asking him, ‘Are you with Microsoft?’ and he said. ‘Yes. Yes, yes.’”

Once he was connected however, the agent didn’t deal with the Mussons’ email question, but instead began showing them administration tools and logs within the operating system.

He highlighted dozens of lines of warnings he said were proof the computer was infected by powerful viruses.

“And we believed that. We believed we had been hacked … and he said, ‘We’ll fix that.’”

The agent said he would need to run special software that would cost “five ninety-nine.”

Alice Musson gave him his MasterCard number thinking the cost was $5.99.

“But then he said, ‘$599.’”

“I said I’m not doing this,” she said. “I just didn’t want anything to do with it.”

The Mussons say they told the agent they wanted to stop the transaction and investigate who they were dealing with, but that he kept talking fast about the dangers their computer was facing.

They hung up and called MasterCard to cancel their card and also advised ATB Financial whom they say advised them to close all their accounts, open news ones, and change their passwords.

Several hours later Jim Musson noticed the remote connection was still active and someone was exploring his wife’s computer.

He unplugged it and took to an Apple dealer who said the computer was virus-free.

Musson said V tech-squad are scammers.

“They are not only a danger to me and Alice they are a danger to a lot of people who have complained,” he said.

Go Public took the Mussons’ story to CBC web developer Michael Leschart.

Leschart said the demonstration the V tech-squad agent used to claim the computer was infected was effective, but fraudulent.

“Somebody has put a bit of work into finding normal things present in every computer that have the appearance of looking scary,” he said.

Leschart showed Go Public how easy it is to probe deeper into the operating system of a healthy computer and find scores of red and “critical” warnings with exclamation marks and “foreign address” network connections.

In fact, Leschart said, these messages are usually just benign logs, but because most users have never seen them before, scammers can say they are proof the computer is infected, or that someone in China or Russia is accessing the computer’s files.

“At any given time your computer will have a number of connections to foreign computers when it’s downloading email or software updates,” Leschart said.

“(They’re) using something that’s present on most computers … and making it seem like it’s a big problem that needs taking care of.”

Leschart said it’s a sophisticated deception.

“The people you are talking to are very practised in getting people to believe them and getting people to believe they’re with a reputable company.

“You have to admit in one sense, it’s kind of creative. But it is definitely fraud and it definitely unethical.”

In an email, V tech-squad CEO Manish Sharma says the Mussons purchased a $599.99 “family plan” for tech support and that the company has written confirmation the Mussons’ technical issue was resolved.

“We do not advertise ourselves as ‘Microsoft Support,” Sharma wrote.

“On our pages we clearly state ourselves as third-party support providers and have no affiliation to anyone. We are registered partners of Microsoft and we are not wrong in claiming that.”

“We would be happy (to) refund the customer if the customer so desires.”

The Mussons said they will take Sharma up on his offer, but in the meantime are trying to get back the $648.50 V tech-squad charged to their MasterCard.

In an email, ATB spokesman Barry Strader said V tech-squad has up to 90 days to respond, and if the company can show it provided a service as outlined in a contract, the Mussons will not get a refund.

“These rules were put in place to protect both credit card customers and vendors,” Strader wrote.

“We do get dispute claims like these on a regular basis and we owe it to customers and vendors to conduct a thorough investigation. In many cases, it comes down to one person’s word against another.”

Go Public asked Microsoft for comment but a Microsoft spokeswoman would only say the company encourages “customers to be wary of tech-support scams.”

Jim Musson says he never thought of himself as a vulnerable senior because he was such an experienced computer user.

It makes one feel extremely vulnerable Every night before I go to bed I pull the plugs out of the computers.”

“I am embarrassed. I am humiliated because I fell for a scam. My only defence is that these guys are clever enough to get into the Pentagon.”