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KELLNER: Avoiding high-priced ‘anti-virus’ scam

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A reader in Chantilly received a bit of a shock about three weeks ago, and then got what nearly became a very expensive online education. One of the latest scams, or rip-offs if you prefer, to hit computer users via the Internet is an "anti-virus" scam, where slick operators promise to fix your computer online, and maintain it for two years, all for the "low" price of just under $270.

The reader, who asked that his name not be used, was charged just one cent under that figure, $269.99 to be precise. Given that good anti-virus software for Windows-based PCs can be had for as little as $8.99 at Amazon.com and generally for not more than $40, the price this reader was charged ranged between roughly seven and 30 times what they should have paid.

The incident started innocently enough: the reader was ending a Windows work session, and the program indicated there were updates to download. The reader let this go on overnight, returning to the computer the next morning. On firing up Internet Explorer, Microsoft Corp.'s popular Web browser, the reader noticed something was different.

"I noticed that the address bar and the other tool bars at the top would go away when the arrow was moved away from the top, thus making the screen slightly larger," the Chantilly reader later wrote. "This started becoming very annoying after awhile, particularly, because some of the material was not coming back. And it was time consuming."

The reader then called "a number I thought was [Microsoft Corp.'s] tech support," which he said was obtained via a Google search.

He added, "They talked me into letting them on my computer. They brought up a page that said I had over 56,000 error messages and that told them that my computer was in terrible shape and even if I bought a new computer, the same mess would come through my Internet service and infect a new computer."

By this point, the reader suspected something was amiss. He called Visa to dispute the charge, called the high-priced vendor - which I'll not name since they deserve to be ignored - and was told the charge would be canceled. After contacting me, he had the proper number for Microsoft Corp., and spoke with someone who helped him out.

However, while things seem to have ended well for the Northern Virginia reader, the problem of various fake "anti-virus" scams is on the rise, said Richard Clooke of PC Tools, a global anti-virus software firm headquartered in Shannon, Ireland.

"It's probably, from what we're seeing, one of the most prevalent new forms of malware that's coming across our users' PCs," Mr. Clooke said in a telephone interview. There are "up to 11,000 [Internet] domains involved in fake anti-virus distribution," he added.

Moreover, "if someone is not particularly tech savvy ... you can persuade them to provide a remote connection to your PC, you can show them something is wrong, and then gather their credit card data," Mr. Clooke said.

That might be for the initial, high-priced "service," or it might be for something more nefarious: Along with selling your credit card information on the black market, he said, "they can also take your logins, passwords, email addresses and other personal information from the victim as well as the victim's contacts."

Mr. Clooke said, "This data can rack up significant revenues, including selling this information to other cybercrooks."

A request to Microsoft Corp.'s public relations agency for comment from the operating system publisher yielded no immediate response Wednesday.

How can users stay safe? The first thing is to have genuine, verified, up-to-date anti-virus software, Mr. Clooke says. Of course, he wants you to buy PC Tools, but firms such as Symantec Corp.'s Norton brand, McAfee, Kaspersky and Trend Micro - among others - are reliable firms whose products are in wide use.

Next, keep your Microsoft Windows updated regularly. Most of the latest versions of Windows - Vista and Windows 7 - have automatic updating: set these for regular updates, automatic ones if possible. It's vital to update your Web browser, too, and to do so regularly.

Also, Mr. Clooke said, "If you get a pop-up [window] alert or email saying 'You're not protected' or 'Click here to update your AV security,' don't click. Never open up emails from unknown parties or type in your [personal] information in pop-ups."

In short, use a healthy dose of common sense when operating your computer, especially when connected to the Internet. And if something either sounds too good to be true, or too expensive to be realistic - run, don't walk, away.

• E-mail mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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