ETTRICK, Va. — A woman contacted the CBS 6 Problem Solvers after she paid scammers hundreds of dollars only to have them remotely install software that locked her computer unless she used a PIN they provided her. Top law enforcement officials are warning Virginians this is an example of a constantly growing trend of online scammers targeting individual users through personal means.
A few years ago, Florence Gaddis bought a turquoise HP laptop to surf the internet, check emails, and browse social media.
“I love my computer! Although, I don’t do much. I do Facebook and email and stuff like that,” Gaddis said.
Over the past few months, her computer has felt less and less like hers alone. Gaddis said she was on her laptop last year when a box popped up that said she had multiple viruses on her computer, and she needed to call a telephone number so that someone could remove them if she paid them $299 for three years of coverage.
“The man said they could clear the virus, and then they going to show me all these thousands of viruses. I said where I get all these viruses? I really don’t do nothing much on the computer,” Gaddis said. “So I went on and paid the $299.”
People continued to call about her computer over the intervening months, but Gaddis said in May 2019 they offered to refund her money because their business was closing. All Gaddis had to do was fill in an online banking form and send it online, which she said seemed odd.
“I said no, I’m not going to put my social security number. I’m not going to do this,” Gaddis said.
The operator put his supervisor on the phone, and the man said his name was “Ray Jackson,” according to Gaddis. She said the supervisors got aggressive after she once again declined to provide her banking information.
“He said well I’ll just cut your computer off and you won’t be able to log on for life and he did,” Gaddis said. “How is he going to lock my computer! This is my computer and he’s going to put his name down there!”
Since May, when Gaddis gets to the user log-in page, her password does not work, and the hint to reset it reads, “contact RAY JACKSON.” The only way she can log onto her laptop is to use a PIN number that “Ray Jackson” provided to her after their May conversation. When she logs in that way, the operating system works very slow.
Experts who reviewed the facts of Gaddis’ situation said the scammers likely installed a form of malicious software (part spyware, part ransomware) when she initially paid the $299. The software gives the scammers a form of administrative access that likely limits her access to the computer and/or allows them to see her activity online and the file on her hard drive.
“Unfortunately, malware, ransomware, spyware, it’s exploded in the last ten years,” said Gene Fishel, the Computer Crimes Chief for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. “Over the past several years, criminals have become more sophisticated.”
While high profile spy and ransomware attacks on state and city governments grab headlines, Fishel said some hackers have trained their attention to individuals, trying to trick them into thinking they are a legitimate company who can be trusted with access to your computer, personal information, or even bank account numbers.
“What the hackers and criminals have done is they’ve morphed into sometimes what’s called spear phishing as opposed to just normal phishing, with a ‘ph,'” Fishel said. “They’re constantly tailoring their techniques to try and make people think they are legitimate.”
It is fairly common and relatively easy for scammers to convince those unfamiliar with computers that their intentions are above board, according to Fishel. Preventing scammers from accessing your computer and personal data is the best way to stop them, he said.
- Do not click on links or reply to emails when you do not recognize the person
- Do not answer calls from phone numbers you do not recognize
- Contact a company directly if they reach out to you and you question whether or not they are legitimate
Once scammers gain access to your computer, Fishel said, unfortunately, there are not many options left.
“A computer repair technician may be able to help you out, but they may not and unfortunately with some of these viruses you may need to get a new computer, you may have lost your files,” Fishel said.
One of the challenges in preventing online scams is actually catching the hackers. Law enforcement officials said the criminals usually target victims within their jurisdiction from outside those lines. Many hackers are based overseas, but can still access computers in the U.S. if victims a grant them access.
“It’s a real issue. Something Virginians need to be careful of,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D). “It affects businesses, hospitals, cities have had their systems taken over like this.”
Individuals who fall, victim, are urged to contact local law enforcement even if it does not result in prosecution. Herring said Virginians should either report malware attacks to their local police or the Virginia State Police.
“They can help detect patterns of activity, and maybe prevent others from being victimized too, and of course, we’ll do everything we can to go after the perpetrator,” Herring said.
Gaddis sees firsthand that once hackers gain access to your computer, they can do almost anything they want with it. She hopes other people see her story and tread carefully online.
“Just hang up. Don’t listen to them. Don’t take their advice,” Gaddis said.
As for her computer, Gaddis plans on taking it a computer repair shop because she does not want to buy a new one.
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