Living Smart: Don't fall for tech-support scams

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

The phone rings. The voice on the other line informs you that your PC is infected with a virus that, fortunately for you, the callerís well-known company can eliminate. Hmm, you think, thatís odd, since our family only uses Macs.

Hopefully, you hang up and thatís the end of the story. But many people getting similar calls ended up falling for tech-support scams, handing over remote access to their computers and getting charged hundreds of dollars. This all-too-common problem led a federal court recently to fine operators of several international tech-support schemes more than $5.1 million.

Whether or not the fines ever get collected, the action shines a light on why consumers must be careful about who they allow to work on their computers.

Computer tech-support professionals whoíve earned high marks from Angieís List members warn that you should never give anyone you donít know access to your computer. Reputable tech-company workers donít operate through unsolicited phone calls, they say, so your best move is to hang up.

Be wary in other ways, too, experts advise. Donít click on online ads or pop-ups that claim your computer is infected and should be scanned. Be leery of ads promising services to speed up your computer.

If youíre wondering whether a computer service is worth considering or an email link worth opening, consider who initiated the communication. If it wasnít you, donít respond.

More tips for reducing the odds of your computer being compromised:

Frequently back up your data. After backup, disconnect the storage device from your computer. Another option is to pay an online-based company to conduct off-site backups.

Exercise caution before clicking on links from emails. Be especially wary when you havenít initiated a request. Be careful about sites offering free applications, games and tools. Many are good, but some contain malware. Before downloading, search online to see what others have to say about whatever youíre considering downloading.

When you download and install anything, donít mindlessly check "agree," "next" and "continue." Look carefully for boxes that are pre-checked; be sure you know what youíre getting into.

Notice web addresses. The first few online search results may not be what you think they are. Before clicking a link, look at the website address to which it will send you. If the address seems odd, carefully consider before clicking.

Know what software your computer uses and keep it updated. A dated program may have trouble interfacing with complementary programs. Also, many updates are security-related.

Wondering if your computer has a virus? Signs include slow performance, inability to launch programs or unfamiliar programs launching independently.

When seeking help for computer issues, consider the services of a reputable technician. Check the companyís reputation on a trusted online review site. Ask questions so youíre clear about credentials and training, if service can be done in your home or office, and how long an expected repair could take.

Also, ask if charges are by the hour or the project. In the past year, Angieís List members reported paying $50 to $260 to have top-rated computer-service providers remove viruses and malware.