Fending off fraudsters

SOMETHING WAS wrong with my computer, the caller told me.

He said his systems had detected a virus. (My computer had been rather slow lately.) He said he was a computer technician with Microsoft.

"How did you get my number?" I asked.

"You registered on the site," he said.

It was possible.

Before he could help me, the man said he needed remote access to my computer. He immediately began to give me instructions on how to allow him to take over my machine.

At that point, my skepticism kicked in. "You know, this sounds awfully like a scam," I said.

Click. He hung up. The nerve.

I could easily have become a victim of a tech-support scheme in which scammers either try to gain access to your computer to get your personal data or try to sell a worthless computer-maintenance program.

"These scammers take advantage of your reasonable concerns about viruses and other threats," according to a Federal Trade Commission consumer alert. "They know that computer users have heard time and again that it's important to install security software. But the purpose behind their elaborate scheme isn't to protect your computer; it's to make money."

In a survey by AARP, the advocacy group said many people aren't doing enough to protect themselves from identity theft, which often is the endgame of computer attacks. People leave valuables in the car, or they haven't activated the passcode or password feature on their smartphones, which can give thieves easy access to sensitive information stored on phones. They don't check their credit reports (which could help spot identity theft early), or they use the same password on two or more of their accounts.

There are so many scams it's hard to keep track of them. But what if we all joined together to alert each other about the latest fraudulent schemes?

AARP has launched a Fraud Watch Network where you can sign up to get scam alerts. Among other features of the site, you can read the latest fraud advisories from law-enforcement officials and check out swindles profiled in local media.

But the best part of the site is a map where you can click on a link to your state and other states and read about the scams people have fended off or fell victim to.

One woman from California wrote that she and many of her friends had received an email that appeared to be from someone they knew. "She was in a jam in the Philippines and needed us to wire her money," the woman wrote. "It immediately seemed like a scam to me. I deleted the message right away."

As a warning to others, there are stories of people admitting they were duped.

"We are getting persistent calls from an organization calling itself the County Firefighters' Association," Debbie from Maryland wrote. "They imply that they are affiliated with the local fire department, twice I gave them a small donation. When their calls became more frequent, I started researching them. The county website has a tab for the fire department, and there in bold print it says, 'We will never call you on the phone or come to your door for a donation.' "

Barbara from Washington, D.C., wrote: "A caller said he was with the Department of Treasury and that I had failed to respond to a notice sent to me on a specific date regarding underpaid taxes from 2007-08. Therefore, a warrant had been issued for my arrest."

She was told she had to pay $1,000. The IRS won't contact you this way or by email. The agency will send a written notification of any tax due through the U.S. Postal Service.

Check out the site at aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork. If you're not sure about a call or email you've received, have been a victim or know someone who may have fallen for a scam, contact the AARP Foundation Fraud Fighter Center at 877-908-3360.

If you've been a fraud victim, write about it. Help others. Postings on the AARP site are anonymous.

"Watch out for a group claiming they are receiving error reports from Microsoft that your computer has malware and certificates have expired," warned a Texan posting on the site. "They wanted $300 to repair, sent by Western Union to Kenya. I hung up but they hacked my computer and I spent $170 to get it repaired."

Every so often you should visit the site and read the personal testimonies. Fend off fraudsters by keeping up to date on their latest scams. And if you get a call about your computer that you didn't initiate, hang up first.