Gateway to a scam

Warnings like this one have been appearing on a growing number of computer screens in Maryville, according to one local tech professional, who said such pop-ups are often deployed by scammers in order to get users to dial “support” numbers used by criminals to perpetuate various types of e-fraud. City and county law enforcement officials have also reported an uptick in scams involving landlines, usually telephones in the homes of older people who are told they need to forward money in order to help a loved one in trouble.

In a world driven by technology that constantly becomes more embedded in daily life, an increasing number of criminals are using telecommunications and computing devices to rip people off.

This is hardly news.

Smartphones, laptops, tablets, even good old-fashioned landlines are all portals that thieves — bad actors who may be located entire continents away — can use to rip off, steal, and defraud.

While such scams happen all the time and almost everywhere, a couple of old standbys have resurfaced in Maryville recently with disturbing frequency.

Both the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office and Maryville Public Safety on Friday confirmed an uptick in attempted landline telephone fraud, while a local computer professional has reported several instances of attempted hacks delivered via bogus pop-up windows.

Sheriff Darren White said Friday his office has been receiving almost daily complaints about attempted telefraud for nearly two weeks, all in a similar vein.

The phone rings, usually a phone belonging to an older resident who hasn’t gone digital yet, and a voice on the other end says something like, “This is so-and-so, and I’m calling about your grandson. He’s out here in Colorado (or Mexico or Europe) and caused an automobile accident. The other driver was a pregnant woman, and your grandson is facing serious charges. He needs $900 to post bail and hire an attorney.”

Next come instructions from the caller about where to wire the money or otherwise make payment.

Most people would likely recognize such a call as bogus from the start, and White said he doesn’t know of anyone who has actually been victimized during the most recent wave of scam attempts.

But people have fallen for such dodges in the past, and the sheriff cautioned that the messages contain quite a bit a variation. So if the supposed young unfortunate hasn’t been in a wreck, he may need cash to pay court costs or a doctor bill or buy a plane ticket home.

In one local instance, an elderly would-be victim was asked by an officer if she had thought to call the relative in question. She hadn’t, and when she did the relative turned out to be safe at home.

While people who fall for this kind of thing might appear gullible beyond belief, authorities say phone fraudsters are playing a percentages game in which they only have to score once or twice while making hundreds of calls.

In addition, tele-cons are skilled at emotionally manipulating their intended victims, often using techniques similar to those familiar to anyone who has watched “psychic hotline”-style TV ads.

In other words, these people know how to elicit personal information, then use that information to make their spiel more convincing.

Something like, “Hi! Gran? This is your grandson.”

Gran: “Johnnie?”

Con artist: “Yes, Johnnie! Gran, I don’t want to bother Mom, you know how she worries, but I need help …”

In addition to the Sheriff’s Office, Dispatch Supervisor Jessica Sigman at Maryville Public Safety said she and her staff have been fielding a fair number of such complaints as well, three or four a week on average.

Sigman said there’s really not much police can do about most phone fraud attempts, and that some practitioners use software that downloads fake telephone numbers into the intended victim’s caller ID system.

She said phone criminals often target older folks, many of whom use landlines that don’t record incoming numbers anyway. Such scammers also use throwaway cellphones or employ technology that makes their calls all but impossible to trace.

So what law enforcement tries to do, Sigman said, is get the word out in ways that help people recognize scams for what they are.

Moving up on the technology scale to laptop and console computers, Joe Alley, a tech specialist for the Maryville R-II School District who moonlights with his own digital device repair service, said he’s noticed an increasing number of pop-up window scams.

These crimes are committed by tech-cons who plant pop-ups on various websites that somewhat mimic critical update warnings issued by Microsoft and other computer companies.

Many bear the appropriate corporate graphics and say something like “Your computer has been infected. Call this phone number immediately.”

A variant is a window that accuses the user of distributing pornography and warns that their computer will lock up and remain unusable until they call and sort things out.

When people call the number, Alley said, one of three things happen, all of them bad: The voice on the other end tries to sell you a digital product that will “clean” your computer; the scammer attempts to obtain information allowing him to remotely access your hard drive and steal account numbers, passwords, and other personal information; or, having arranged things so that you’re calling a “900 number” — again like a psychic hotline — he charges you an outrageous amount of money that shows up on your next telephone bill.

Alley said all of these scams rely on the level of panic experienced by novice computer users when something unexpected or threatening happens. But usually, he said, the pop-up warning is just that, a pop-up that will go away if one simply turns the machine off by depressing the power button for a few seconds and then re-starting.

If that doesn’t fix the problem, simply take the machine to a reputable repair shop — Maryville has several — or go to some tech-savvy friend you know and trust, your grandson, for example, assuming he’s not locked up in a European jail following a car wreck with a pregnant woman.

“These people are looking for that level of panic,” Alley said, “someone who will think, ‘I’ve got to do what it tells me to do.’ But you have to remember that out there on the Internet, there is nobody looking out for you.”

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Staff writer Anthony Brown can be reached at tbrown@maryvilledailyforum.com or by calling the newspaper at 660.562.2424.