Microsoft Phone Scammer Fined $45,000 For Holding Users' PCs Hostage

A con man targeting unsuspecting Windows users and holding their computers hostage online has been fined and given a suspended jail sentence in Britain. The scammer's outsourced Indian telemarketing workers called random phone numbers, convinced people their PCs were virus-laden and charged for antivirus software that Microsoft offers for free.

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The sentencing is a landmark in the United Kingdom; it's the first time a phone scammer pretending to be from Microsoft has been caught and convicted. Mohammed Khalid Jamil, from Luton in England's south, was fined £5000, ordered to pay £5665 in compensation to victims and £13,929 in prosecution legal fees. Jamil and his team apparently made between £35 and £150 per successful scam from their scheme, charging victims for remotely installing free Microsoft antivirus software after pretending users' PCs were compromised.

In scams of this nature, an unsuspecting citizen is cold-called by a company purporting to be Microsoft, claiming that their computer is compromised with a virus or malware. After talking the (usually not-so-computer-savvy) customer through setting up remote access, the scammer is then able to control the PC and either covertly install virii or extract sensitive data like banking details or online account passwords, eventually extorting a fee for returning the PC to its previous state or installing free Microsoft antivirus software.

Calls like this are endemic in Australia. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has a SCAMWatch website populated with a list of similar confidence schemes; scammers regularly pose as Microsoft, Telstra, and the ATO to run their ruses and make money off the public. If you're called out of the blue by one of these companies, it's always safe to be especially wary -- if someone calls you claiming your PC has a virus, just hang up.

Australia is apparently a testing ground for these kinds of cons; half of the 10,000 complaints to the ACMA's Do Not Call Register hotline in 2010 were related to software scam phone calls. [BBC]