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Cyber-Criminals Are Hijacking My Computer – And I Paid for It!

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As a person who's been online a long time and is pretty savvy about tech and virus issues, I watch my inbox for emails with attachments that I don't recognize; sites that automatically re-direct me elsewhere and have my anti-virus software updated daily and do regular scans. I back up email and files to two external drives. I thought I was pretty smart and thankfully I take lots of notes when working with my tech guy and/or Microsoft technical support.

Late last summer as I was on a 'tear' of creativity, writing emails and posts, a generic screen popped up on my computer and said I had just downloaded a virus. I didn't examine the "notification window" closely to realize it wasn't the one associated with my own anti-virus software. The notification screen said I should do an immediate scan — which I did. According to that "scan," I had over 40 viruses, worms and Trojan horses! I panicked despite the fact I had performed an anti-virus scan the week before and came out clean.


The scan window suggested I upgrade to Protective Anti-Virus software for $50 for one year or a three year upgrade for $79 to remove all these nasty critters. Whipping out the plastic, I decided to purchase only a one-year upgrade, thinking that I was being smart in handling it so quickly. I downloaded the upgrade and upon rebooting the computer, I discovered that I had made a colossal error in judgement.

The computer came to desktop but none of my Microsoft programs worked. Attempting to open any Microsoft program — Outlook, Internet Explorer, or MS Office — and the window/program immediately shut down. I checked the Protective Anti-Virus software site (otherwise known as PAV) for tech support and sent them four emails and four voicemails over two days. I did get a voice-mail from someone from PAV but that message was to ask me to call back. I did — but heard nothing further.

My tech guy arrived to check out the computer and discovered that I had PAV. Upon googling "PAV" we found several sites that indicated PAV was malware — a program bent on crippling a computer. One site alone had over 40,000 posts on how their computers were disabled by PAV and how to fix it. The PAV people had since improved their malware to the point of requiring a complete wipe of the computer to clear out PAV. Not only had I downloaded something that had taken me offline, but I paid them to do it with my credit card so I was the victim of credit card fraud. I called my bank to dispute the charge to PAV and also filed a fraud report. Three weeks — and over one thousand dollars in tech support and additional hardware — later, my computer was fully functional but I had lost various document, photo, and audio-visual files in the restoration. Cyber-crime had struck with a vengeance!

Fast-forward four weeks: I happened to be on Peter Shankman's HARO site (Help a Reporter Out) and saw a post by a writer asking for cyber-crime victims. I sent in my very brief email and the email exchanges began. About 20 emails later, I was on the phone with PR people who wanted to hear about my malware experience (in exhaustive detail), in a conversation full of questions.

Eventually I found out that their client, McAfee, wanted to use me in a video about cyber-crime and how sophisticated it has become and how easy it is to be taken in by these scams or "scareware."

"Scareware," or fake anti-virus software, could cause the most monetary damages to consumers and their computers in 2010.

One company known as Integrated Marketing made $180 million through these scams, and more than two million consumers contacted the company regarding its software.

According to McAfee, there has been a 400% increase in reported incidents in the last 12 months. It's been the number one call-driver to McAfee's Virus Removal Service team for the past six months, with more than 19,000 calls logged in January, 2010 alone.

Please don't assume your anti-virus software is sufficient to prevent this from happening, to you! I changed anti-virus programs after the malware infection occurred and have daily updates and weekly scans. Yet last week I was hit with another malware 'virus alert' that definitely was not from my anti-virus program. To prevent any potential problems in case it downloaded something to my computer, I shut down and rebooted the computer; did an anti-virus update and completed a full scan. Guess what– I was completely virus-free.

The entire point of the McAfee Initiative is to make the internet safer for everyone– because the last thing you want to have happen is for your computer to be hijacked by malware and then held for ransom along with your credit card.

US map of fake anti-virus attacks:

Here's what McAfee has to say about this:

"Scareware is one of the most prevalent, dangerous, and sophisticated scams online today. Cybercriminals create pop-ups with generic looking logos, telling the user that their computer may be vulnerable. It preys on consumers' fears.

One million people around the world fall victim to scareware everyday."

Global map of fake anti-virus attacks:

This is a lucrative business for cybercriminals — there are large networks of cybercriminals around the world who make millions of dollars on this type of scareware. And, they often change the code in an attempt to evade security companies.

McAfee Labs reports that cybercriminals make around $300 million each year from scamming consumers around the world with scareware. Cybercriminals are savvy, and relentless. Users must practice "computer smarts" to stay ahead of the criminals and not fall victim to the increasingly sophisticated scams. There are more than 3,000 known fake AV products, with more being developed every day by cybercriminals around the world.

Fake anti-virus threats are rampant and growing. There's been a 400% increase in reported incidents in the last 12 months alone, and it's the number one call driver to McAfee's Virus Removal Service team for the past six months running. There were more than 19,000 calls to McAfee's Virus Removal Service team in January 2010.

According to a 2009 report in Consumer Reports, one in five online consumers was a victim of cybercrime in the past two years and almost a half-million households had to replace PCs due to malware in the past six months.

Consumers can get a warning about the latest threats with inside intelligence from McAfee Labs, through McAfee's Consumer Threat Alerts. McAfee educates users about the dangerous reality of today's online threats through initiatives like Consumer Threat Alerts.

McAfee's Consumer Threat Alerts program will help consumers stay ahead of evolving and sophisticated threats. Subscribers will receive periodic email alerts about how to recognize the latest online dangers and tips on how to stay safe.

In addition to the email notification, all updates will be posted on the Consumer Threat Alerts blog, and consumers can also follow McAfee on Twitter (@mcafee) or visit the Facebook page for updates, videos, and tips.

Say the folks at McAfee, "We're giving consumers the 'street smarts' they need to live their online lives safely. With education and the right technology, we can all play a part in the fight against cybercrime."

Be aware, be smart, be safe.

I was not paid for my time, participation or video appearance by any party. For me, it is a matter of keeping you safe by learning what mistakes I made so you don't have to learn the way I did — the hard way.

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About Stevie

  • http://blogcritics.org/scitech/ Mark Buckingham

    Expensive lesson learned. Someone I know got snookered over the phone into giving up credit card info to pay a past due cell phone charge, saying if it wasn’t paid in the next hour, the account would be deactivated. It was a scam from start to finish.

    At times like this, it is crucial to be skeptical, pause, and think the situation through. Rash decisions almost universally only make the situation worse, even if you think you’re doing the right thing. Examine the situation carefully and look for things that don’t fit or make sense.

    I run across people who get viruses and malware on their computers at work all the time, and it’s our job to get rid of them. When in doubt, don’t click ANYTHING! Even clicking Cancel or the X in the corner to close the window could have been reprogrammed to mean “OK” to the window.

    When in doubt, reboot to Safe Mode by hitting F8 while your system is first starting up, then let your REAL anti-virus/malware software do its thing. If all else fails, ComboFix has fixed some of the worst offenders we’ve encountered, saving us from having to wipe the system clean in most cases.

  • http://www.LA-Story.com Stevie

    Totally correct Mark! I wish at the time, I had stopped to THINK about it. But as the article & McAfee state, it’s about the fear of the virus –not the fear of what could go wrong. Had I known about ComboFix (or my tech guy), I might not have spent 3+ weeks and over $1k to get everything fix. This malware was in registry and buried so deep, we were going at it manually.

  • http://blogcritics.org/scitech/ Mark Buckingham

    Sometimes it takes several tools to get the job done, but I have yet to personally see a system that couldn’t be cleaned rather than wiped. Sometimes it’s not even the tools you’d expect, either. For example, if MBAM, SuperAntiSpyware, or an antivirus program clean out a bunch of files, that will likely leave behind orphaned registry entries that don’t point to any files anymore. Then using a registry cleaning tool like RegScrubXP or CCleaner will get rid of those entries simply because they’re orphaned and disconnected, regardless of why they were there in the first place. :)

  • http://www.LA-Story.com Stevie

    good to know. I know at least 7 people who have contacted me and told me this has happened to them — in the last year or the last week.. PLUS one fake AV tried to hit me again. Thankfully I know what to do.
    But to know that 1 of 5 people have had this happen to them in the last 2 years (consumer reports 2009).. is really startling information and most would not even know how to use the tools you are talking about.. but I definitely want to check them out!

  • http://DianeNeillJensen.com Diane Neill Jensen

    This is my third comment in a row. Got blocked for thanking you for this article on FAV. Hope this goes thru, as I am sincere. Thank you.

  • http://DianeNeillJensen.com Diane Neill Jensen

    I finally got through to thank you. The problem was with my website url. I took off the section of my website that was / and then a section of my site. I get it. I’ll be back to read more articles.
    Thank you.

  • http://www.LA-Story.com Stevie

    HI to Diane.. please spread it around. I found 7 friends in 2 days who had this happen to them in the last year.. one is currently dealing with it. It’s insidious. it’s harmful and it’s expensive in time and repair.
    good luck

  • carders

    Totally correct Mark!!! I wish at the time, I had stopped to THINK about it. But as the article & McAfee state, it’s about the fear of the virus –not the fear of what could go wrong. Had I known about ComboFix (or my tech guy), I might not have spent 3+ weeks and over $1k to get everything fix. This malware was in registry and buried so deep, we were going at it manually.

  • http://www.LA-Story.com Stevie

    And guess what!! Since this article I have talked to over 100 people this has happened to– including 3 other computers in my home– where one was simply clicking on the wrong window & a credit card and pw’s were compromised. Two other computers (thank you teen daughter) for having viruses on both a lap top (it’s just getting fixed now.. with 300 (!!) viruses despite me telling her about this– it was trying to hack into firewall. NOT fun. Look for another post on this situation PLUS how businesses are affected too.