When Pasqualino De Sanctis got a pop-up on his computer from the RCMP asking him to pay a $100 fine, he figured it was a legitimate request.
Just prior to it, he’d unknowingly clicked on a site infected with a virus while doing research for work, causing nearly 200 pop-up windows featuring pornography to flood his screen.
"As I’m shutting [the windows] down, this pop-up comes up. It says ‘RCMP Internet investigation, you’ve been caught dealing with pornography,’" he said.
"It says you have 12 hours to pay a $100 fine. This is your first offence."
The telecommunications employee was surprised, but according to Daniel Williams of the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, it happens a lot more than many Canadians would think.
"Once that warning pops up on your screen, you’re infected," he said.
Williams said his office began receiving calls about this back in February 2012, and has logged at least 2,000 complaints since.
He said between just one and five per cent of people on the receiving end of Internet scams actually report them, so he estimates the actual number of people affected is much higher.
The virus, thought to originate in Eastern Europe, picks up Internet users’ location to make it look as though it’s their local police who have frozen their screens, Williams said.
It was enough to fool De Sanctis.
"It looked legal," he said, referring to the pop-up’s use of the RCMP logo and images of both a male and female officer.
He was instructed to go a local Esso gas station and buy a $100 pre-paid card, whose numbers were to be punched into the payment window on the pop-up.
He complied, since he was in the middle of his work day and he was told he would be locked out of his computer until he paid.
He said it threatened to erase his hard drive if he didn’t pay.
But once De Sanctis typed in the number to make the payment, another pop-up appeared prompting him to make a second $100 payment.
That’s when he knew something was up. So he called the RCMP and was transferred to its Internet fraud department.
He was informed he’d been the victim of a malware scam.
How to avoid being a victim of the scam
Williams of the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre said by paying the $100 "fine," victims are playing right into the hands of the scammers.
"The number one thing that we beg that consumers do is to not send the money," he said.
"If they do, all they’re doing is making organized crime $100 or $200 richer, and of course the scammers are going to do nothing to remove the virus from your computer."
And to remove it, victims of the scam will have to pay a technician to clean out the virus. Williams said much of the information online about how to remove the malware can actually lead to more malware, not to mention fake solutions.
"Unless you’re really computer savvy, the safest bet would be to bite the bullet and disconnect your computer and have a local technician clean it out thoroughly," he said.
Computer expert and Microbytes franchise owner Joel Cobrin echoed Williams.
"We just saw it two days ago," he said.
"Somebody came in with the exact same screenshot that they got, that the RCMP, quote-unquote, was asking for $100 in order to unlock their computer."
"That person took out the plug, shut down the computer and brought it here, and we took out the virus for her. And several others, because rarely do they come as just one virus," he continued.
He said making sure your computer’s virus protection and operating system are up-to-date is one defence against malware in general, but that isn’t enough.
"Stay away from anybody asking you for money. If you buy something and want to pay, that’s fine, but if anybody asks for money for whatever reason, no no no," he said.
"It’s most probably a virus, or it’s malicious."