New Brunswick

St. Mary's woman scammed by fake Microsoft tech-support warns others

A 66-year-old woman from St. Mary's First Nation is warning others after coming close to losing thousands of dollars in a "Microsoft" tech support scam.

Sheila Brooks says fraudsters persuaded her to buy $900 in gift cards to 'secure' her bank account

Sheila Brooks runs a sewing business on Paul Street and says she doesn't spend much time using a computer. (Jennifer Sweet/CBC)

A woman from St. Mary's First Nation in Fredericton is speaking out after she was targeted by an online pop-up scam.

Sheila Brooks said she was using the internet on her laptop at home on May 4, when a black box with computer codes in it flashed across her screen.

There was also an alarm sound and a warning that her bank account was at risk of being defrauded within the next three hours.

Brooks said she called the toll-free number on the screen and was connected with what seemed like the Microsoft Corporation.

Trusted the name

"I said, 'Oh, Microsoft.' It's got to be legit, right?"

An agent assured her she would help protect her account and asked for permission to access Brooks's computer in order to guide her through the process.

The fraudster also asked for the number to call Brooks's bank.

They were connected to what sounded like her real telephone banking number and a second fraudster, who explained she would have to secure her money by buying Google Play gift cards.

Brooks says she snapped this shot of what popped up on her computer before she was scammed. (Submitted by Sheila Brooks)

They can be used to buy apps, games, movies, TV shows, music, and books online, but Brooks said at the time, she had no idea what they were for.

She had some hesitation and proposed going directly to the bank and withdrawing her money as an alternative.

But the fake bank agent told her doing so would make it look like she was working with the "fraudsters."

The woman agent directed Brooks to the nearest stores selling Google Play cards.

She had been to two locations, where she purchased $900 worth of cards, and was at a third store trying to buy about another $1,000 worth when her bank card was declined.

Brooks says the fraudsters got her to run a program that gave them control over her computer. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

The clerk at that store asked her if she was sure she needed that many cards and even hinted it could be a scam, but Brooks said she was in an agitated state and the fraudsters had advised her not to reveal why she was buying the cards because the store would charge her extra fees.

Outside the store, Brooks looked around frantically. She couldn't complete her "mission," and she was going to be late for work.

That's when she spotted her daughter across the parking lot.

Brooks flagged her over and explained what was going on, despite the protests of the woman on the other end of the phone line.

The daughter recognized the deception instantly.

"She grabbed the phone and said, 'Who is this? This is a scam?' And the woman on the phone hung up."

Brooks said she had never heard of this type of scam before and was very upset to find someone had swindled her by impersonating a reputable corporation.

"I'm just so angry … We don't trust corporations with a good name anymore?"

"They make it sound like it's a legitimate thing to somebody my age, who's not that savvy with computers and the knowledge that there's so many scammers out there," said Brooks, who is 66.

"It's a tough lesson to learn."

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre information about the Tech support scam. (CBC)

Fortunately, she had only been able to scratch off the coating on two gift cards, worth $100 and $10, to reveal and share the redemption codes with the fraudsters.

So far, she's been unable to get back her money for the other cards.

"I told my family, 'If you need Google Play money come see me. I'll give it to you real cheap."

She changed her bank accounts and is taking her computer into the shop for cleaning.

You've really got to have your wits about you and take a step back and pause and ask yourself, 'Is this normal?'- Jeff Thomson, Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre

Brooks said it only hit her after the fact how much worse it could have been.

"If I'd had the time, I probably would have spent every cent they needed to 'secure' my money."

"It makes me sick."

"I thought I was a pretty tough kid. I'm always looking out for me and my husband and my kids and they could have taken it away in a second."

Brooks shared her story as a warning to others. She feels more needs to be done to spread the word about this sort of fraud.

Part of a document produced by the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. More info can be found at ftc.gov/TechSupportScams. (Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre)

She listens to the radio and reads the paper but said she doesn't spend much time on social media or the internet.

"Yes, I should have known. ... I should have known when I talked to the bank. When he said, 'You have to buy security cards.' That should have been a red flag. And it kind of hit in the pit of my stomach. Then I said, 'Well, it must be legit because we called the bank, and it was the iconic voice saying this is what you need to do."

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says tech support scams have been around since about 2010 and are still very common.

In 2018, there were 1,391 reports of it, and 821 victims lost a total of about $876,000.

"They'll spoof legitimate companies to deceive consumers into clicking on links or calling a toll-free number," said Jeff Thomson, manager of the centre's fraud prevention intake unit.

Fraudsters use names of tech giants

If not Microsoft, it's sometimes Google, IBM, or HP. 

The messages in the pop-ups can be quite alarming, said Thomson, and in some cases they are difficult to close.

"You've really got to have your wits about you and take a step back and pause and ask yourself, 'Is this normal?'

"Nobody's going to ask you to pay for a service … with Google Play cards."

The anti-fraud centre does about 200 presentations a year at schools, seniors centres and crime-prevention forums, said Thomson.

"We know prevention is key."

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