Would you let a stranger walk into your home and wander around?
Scammers are hoping to do just that with your computer: roaming through your passwords, your contacts, your email, all to lift your digital fingerprint and use it for their own purposes.
Eric Sharpe, a computer-repair specialist and owner of Savannah's Digital Doc, says he has seen a rash of scams lately; thieves working in call centers, trying to convince victims to let them access their computers via third-party repair software.
"You are giving them direct access to everything in your computer, all of your information, your photos, your documents by allowing these people in," Sharpe said.
Mark Fordham got scammed after searching the Internet for a tech support company to help him with email problems. He thought the scammers worked for Gmail. Sunday, he let them use third-party software to take control of his computer.
"They have access to my credit cards, my bank cards, my savings, everything," Fordham said in an interview Monday evening.
Sharpe says the scammer set up fake websites, pretending to represent a well-known company with lots of customers.
"It looks fairly official. It has the company name and information you are looking for."
Sharpe says these scammers are banking on victims zoning out, not paying enough attention on tedious technical support calls.
"They answer the phone right away, but they also take your money right away."
Fordham says the "tech support" guys on the line with his call were polite, distant, and seemed to be reading from a script; not unlike legitimate tech calls.
"They kept putting me on hold and coming back and putting me on hold."
Sharpe believes those scammers were just buying time and gathering information from Fordham's computer.
But fake numbers posted online are not the only way these scammers lure victims.
"They act like they are Microsoft or Comcast," Sharpe said, "calling up and saying that a computer is spewing out spam or a virus, and they tell them they need to log into their computer and get it fixed."
Sharpe said they are not always breaking the law.
"Legally, they can put ads out there saying they provide tech support."
Fordham spent nearly five hours on the phone with the scammers, then gave them $300 for anti-virus maintenance. Monday, Sharpe found a half dozen new viruses on Fordham's computer.
Sharpe says the idea is to hit the victim up for more cash, "for them to come in and remove a virus that was installed by this same company."
He advises customers to hang up if they are cold-called by someone claiming to represent a company with which they do business, then look up the number on that business' official website and call back to check whether the call was legitimate.