August 15, 2016
Tech support scammers, who typically try to convince consumers that their computer is infected with malware and sell them unnecessary security services to "clean" the PC, are not a new problem. Everyone from Microsoft to the Federal Trade Commission has tried to fight them.
SecurityWatch But one enterprising programmer named Ivan Kwiatkowski came up with an unorthodox and questionably ethical idea to beat the scammers at their own game: he attempted to infect the tech support scammer's own computer with ransomware.
After Kwiatkowski's parents stumbled on a tech support scam, he fixed their computer. But just for fun, he saved the phone number provided on the scam web page, and called it to see what would happen. That led to him setting up a remote connection to the spammer's computer using what appeared to be a legitimate tech support chat client.
He was using an old Windows XP virtual machine, which the spammer quickly—and falsely— diagnosed as being infected with malware that only an expensive antivirus program could remove.
"In the end, she reaches the following conclusion: my computer has been infected, and now it needs to be cleaned up," Kwiatkowski wrote on his blog. "I'm encouraged to buy either ANTI SPY or ANTI TROJAN, for the measly sum of $189.90."
So he played along. He called back and read a second scammer a fake credit card number. After the scammer tried multiple times to input the digits, Kwiatkowski sent a zip file containing a ransomware program masquerading as a photo of his credit card, suggesting that the scammer try to read it himself
"And while a background process quietly encrypts his files, we try paying a couple more times with those random CC numbers and he finally gives up, suggesting that I contact my bank and promising to call me back next Monday," Kwiatkowski wrote.
It's unclear from Kwiatkowski's account whether the ransomware actually worked, and his tongue-in-cheek, ethically murky approach to getting back at tech support scammers won't make a dent in the overall industry.
Still, in an era of increasing cyber crime, a real-life Mr. Robot like Kwiatkowski is at least a reminder that spammers themselves aren't immune from the nefarious tactics they employ to prey on unsuspecting computer users.