Consumer Alert: Shopping for gifts online? Watch out for this dangerous scam

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Imagine this scenario: You’re browsing the internet, and all of a sudden you get a flashing message telling you your computer is disabled and it’s infected with malware.

That’s what happened to me. I was investigating sites that sell fake stamps. All of a sudden pop-ups filled the screen screaming that my computer was infected, and my money was at risk. It’s a common scam that the Federal Trade Commission calls a Tech Support Scam. And I thought it especially important to warn you about it as you browse the web in search of Christmas gifts.

When my computer locked up and an ominous message started flashing on my screen, I knew exactly what it was. The flashing message also had audio.

“To unlock the computer, please call support immediately. Please do not attempt to shut down or restart your computer," the voice kept repeating.

The pop-ups filled the screen with sentences like, "Your computer is disabled!" Another message said, "Your computer has been infected with a Trojan spyware!" It warned that all my passwords and my banking information had been compromised.

The same thing happened to Gia Petrillo’s husband.

"It was flashing audio like red alert red alert red alert," Petrillo recalled.

Terrified that his data had been compromised, her husband called the number on the screen.

"My husband thought he was talking to actual Microsoft engineers,” Petrillo said. “They were really good!”

But when Petrillo walked into the room and saw what was happening, she had an idea.

"I googled Microsoft support and their phone number, and I looked at all their phone numbers and none of the phone numbers actually matched up with what I was looking at,” Petrillo said.

Bingo! The number on the screen was not Microsoft. It was a scammer.

While the scammer’s message warns you not to turn off your computer, Paul Robinson, National Sales Director of IGI Cybersecurity says that’s exactly what you should do.

"Really the best thing to do is check your security settings and you can reboot,” said Robinson. “You can shut it down."

That’s what I did. But Robinson warns it’s not without risk.

"So the risk in shutting it down is if they’re truly in your system, there could be data compromised," said Robinson.

That’s why prevention is key. Robinson said you should always have strong antivirus software installed that will prevent spyware or malware or virus from infecting your computer. He says after stumbling on a harmful site, run a scan to remove anything a scammer may have left.

Another tactic these scammers use is to get you to download remote access software which, as the name implies, gives scammers remote access to your computer. That’s like giving a thief the keys to your house.

If this happens to you, don’t click on any links, download software, or call the number.

Again, prevention is key. Wirecutter says the free software that comes with Windows and your Mac are great but make sure it’s up to date.

Consumer Reports has tested and rated antivirus software for Windows and Mac. Here are its top recommendations.

For Mac

For Windows