10/27/2011 02:21 EDT | Updated 12/27/2011 05:12 EST

RCMP warns about virulent telephone-based scam involving computer virus clean up

TORONTO - The RCMP is continuing to warn consumers about a persistent telephone-based scam that's clogging its tip lines with complaints.

The vast majority of calls currently being taken at the RCMP's Canadian Anti Fraud Centre are related to a phone scam involving offers to clean a computer of viruses and bring it back up to speed.

The RCMP believes most of the perpetrators are based out of Southeast Asia and are cold calling Canadians — and others around the world — with a pitch to remotely connect to their computer and do some digital housekeeping.

If granted remote access to the computer, the thief not only charges the victim's credit card but may also install tracking software that can be used to steal banking information. The computer can also be taken over to be used as part of a botnet, a malicious network of computers used to commit online crimes.

"We're probably getting seven out of 10 calls relating to this type of scam at the centre and that's very unusual for us, (a scam) usually doesn't last that long," said RCMP Staff Sgt. Paul Proulx.

The RCMP first started getting reports of the scam last spring and has received 6,667 complaints in the first nine months of this year, an average of about 25 a day. Proulx estimated about one in five callers were actually victimized, usually in the range of $35 to $470.

And the RCMP believes that complaints they receive represent just a tiny proportion of all the scam attempts being made.

"We estimate we get just five per cent of the people who (receive a call) and actually bother to tell us about the scam. Most people don't," Proulx said.

The scam has become so prevalent globally that Microsoft — which has been associated with the trend because many callers claim to work for the company — commissioned a study this summer to assess to what extent people were being victimized.

The company surveyed 7,000 people in Canada, the U.K., Ireland and the U.S. and found that about 15 per cent had received a call offering anti-virus services. Of those, about one in five fell for the scam and victims reported they lost an average of US$875. Canadian victims reported the highest average loss at US$1,560.

The RCMP recommends that people hang up if they hear a phone pitch for computer services and report the call.

Proulx also said another prominent scam currently making the rounds involves online dating and victims being swindled out of big money by romantic suitors.

Often they say they live overseas and ask for cash to travel to Canada to visit. Or they may ask for help with a personal crisis or family emergency. The fraud centre says reported losses in romance scams in 2010 totalled $6.8 million, with an average loss of over $11,000 per victim.

"You go online and you're presented with a photo of a young lady and it all starts very innocently," Proulx said.

"And these scams may last several months, several years and after a while, when you start adding up the amounts lost, it's well into the six digits sometimes.

"It's a long-term project but it works well once the hook is set."