DHS warns of fake help-desk scams


A federal employee fell for a fake help-desk cyberattack scheme in January, and the Department of Homeland Security warned that more such attacks could be on the way as the end of Microsoft support for its Windows XP operating system approaches.

According to a March 11 unclassified/for official use only memo prepared by the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the FBI, an employee working from home on Jan. 14 using a virtual private network called a fake computer help line number. That call enabled the bogus help desk to gain access to the computer's hard drive, said the memo.

The memo, posted on the Public Intelligence open source website on April 1, did not name the agency the employee worked for, but said the incident is under investigation for possible malware implantation or backdoor access to the government-owned computer.

The memo went on to warn that with the looming expiration of Microsoft's support and security updates for Windows XP on April 8, cyber criminals could see an opportunity to dial up the volume on fake emails and cold calls in a new round of help desk cons targeting XP users.

It didn't specify whether the government computer involved in the January incident used XP, but federal agencies have been moving for years to get rid of computers using the aging platform. According to analysts however, thousands of XP-based machines could be operating at government agencies around the globe after the deadline. The Wall Street Journal reported April 1 that cyberscurity firm Qualys estimated that more than 10 percent of computers used in government and corporations worldwide will still use the 12-year-old operating system after April 8.

In its memo, DHS detailed how the fake help desk scam works.

The ploy usually begins  with an email or a cold call with the contact representing themselves as a help desk employee from a legitimate software or hardware vendor. The bogus representative tries to convince victims that their computers are malfunctioning, sometimes using a computer log that shows a lot of mostly harmless or low level errors. They then convince the victim to download software or let the "technician" remotely access their machines.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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