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updated 9/20/2011 12:49:29 PM ET 2011-09-20T16:49:29

Skype isn't just a convenient way to keep in touch with friends and family — it's a way for conniving online crooks to make direct contact with millions of potential victims.

Cybercriminals have taken to the popular Internet phone service and crafted an automated message that warns people that their anti-virus software is outdated and they need to purchase new security protection immediately, for $19.95.

This approach, called a " scareware " scam, is nothing original, but what is new and especially tricky about this particular version is that it is spreading via unsolicited Skype calls.

The automated call, from the user "Urgent Notice," tells recipients: "Attention, this is an automated computer system alert. Your computer protection service is not active," the security firm Sophos reported.

To activate the anti-virus software, the message directs users to a particular website, where they are then prompted to purchase the bogus "Computer Protection" software.

This is cunning on the crooks' part; there's more of a chance you'd pay attention to an automated scareware message if it interrupted a conversation with a relative thousands of miles away, or an important business call or a job interview.

Sophos warns you to ignore these and other unsolicited Skype calls and to change your privacy settings so only the users appearing in your contacts list can get in touch with you.

As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to ignore any unsolicited offers you receive on the computer, whether they're from Skype, email, Facebook, Twitter or any other service. Scammers know you aren't going to actively seek them out, but they'll continue to find new ways to come after you. One of the best defenses, along with up-to-date (and legitimate) anti-virus software, is simple common sense.

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