Across the country, thousands of people – often the elderly – are falling victim to a dangerous cybercrime: the tech support scam.
These scams, which are typically a crime of opportunity, prey on average individuals who may have limited technical knowledge or skills. Essentially, they trick individuals into granting hackers access to their computers or other devices under the guise of a problem being fixed.
Only instead of fixing the issues, the fraudsters actually introduce problems, by installing malware, demanding payment to fix the problems they cause, and in some cases, tricking victims into paying for unnecessary services that they don’t need or can get free elsewhere. It’s a dangerous scam – and one that costs Americans more than $50 million a year, according to the FTC.
Preying on Fear
Tech support scams often begin with an unsolicited phone call, in which the caller claims to be from Microsoft, Apple, or another major tech company, notifying computer owners about a problem with their machines, or a new update that needs to be installed. In order to fix the problem, they say, they need remote access to the machine.
If the caller gets this access, they have free reign to do anything to the machine at this point. In some cases, they install spyware, so they can commit identify theft. In other cases, they begin “working” on the machine, only to discover that the problem is bigger than they anticipated.
At this point, they’ll ask the victim for payment for more advanced tech support. Since at this point the victim is convinced there is a problem with their computer, and they fear not being able to use it or that they are in danger of a virus (not realizing that the caller has installed the program already) they pay. In some cases, these payments are hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
At this point, the scammers will often convince their victims that they need to pay for additional tech support, monitoring, or “protection” services, and urge the victim to subscribe to their service.
In some cases, these bogus services charge thousands of dollars a month, as in the case of one elderly man who was conned out of nearly $90,000 over the course of seven months.
While many of these attacks begin with a phone call, tech support scammers may also infect websites with malware to inform users that they have a virus and need to call to have it removed. In this variation, someone will visit an infected site, and receive a popup that uses fear-mongering language to convince them to call a toll-free number for help removing the “infection” on their computer.
When the user calls, the fraud follows the same pattern, ultimately infecting the machine for real and bilking the caller for thousands of dollars.
Avoiding Tech Support Scams
The good news about tech support scams is that awareness is growing, and more people are alert to the threat and taking steps to avoid them. However, this isn’t stopping the scammers, so it’s important to understand how to spot a scam and what to do if you are targeted.
The first thing to remember is that no legitimate tech provider or computer company will ever make unsolicited calls to individuals regarding tech support. Companies like Microsoft and Apple will only provide tech support when the customer reaches out.
They will also never provide a toll-free number to call in a security alert or pop-up. Therefore, if you receive a call, all you need to do is hang up. No matter what the caller claims, there isn’t a problem with your computer, and even if there is, there’s no way that a random individual would know.
If the scam comes in the form of a popup, simply close the window. Don’t click on any links in the popup, as that could only direct you to a different infected website or cause more popups. Just close out and move on.
Second, these scams only serve to underscore the importance of protecting your computer and devices with strong antivirus protection and follow all best practices regarding security. This includes using a smart device manager to protect your connected appliances, etc., as some tech support scams have begun targeting devices beyond computers. What’s most important is to install any protections yourself (or use a legitimate tech support service that you hire yourself) and know what security protections are in place and what alerts will look like.
Finally, never give an unsolicited caller access to your computer or devices, and never pay someone to provide these services. While some will ask for a credit card number, others will ask for payment in gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency, which is a major red flag. Again, just hang up and avoid trouble.
Cybercriminals are constantly looking for new ways to steal money and information from unsuspecting victims. If you’re vigilant and know the signs of one of these tech support scams, you’ll stay safe – and be able to help others avoid becoming victims as well.