Tech Support: When a Necessary Service Turns Dangerous

May 7, 2021

One of the most recent – and joked-about – scams these days involves someone calling about your car warranty. And who hasn’t gotten a fake message purporting to be Amazon, wanting more information so they can deliver your package?

The reason these are so popular, is that almost everyone has a car and an Amazon account. The scammer doesn’t need to know much about their potential victim to sound plausible.

Tech support scams also fall into this category, since we pretty much all have some sort of device, whether it’s a phone, computer or tablet. These criminals want you to believe that your system is infected with a dangerous virus or malicious malware – which must be addressed immediately by them, or else. For a price, of course.

Phone Calls and Pop-ups on your Devices
Tech support cons typically start in one of two ways: an unsolicited phone call, or a pop-up warning on your device.

When the phone rings and it’s “Joe from Apple tech support,” or “Bob from Microsoft” or maybe “Ed from Norton” to say they’ve detected a serious problem with your computer, you’re likely to take notice, and allow them to ‘help you out’.

Or maybe you’re in the middle of an important project when a pop-up appears in your browser window, warning that your device is infected. It might look like a blue error screen or a message from your antivirus vendor, instructing you to immediately call a toll-free number for technical help or new security software.

Either way, it’s a scam. The usual goal: to get access to your computer so they can run bogus diagnostic tests, tell you they’ve found a grave problem, and convince you to let them ‘fix’ it. They may then ask you for credit card information, or demand payment via a gift card or wire transfer, to pay for their ‘services.’ As if that weren’t bad enough, they can also leave you with the gift of malware on your system, which could send them sensitive information such as passwords, social security and banking identification. In the worst-case scenario, you also end up with ransomware that shuts off your own access to your computer, effectively locking it up (with all of your important data) until you pay.

Bogus Online Ads and Search Engine Listings
Suppose in the previous scenario, you’re the one who realizes something is wrong. You open an Internet search and find an ad for a support service. Or you look for a particular resource, such as Apple tech support. The number or a link pops up and you use it, at which point you’re taken to “Apple telephone support” or what looks like Apple’s web page. But they’re both frauds.

It’s not difficult for experienced scammers to ‘spoof’ numbers, create lookalike websites, place authentic-looking ads, and push it all to the top of the results list. Don’t necessarily trust the first few findings you get. Always make sure you’ve found the real website (for example, Microsoft.com) before you trust contact information.

Tech Support Refund Scams
Here’s another twist: someone calls to offer you a refund for tech support services you already paid for. According to the FTC, this is likely a fake refund scam and works like this: The caller asks if you were happy with the services you got and if you say, “No,” offers a refund. Or, they might claim the company is issuing refunds because it’s going out of business. In either case, they’re really trying to steal more of your money. Anything they ‘sell’ you is likely to be of dubious worth, if not worse.

What to Do if You Think You Have a Tech Problem
First, update your computer’s security software and run a scan. If you still need help, get someone you know and trust, or go directly to your hardware or software company for online or phone support. Don’t give your bank account, credit card or other payment information to anyone who reaches out to contact you.

The FTC warns that:

  • No legitimate tech support service will require payment by gift card, cash-reload card or wire transfer.
  • They won’t contact you by phone, email or text message to tell you there’s a problem with your computer.
  • Security pop-up warnings from real tech companies will never ask you to call a phone number, nor will they initiate contact for an issue with your system.

What to do if you’ve been scammed
The FTC recommends that if you paid a tech support scammer with a gift card, you contact the company that issued the card right away, explain, and ask if they can refund your money. If you used a credit card, contact the issuer to file a dispute.

If you gave a scammer remote access to your computer, update your software, then run a scan and delete anything it identifies as a problem. If you think the scammer has accessed your personal information, secure any sensitive accounts. Call your banks, credit card companies, etc. to freeze or change your account. If you gave them your user name and password, change your password right away, as well as any other accounts where you use the same password. You should give each account or site a unique, strong password.

Finally, report your problem at ftc.gov/complaint.

 

This article is designed to provide informative material and is distributed with the understanding that it does not constitute legal or other professional advice. Opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice. Information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy and interpretation are not guaranteed.


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