We all know the frustration. A new piece of tech isn’t working the way it should. Or maybe setting it up is simply turning into a royal pain. Grrr, right? Just make sure that when you go on the hunt for some help, you don’t let a tech support scam get the better of you.
Like so many scams out there, tech support scams play on people’s emotions. Specifically, the frustration you feel when things don’t work right. You want that problem fixed right now. So much so that you may not pay close enough attention to that tech support link you found in a search or came across in an ad. Tech support that looks legitimate but isn’t.
Tech support scams make good money for bad actors. In fact, the larger tech support scam operations organize and run themselves like a business, with call centers, marketing teams, finance groups, and so forth—and can rack up some serious profits to boot.
They make their money in several ways. Sometimes they’ll charge large fees to fix a non-existent problem. Other times, they’ll install information-stealing malware under the guise of software that’s supposed to correct an issue. In some cases, they’ll ask for remote access to your computer to perform a diagnosis but access your computer to steal information instead.
Fortunately, these scams are rather easy to spot. And avoid. If you know what to look for.
What do tech support scams look like?
Let’s start with a quick overview of tech support scams. They tend to work in two primary ways.
First, there are the scams that actively track you down.
This could be a phone call that comes from someone posing as a rep from “Microsoft” or “Apple.” The scammer on the other end of the line will tell you that there’s something wrong with your computer or device. Something urgently wrong. And then offers a bogus solution to the bogus problem, often at a high cost. Similarly, they may reach you by way of a pop-up ad. Again telling you that your computer or device is in need of urgent repair. These can find you a few different ways:
- By clicking on links from unsolicited emails.
- From pop-up ads from risky sites.
- Via pop-ups from otherwise legitimate sites that have had malicious ads injected.
- By way of spammy phone calls made directly to you, whether by robocall or a live operator.
Second, there are the scams that lie in wait.
These are phony services and sites that pose as legitimate tech support but are anything but. They’ll place search ads, post other ads in social media, and so forth, ready for you to look up and get in touch with when you have a problem that you need fixed. Examples include:
- Online classified ads, forum posts, and blog sites.
- Ads on Social media sites such as Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and Tumblr.
- Search results—scammers place paid search ads too!
Tech support scams target everyone—not just the elderly
While tech support scammers can and do prey on older computer users, they’re not the only ones. An apparent lack of computer savviness certainly makes older users an attractive target, yet it also seems that an apparent overconfidence in one’s savviness makes younger victims susceptible to tech support scams too. Turns out that the growing majority of victims worldwide are between 18 and 35 years old, a group that has known the internet for most, if not all, of their lives. That’s according to research from Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit, which found the 1 in 10 of people between the ages of 18 and 35 who encountered a tech support scam fell for it and lost money.
Whatever the age group, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that the reported losses in the U.S. are into the millions, which of course does not account for the assumedly millions more that do not go reported.
How to spot and avoid tech support scams
- With regards to ads and search results, keep an eye open for typos, awkward language, or poor design and logos that looks like they could be a knockoff of a trusted brand. Check out our blog article that offers a field guide of what these ads and search results look like.
- Don’t fall for the call. If someone calls you with an offer of “tech support.” Chances are, it’s a scam. And if they ask for payment in gift cards or cryptocurrency like bitcoin, it’s absolutely a scam. Just hang up.
- Note that the big tech companies like Apple and Microsoft will not call you with offers of tech support or an alert that “something is wrong with your computer.” Such calls come from imposters. Moreover, in many cases, the company will offer free support as part of your purchase or subscription that you can get on your own when you need it. (For example, that’s the case with our products.)
- Don’t click on any links or call any numbers that suddenly appear on your screen and warn you of a computer problem. Again, this a likely sign of an attempted scam. Often, this will happen while browsing. Simply close your browser and open a fresh browser window to clear the ad or link.
- Go to the source. Contact the company directly for support, manually type their address into your browser or call the number that came with the packaging or purchase. Don’t search. This will help you avoid imposters that choke up search results with bogus ads.
- Protect your browsing. Use a safe browsing extension that can spot malicious sites and help prevent you clicking on them by mistake. Comprehensive online protection software will offer protect your browsing, in addition to protection from malware and viruses.
Lastly, a good piece of general advice is to keep your devices and apps up to date. Regular updates often include security fixes and improvements that can help keep scammers and hackers at bay. You can set your devices and apps to download them automatically. And if you need to get an update or download it on your own, get it from the company’s official website. Stay away from third-party sites that may host malware.
What to do if you think you’ve been scammed:
1. Change your passwords.
This will provide protection if the scammer was able to access your account passwords in some form. While this can be a big task, it’s a vital one. A password manager that’s part of comprehensive online protection can make it much easier.
2. Run a malware and virus scan right away.
Delete files or apps that the software says is an issue. Do the same for other devices on your network too. Experienced and determined scammers can infect them as well simply by gaining access to one device on your network.
3. Stop payment.
Contact your bank, credit card company, online payment platform, or wire transfer service immediately to reverse the charges. File a fraud complaint as well. The sooner you act, the better chance you have of recovering some or all your money. (Note that this is a good reason to use credit cards for online purchases, as they afford extra protection that debit cards and other payment services do not.)
4. Report the scam.
In the U.S., you can contact https://www.ftc.gov/complaint, which reports the claim to thousands of law enforcement agencies. While they cannot resolve your individual issue, your report can help with broader investigations and build a case against scammers—which can make the internet safer for others. Their list of FAQs is particularly helpful too, answering important questions like “how do I get my money back?”
Enjoy your stuff!
Here’s to holiday tech that works. And to quick fixes when things don’t go as planned. In all, if you find yourself staring down a technical issue, go straight to the source for help as we’ve outlined above. As you can see, scammers have burrowed themselves alongside otherwise legitimate ads, search results, and forums online, ready to take advantage of you when you need to get things working right.
Likewise, keep an eye and ear open for those scammers who’ll reach out to you, particularly this time of year when so many people are getting so many new devices. Realizing that legitimate tech support won’t call you out of the blue is a great place to start. In all, go with the pros you know—the ones you can reach at the companies you trust.