Instead of getting you out of a jam, tech support scams get you into one. And they can get costly.
Tech support scammers had a banner year in 2022. They raked in more than $800 million in the U.S. alone, according to the FBI’s list of reported cases. The actual figure climbs higher when you factor in all the unreported cases. And it goes yet higher still when you consider all the victims worldwide.
In all, tech support scams make up a multi-billion-dollar industry.
They make their money several ways. Sometimes the scammers who run them 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. Or they could hit you with several of the above.
You can stumble across these scams on your own as you go about your day online. Other times, they find you, such as when the scammer calls you directly.
One of our employees shared his story when a tech support scammer called his wife out of the blue:
I was messing around on my computer before dinner. My wife came in with a strange look on her face as she told the person on the phone, “I think you might want to talk to my husband about that.” Once on the phone I was greeted with, “Hi, this is Rick from Windows support and we’re calling because your computer is sending junk files to the internet.” I knew there was no way he was from “Windows support” since a reputable company isn’t going to call me up out of the blue like this, but as a security researcher I was curious, so I jumped right in.
“Rick” said that to fix my issue he needed me to install a free remote access tool and give him access to my system. Letting an unknown person access my actual computer seemed like a bad idea, so I let him log on to a “virtual machine” that I use for security testing. The first thing he did was turn off my security software, including the antivirus and firewall. After doing that, he downloaded a file that he tried to install. Since I had additional security software in place he wasn’t aware of, the installation failed each time he tried to run it. At this point, I had the file he was trying to install, the IP address he was connecting from, and the site he used to get the malicious file. I told “Rick” that I work for a security company and would like to know what he was actually looking for. I’m fairly certain he hung up before I completed my sentence.
Sure enough, after the call, a malware scan confirmed that “Rick” wanted to install a remote access tool (RAT) that would have given him full control of the computer.
That’s one example of how these scams go. They get costly too. The FBI further reported that the average loss for a tech support scam approached $25,000. In some cases, pop-up “security alert” ads spearheaded scams that cost people $200,000 and upwards to $1 million.
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 track you down.
This might 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 might reach you by way of a pop-up ad. Again telling you that your computer or device needs urgent repairs. These can find you a few different ways:
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 on 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:
How to spot and avoid tech support scams
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 on your own, get it from the company’s official website. Stay away from third-party sites that might host malware.
What to do if you think you’ve been scammed:
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