Tech support scams are gaining momentum, and it’s easy to see why. While our reliance on computers and smartphones has grown, our understanding and knowledge of how our devices work has not kept pace. Over the past decade, ease of use has become a top priority for developers.
Gone are the days of detailed user manuals. Today you should be able to turn on a new device, follow a few onscreen instructions and get started. So when something goes wrong, it can prompt panic, and create a perfect storm for tech support scammers. You turn to Google to search for a remedy, and that’s where trouble can occur with a fake website. But scams can also come to you through a phishing phone call and popup messages. We will go through them all here, but first, take note: If you haven’t run into an issue and you receive an offer of help, it’s a scam.
Let’s start with the phone call. A technical support scammer calls you to say his or her company — usually Microsoft because the majority of people use PCs — has been alerted to a problem on your computer. The scammer then tries to sell you a support package that often includes gaining remote access to your computer.
If you allow the scammer to install software to “fix” your device, what you’ve really done is handed over full control that allows the scammer to install malware on your computer. At that point, your computer could be held for ransom or your keystrokes could be logged to gain access into your financial accounts. Alternately, the scammer may just ask for your credit card to pay for tech support service. Either way you’ve been scammed and put your bank accounts and other sensitive data at risk.
If you receive a phone call like this, hang up. Do not give any information to the caller. If it is a robocall, do not press a number to be connected to a real person because you will only be signaling to the scammer that your number is a good one. You may report suspicious calls to the FTC by visiting https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#crnt&panel1-1.
You may suddenly start seeing popup warnings when you are browsing online if you clicked a bad link. So of course, avoid clicking links on unfamiliar websites, as well as links in social media posts and from unsolicited emails. The popups can make it nearly impossible to close the browser window, and will show messages that say your computer has been infected with a number to call. While the popup may look like it’s coming from a legitimate source such as a security software provider, it is a scam. Force quit your browser and run your antivirus program.
The third type of popular scam occurs when you inadvertently visit a malicious website in search of tech support. This may be a website designed to look like Microsoft, Apple or a well known security software company’s site, or it could be a web ad. Fake tech support ads on Google became such a problem that the company restricted third-party tech support companies from advertising on its ad network last September, a policy that is still in effect. However, scammers are tenacious and find ways to get around the restriction, so you should avoid sponsored content search results and sidebar ads.
If you’ve clicked through to a website from the nonpaid search results, you still need to be careful. Look for a prominent 800 number on the homepage, a common tip-off that it’s a scam website. Legitimate companies don’t use 800 numbers, or at least make them difficult to find because they prefer to use non-human support first such as FAQs and online chat.
Check the URL carefully. Does it begin with https? That tells you it is a secure website compared to one without the “s.” Also look for non-standard domain names in the URL. Most legitimate companies use support.companyname.com, .org or .gov. If you see extra characters, the website is likely fake. Remember, safety certificates and endorsements are easy to spoof, so don’t rely on them. Instead of running a search, go to the main provider’s website like Microsoft, Apple or Dell and find its support page.