Tech Support Scams
Do I have computer problems?
Over the last year or two tech support scams have exploded on the scene. The fraudsters tell people that there are problems with their computer, and then want to remote in (take over control) over the consumer’s computer, claim that there is spyware or another dangerous problem with the computer, and offer to fix it. But there normally are no real problems, and consumers pay $500 or more to fix a nonexistent problem. Note that IT people working in assisted living facilities could be great resources in warning consumer about these scams.
How often does this happen?
In my view, this is a huge problem and for most of us it isn’t a question of if we will be approached by this scam, but when. Tech support complaints have been rising dramatically over the last couple of years. The Federal Trade Commission received roughly 30,000 complaints about these in 2015. FTC studies also indicate that, overall, less than 10% of consumers victimized by fraud complain to law enforcement or a Better Business Bureau, so the problem is assuredly much higher. This problem is compounded with tech support because many people do not even realize they have been defrauded.
I personally know at least six people (included my own Mom) who have lost money to this scam in the last year. Though the fraudsters will take money from anyone, from what I’ve seen victims are disproportionately older people.
This scam is operating all over the world. The London Metro Police, for example, has issued its own warnings about these scams.
How are people drawn into this fraud?
Three ways. Sponsored links, cold calls, and responding to pop ups.
A. Sponsored links. When you do a search on a search engine such as Google the first items to appear are advertisements. Companies pay the search engines for this advertising space, which helps pay for the search engine. If someone searches for “tech support” or for a computer problem these ads will appear, often claiming to be associated with Microsoft or approved by them. But in fact many of these links go directly to scammers. Microsoft recently announced it is no longer allowing sponsored links for tech support on its Bing search engine. They simply can’t verify that tech support companies are what they claim to be, and Microsoft has been deluged with complaints about tech support scams.
B. The cold call. Consumers may also get a call from someone claiming to be Comcast, Norton, Dell, or another company saying that their computer sent out a signal saying that there is a spyware problem, and the company wants to remote into the computer and see if there is a problem. Inevitably they find problems and offer to fix them – for a healthy price. I got one of these calls at home myself not long ago.
C. Pop ups. Today many consumers are getting pop up alerts on their computer saying that they have a problem and need to call a telephone number to resolve “problems.” Sometimes these will even freeze the computer and loud warnings will come out of the speaker. When you call in response the “tech support” people go through the same dance and again you lose your money.
What is the cost and how do people pay?
From what I’ve seen, consumers generally pay $500-$600. Often the scammers will ask for larger sums for continuing support for another year or so if problems come up again. Most of the time scammers ask people to pay by credit card, but I’ve seen situations where they have been asked to pay by the fraudster’s best friends: Western Union or MoneyGram. If the caller asks for anything other than a credit card you can be next to certain it is a fraud.
Who is behind these?
I believe many of the scammers started doing legitimate tech support and then found that there is oodles of money in defrauding consumers. Many of these, especially the direct phone calls, come from India. After all, India has a well-educated group of people that often do outsourced work for U.S. companies. But there are also boiler rooms doing this in the U.S. in some of the common locales for fraud, such as Florida. But they are not going to tell you the truth about where they are located.
What do I do if I’ve been scammed?
If you have paid with credit card contact your credit card company, tell them you’ve been defrauded and ask for your money back. All credit card companies provide such “charge-backs” to consumers who have been ripped off. Since consumers did authorize the original charge, (though only because they were lied to) it may take some effort to get the charge reversed.
But complaining to them is important. Credit card companies monitor charge back rates, and cut off businesses that have high levels of charge backs. Even charge back rates of 1% or so may be enough to raise red flags with the credit card companies.
If consumers pay by Western Union or MoneyGram it is also important to complain directly to those companies. They know where the money was actually picked up – which may be different from where the consumer asked it to be sent – and they add that information to the complaints and download them into to the FTC’s database of consumer complaints, Consumer Sentinel, that is available to over 3000 different law enforcement agencies.
Of course consumers can also call the tech support company to complain. In my experience, consumers who threaten to go to the BBB or the FTC often get refunds. This tactic may not work for scammers operating from India.
Do I have to worry about my computer if I’ve let a tech support person remote into my computer?
One concern is that the scammers may not only not remove spyware or other problems – but that they could affirmatively place spyware on a computer. There are hidden programs called keystroke loggers that capture everything done on a computer and then email it back surreptitiously to a scammer. This software may be able to get passwords and log in information for online bank accounts, etc.
This seems to be fairly rare, at least at present. If it were my computer I would probably take it into a brick and mortar store to have it checked out.
What is law enforcement doing about this?
The FTC has brought six or more cases against these scams over the last several years. The FTC has no criminal authority, so it seeks injunctions and tried to get refunds to victims.
In the Vast case the FTC alleges that the company took consumers for over $120 million. I also understand that there were nearly 1000 people working in this sales room in Tampa.
I’m aware of only one US criminal action so far. On May 11 a guilty plea was announced in federal court in South Carolina against Linda B. Massey, 70, alleging that she collected the money from consumer victims on behalf of a coconspirator in India.
What do I do if I really do have a problem with my computer?
I would advise taking it to an actual brick and mortar store to fix. I know it is a hassle, but better to be safe. I recently posed this question to Microsoft, and their recommendation is also to take it to a brick and mortar.
Where do I complain?
The Better Business Bureaus are always helpful, and if the company has a presence in the U.S. it will often give refunds. Of course also complain to the Federal Trade Commission at 877- FTC – help (877 382-4357) or online at ftc.gov.
How can we help prevent these?
This is an area where a little education can go a long ways. And as noted before, I know some senior living facilities have IT people on staff to handle the computer systems for a facility. It might be possible to alert these people and ask them to pass the word to residents to be careful, or to ask them before allowing anyone to remote into their computers.
Consumer education materials
Brochures and similar Materials from the FTC are available for free and in bulk. Here is their alert on tech support :https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/official-sounding-calls-about-email-hack
Note also that the FTC has no copyright on its materials, so feel free to adapt them to your own uses.
And the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center issued an alert on tech support fraud on June 2, 2016.
Steve Baker, Updated 12/6/16
Steve recently retired from as Director of the FTC’s Midwest Region, after working on consumer fraud for more than 30 years. He was recently elected to the national board of directors of the Better Business Bureau.