Catch Of The Week: Tech Support Scams

Los Alamos

Your phone rings, you pick up, and it’s “Microsoft” calling to let you know that you have “a virus” on your computer. What do you do?

  1. Pay whatever they are asking to have them remove it.
  2. Hang up.
  3. My computer has a virus?? OH NO!!! Kill it with fire!!!

Hopefully, you answered, “B. Hang up.”  Microsoft, Apple, Dell, etc. will NEVER ever call you to tell you there is a problem with your computer.  These scammers will try to get you to hand over remote access to your computer so they can “fix” it. They will then install malware to lock up your computer and ask you to pay a “fee” to fix it.

This is not how tech support plans work.  You will always be the initiator for tech support requests, so if you get one of these calls, hang up. 

But did you know that there is more to these tech support scams then just phone calls?  Read on…

The “Pop-up” Scam

You are browsing the internet when a giant pop up fills your screen “YOUR COMPUTER IS INFECTED WITH MALWARE CLICK HERE.”  These pop-ups are themed to look like they come from a legitimate source, such as Norton or Symantec antivirus.  

It is best not to click on the X to close the window; instead use the Windows task manager by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Del buttons to bring up the task manager, and then kill the browser process.  If you are using a Mac, you can press Cmd+Opt+Esc to bring up the Force Quit menu and select the app you want to kill. If the pop-up reappears after you have done this and restarted your browser, reboot your computer; this should make the pop-up go away.

To avoid these, avoid clicking the “click bait” ads along the bottom and sides of websites.  These are ads, but they are themed to look like legitimate web page content.  Use an ad blocker like AdBlocker Plus, and set your browser settings to block pop-ups and ads as much as possible.

Advertising/Paid Search/Confusing Results Scams 

Companies can pay Google and other search engines to “optimize” their search results, putting them at the top of your search.  Be careful before you click on search results!  You might end up calling an imposter and getting ripped off.  Make sure you are clicking or calling the official company, not a look-alike site’s number.  Don’t assume that you have found the official information- always go to the company’s official website directly to verify. 

Amazon’s customer service numbers have been frequently spoofed in Google and other searches.  Just go directly to your Amazon account to contact them, do not Google or use Facebook to search for this information. 

Tech Support “Refund” Scam

If you are unlucky enough to fall for a tech support scam, guess what?  The scammers save your contact information so they can call you back to ask you if you were happy with the “services” you got.  If you say, no…they will offer to give you a refund and ask for your bank account, credit card or other payment information.  Another possible angle- they will say they are going out of business, and that is why they are refunding you.  Just hang up. 

What’s the Deal with These Scams?

A whole industry has evolved around the tech support scams, mostly based out of India.  There are entire call centers of people who make their living ripping people off. In 2018 alone, people reported losing $55 million to tech support scams, according to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission).  People aged 60 and older were about five times more likely to report losing money to these scams.  The FBI reported a 161% increase in victim’s losses to these in 2018.  

What Can You Do?

Some good advice from the FTC:

These scams are not going away any time soon; the people behind them are making too much money.  Be aware, don’t get scammed!  If something feels wrong, it probably is.

Editor’s note: Becky Rutherford works in information technology at Los Alamos National Laboratory.