Tech Support Scams: Think Twice Before Fixing a So-Called “Urgent” Computer Problem

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), tech support scammers use a variety of methods to convince their victims that they are having urgent computer problems. Scam tactics may include pop-up warning messages that appear on the victim’s computer, phony tech support websites, or calls impersonating well-known technology companies—all in an effort to get the victim’s money or personal or financial information. Learn these 6 ways to better protect yourself and your loved ones from tech support scams.

Fake Computer Problems Used to Lure Victims

Tech support scammers may contact victims under the guise that there is an urgent problem with their computer. Fraudsters may pressure victims to pay for repairs or request remote access to the victim’s computer to transmit malware that harvests personal or financial information, which could be used for identity theft.

Victims are often asked to pay for the bogus technical assistance they received through a bank transfer or gift card. In some cases identified by the FBI, scammers asked victims to connect to their bank accounts while the criminal still had access to the victim’s computer, enabling the criminal to collect bank account credentials.

Tech support scammers attempt to hook victims through a variety of sophisticated methods, including:

Pop-Up Warnings  

According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), as many as half of tech support scams may begin with an alert message that appears on the victim’s computer screen. This pop-up warning typically encourages the victim to call a phone number for technical assistance or click a link to buy or download bogus antivirus software.

These fake pop-up windows may look like legitimate error messages. They might mimic well-known tech brands, be accompanied by blaring audio alarms, or display a list of so-called threatening files on the victim’s computer. These scam pop-ups often won’t go away, even when the victim tries to close the web browser.

Unsolicited Phone Calls

Scammers may impersonate a trustworthy tech company and call victims claiming their computer is infected with a virus or has been infiltrated by hackers—offering to help fix the problems for a fee. According to the BBB, criminals may impersonate companies such as Microsoft, Comcast, Norton, and Dell, and a bogus company name may even appear on the victim’s caller ID. The scammer typically tries to create a sense of urgency to resolve the issues right away and may even pretend to run a diagnostic test.

Scam Websites or Ads

According to experts, some criminal groups create fake tech support websites and run online advertisements that direct victims to their malicious sites. When victims call the support numbers provided on these bogus sites, scammers may remotely connect to the victim’s computer and make it appear that malware is present, offering victims an expensive security package to fix the infected computer.

6 Ways to Better Avoid Tech Support Scams

  • Beware of pop-up warnings - The FTC advises individuals to ignore any tech support pop-up messages they receive. It is advised not to click on a link or call a phone number appearing in a pop-up warning message. Instead, if an individual is worried about a computer virus or other threat, they should seek the advice of their security software provider by calling them directly, using the phone number on the company’s official website, a sales receipt, or product packaging.
  • Hang up on unsolicited tech support phone calls - According to the FTC, an unexpected tech support call is almost always a scam, even if the number looks legitimate. If an individual receives a phone call from someone claiming computer problems, it’s best to hang up. It’s recommended not to rely on caller ID, as scammers may use "spoofing" techniques to make it appear they are calling from a legitimate number.
  • Seek trusted tech support - It’s recommended to use technical support from a trusted resource, such as official support of a well-known software company or a local store that sells computer equipment. It’s advised to search for the organization’s correct contact information number on the internet or official correspondence. When searching for tech support online, beware of sponsored ads, as they may link to websites that scam consumers. It’s advised to never give remote computer access to a third party unless it is a confirmed representative of a computer support team that you contacted.
  • Safeguard personal and financial information - The FTC advises never sharing a bank account, credit card, or Social Security number with anyone who contacts you. It’s recommended never to share passwords.
  • Keep software up-to-date - It’s recommended to keep security software, browsers, and the computer’s operating system up-to-date, as well as use antivirus software to regularly scan devices for malware. It’s best to purchase security software from a known company, or, if it’s an unfamiliar company, conduct an internet search on the provider name to see if it has been linked to adware or scams.
  • Share information about tech support scams with family members and friends - Experts recommend talking with older relatives or friends about how to better identify and avoid tech support fraud.

If You Believe You Have Been A Victim of a Tech Support Scam

If you believe you or a loved one have been a victim of a tech support scam, the FTC recommends reporting it on the FTC Complaint Assistance website. It’s also advised to:

  • Contact the credit card company, bank, or gift card provider immediately if you paid a tech support scammer using one of these means
  • Update any usernames or passwords that may have been exposed, including other online accounts that use the same or similar password
  • Update the computer’s security software and run a scan
  • Remove any software that may have been used to authorize remote access to the device
  • Have the computer inspected by a trusted professional