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Everything You Need to Know About Tech Support Scams

Tech support scams will try to prey on your emotions to steal your money or information.

If you were to count how many times a day you used some kind of technology, how many do you think it would be? Depending on how you define technology (does a car count? What about a microwave?) the answer could be in the thousands. And most of the time we don’t think much about it – at least until it stops working properly or we start to suspect it’s been hacked or compromised. It’s natural to be afraid of hackers and computer viruses. They’re scary, and they can do a lot of damage. But scammers know this too. They use tech support scams to exploit our fear and steal our money or compromise our devices themselves. But you don’t have to be easy prey for a tech support scammer. This comprehensive article will tell you what you need to know to be on the lookout for these tricks.

What is a Tech Support Scam?

A tech support scam is a specific type of scam where the scammer pretends to be a tech support person. They convince you that there’s something very wrong with your device and it will compromise your privacy, your safety, or your ability to use it. But they claim they’re here to help and they can fix it. All you need to do is exactly what they tell you to do.

Scammers ultimately only want one thing: Money. They don’t care whose money or where it came from, just that they get access to it. They are perfectly happy to steal it or trick you into handing it over if they can. But often they’re just as happy to get your information. Depending on what information they get, they can either use it to steal your money or sell it to someone who will give them money for it.

Even though the goal never changes, the methods do. In tech support scams, there are a few different methods they use to achieve their goals. They may try to sell you useless or nonexistent services, or claim you have to pay a fee to get the problem fixed. Depending on what tactic they use, they might just steal that money, or they might also steal your credit card information. They may claim they need personal information to “verify” you and then use that information to steal your identity. Or they may get you to put malware on your computer so they can see everything on your computer and steal your information or your passwords.

How Tech Support Scams Work

Just like other scams, tech support scams go through a process designed to part you with your money and information as easily as possible. Knowing how it works can help you spot when it’s happening. Here is the process that these scams go through.

Step 1: The Scammer Reaches You

No scam can work if the scammer doesn’t get in touch with you. So the scammer finds some way to reach you. Tech support scams often start with the scammer calling you out of the blue. But that’s not the only way for it to happen. They may send you an email telling you about some account issue and asking you to call a number. They may create a fake website that looks like the real tech support page for a real company to trick people who actually need help into calling. And sometimes they create pop-up advertisements that look like computer error messages with a phone number for you to call. Those especially worry people because they do look a lot like a genuine error message.

Tech support scams work best over the phone. So however the scammer gets your attention first, they are eventually going to try to get you on the phone.

Step 2: They Scare You

Once the scammer gets you on the phone, it’s time to get you on the hook for the tech support scam. That means scaring you. They will do everything they can to convince you that there’s something really wrong with your device. You have a virus, you’ve been hacked, your software license has expired and you’re going to get sued, your computer was used to download child porn – they have all sorts of different problems with terrible consequences they can tell you about.

If you called a fake number looking for real support, they’ll tell you the problem is so much worse than you thought. If they were the one who contacted you, they will pull out all kinds of tricks to try to convince you. They may direct you to a screen that shows perfectly normal device function, but rely on the fact that you don’t understand the numbers or charts and tell you it means you’re compromised. Sometimes they direct you to go to a website they have set up that says your device is compromised whether or not it actually is. And sometimes they direct you to a normal, legitimate website and try to convince you something that website says means you’re in danger. They can will make up anything they can to provide “proof” that you should be scared.

Step 3: They Have a Solution

Once they’ve built up your fear and convinced you that you’re under threat, they can move into the scam part of a tech support scam. Yes, what’s happening to your device is terrifying and you should be afraid – but luckily you’re on the phone with tech support, and they have a solution! All you have to do is follow their instructions.

What these instructions are varies. If they’re after just money, the instructions are simple – you have to pay them. Some of them say that you have to buy a maintenance plan, warranty, protection program, or repair service. Or they may ask for a fee, a service charge, or to pay some other cost so that they can fix it. These are straightforward attempts to steal your money. Sometimes they let you pay with a credit card so they can steal your money and commit financial fraud on your accounts. And sometimes they ask for a non-refundable payment method, like gift cards, cryptocurrency, or a payment app like Venmo.

If they’re after information, they may ask you to “verify” your personal information or enter it on a website. But they will most likely walk you through installing software on your device. That software may give them remote access to your device. In fact, they may claim they need access to fix the issue. But once they have it, they can see every single thing on your device – and even access any network it’s connected to. The other type of software they may have you install is malware. Sometimes they don’t tell you they’re installing it, just have you click on a malicious link that does it for you. The malware also gives them access to your device, as well as data like usernames and passwords.

Step 4: There Is No Step Four

At this point, the scammer has what they want. They successfully convinced you that there was something terribly wrong with your device. They got your money or your information. There’s nothing else they want out of this interaction. So they end the conversation. They may tell you that the problem is now fixed, or they may just hang up. Regardless, they’re off the phone. You’ll never hear from them again. And if you realize later on that it was a tech support scam, they’ll be long gone with your money or information.

Signs of a Tech Support Scam

The best way to avoid tech support scams is to know them when you see them. If you can identify that it’s a scam when then try to scare you – or even earlier, when they first try to contact you – you’re much less likely to get taken in by their stories. Here are a few of the warning signs you should watch out for.

The Call is Unexpected

Tech support doesn’t call you. Think about how many different things a big company like Apple or Microsoft is doing. They don’t have time to monitor every customer’s every device and call them when it looks like there might be a problem. Genuine tech support relies on you to recognize that something isn’t working right and to contact them. If you get an unsolicited call from tech support, it’s really a tech support scam.

They Claim to be From a Big Company

Tech support scammers often pretend to be from big, well-known companies like Apple, Microsoft, or Google. These are companies you know and trust. They hope to exploit the fact that you trust Apple or Microsoft to trick you into trusting them. But these companies are big. They have much more important (and more profitable) things to do to call you about what, from their perspective, is a really small problem. Google, in fact, doesn’t even offer a public number for phone support. And Microsoft explicitly says, “If you didn’t ask us to, we won’t call you to offer support.”

Many bigger companies don’t even have phone-based support unless you’re paying for some kind of service contract. And if you’re paying for a service contract, you’ll know. Don’t rely on caller ID to prove you’re talking to a real company representative, either. It’s very easy for tech support scams to fake caller ID.

The Warning Pop-Up Has a Phone Number

Some tech support scams will try to trick you with a pop-up that looks like an error or warning message from your device. These pop-ups often look very similar to real error messages. They may even use a logo from a company you know and trust. But there’s an easy way to tell that this message is fake: It helpfully includes a phone number you can call to resolve the issue.

Real error messages and warnings don’t provide phone numbers. A genuine error will give you an error code, usually a string of random letters and/or numbers, and leave it up to you to figure out what it means and what to do. If it’s a warning, it will tell you what the problem is and may offer a button to look at the relevant settings. But a genuine pop-up won’t tell you to call a particular phone number.

They Have to Convince You There’s a Problem

We’ve already established that genuine tech support relies on you contacting them. The support process starts when you recognize a problem, then reaching out to tech support and explaining the problem so they can troubleshoot it. Genuine tech support will never need to convince you that there’s an issue with your device. But tech support scams almost always have to provide proof or talk you into believing there’s a problem as the first step of their scam.

If you haven’t experienced a problem with your device, then think really hard about why tech support would need to call you in the first place. Here’s an easy rule to follow: If tech support has to prove to you that there’s a problem, there isn’t really a problem. You can safely hang up. And if you’re really concerned that your device might actually be compromised, keep reading – we address that later on.

You’re Feeling Strong Emotions

Scammers want to get you emotional. The stronger your emotions, the less room you have for rational thought. And the less you’re able to think rationally, the more likely you are to fall for their schemes. Feeling strong emotions is a common sign of a scam. If someone’s telling you something that’s making you feel strongly, it’s time to stop and think about whether or not it’s true.

What emotions the scammer tries to inspire depend on the scam. In the case of tech support scams, it’s often fear. The scammers will talk about all the horrible things wrong with your device or all the terrible consequences that will happen if you don’t deal with this situation right away. Their goal is to make you scared. They hope that if they get you scared enough, you’ll be happy to hand over your money or information to resolve the situation. Unfortunately, it often works.

They Request Unusual Payment Methods

Some tech support scams do take credit cards. But like many scams, they often request payment methods that are weird or unusual. They might ask you to pay with Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency. Or they might request you use a peer-to-peer payment app like CashApp, Venmo, or Zelle. Asking you to go to a store, buy some gift cards, and read them the codes is a common method, too. And some may even request a wire transfer or Western Union.

To determine if a payment method is suspicious, a good rule of thumb is whether or not you could use it to buy a candy bar at your local drugstore. Your local Walgreens or CVS would accept a credit card or debit card. But if you asked to pay for your candy bar with cryptocurrency or a Google Play gift card, your cashier would probably give you a really strange look. Just because the person is asking for a reasonable method of payment doesn’t mean it’s necessarily genuine. But if they ask for any of these unusual payment methods, you can safely hang up – it’s a tech support scam.

How to Protect Yourself from Tech Support Scams

There are steps you can take to keep yourself safe from tech support scams. The first step is to know that they are out there. The second is to know what signs to look for. If you’ve read this far, you’re already familiar with several of the most common signs of a tech support scam. Here are a few other steps you can take to protect yourself.

You can take steps to protect yourself from tech support scams.

Know What Not to Do

If a scammer successfully makes you emotional, it can be hard to think rationally. You can overcome some of this by deciding in advance what you’re not going to do. Never give computer access to someone who called you randomly. Never visit a website you don’t know because a stranger on the phone says you should. And never download software that a stranger on the phone wants you to download. If anyone says you should give them access, go to a website, or download software, it’s time to hang up on them and seek a second opinion. Taking your device to an IT or tech repair person you know and trust is a good next step.

Have a “Tech Support Buddy”

It would be great if your tech support buddy knew things about tech. But they don’t actually have to. The purpose of a tech support buddy is to help protect you from tech support scams. If someone tries to tell you something about any of your devices or anything to do with technology, call your tech support buddy before you take action. Whether or not they know about tech, they won’t be caught up in the emotions of the situation. As an outside observer, they will have a better perspective to tell you if it sounds like a scam.

Be Suspicious of Phone Calls

And we don’t just mean phone calls from tech support out of the blue (although you definitely should be suspicious of those, too). But any call from any number you don’t recognize should be suspicious. Don’t trust caller ID, either. It’s very easy for scammers to spoof it and have it tell you whatever they want it to tell you. If you don’t know the number, don’t answer it. Let it go to voicemail. Then you can listen to the voicemail and determine if you should call the person back. Many scammers won’t bother to leave a voicemail and will just move on.

Don’t Act Quickly

Scammers want you to act immediately. The longer you take to act, the more time you have to think, and they don’t want you to think. If you start thinking about what they want you to do, you might realize it’s a tech support scam. So they will make the problem sound as urgent as they can. But very few computer problems are urgent. Unless your device is smoking or throwing off sparks, you have time to get a second opinion. (And if it is doing one of those things, tech support on the phone isn’t going to be able to help anyway!) Don’t let yourself be hurried into acting or deciding. If the person on the phone wants you to do something right now, that’s a sign that it’s time to slow down and think.

Never Be Afraid to Hang Up

Most of us want to be polite. And we know that just hanging up on someone, without ending the conversation or saying goodbye, is rude. But it’s important to remember that scammers are thieves. They’re trying to trick you however they can to get their hands on your money. The rules of politeness change when the other person is trying to break the law. Hitting people or running away from them are considered rude, too, but if someone on the street tried to snatch your purse or wallet you probably wouldn’t feel bad for doing either. You don’t need to be polite to someone trying to rob you! Just hang up on them.

Signs Your Device is Actually Compromised

Someone on the phone telling you that your device was compromised is almost guaranteed to be a tech support scammer. But what if you’re actually concerned? If hackers or malware did get into your device, you will be able to tell if you’re paying attention. Here are a few signs to watch for:

  • Emails in your “Sent” folder that you didn’t send
  • Browser tabs opened that you didn’t open, or websites in your browser history that you never went to
  • Your browser homepage is different when you didn’t change it
  • New toolbars, new plugins, or new extensions on your browser that you didn’t install
  • An increase in the number of ads you see online, or a change in what types of ads you see
  • Some of your search results are unrelated to what you actually searched for (for example, if you Googled “dog food” and are seeing a bunch of results for shoe stores)
  • New apps or software that you didn’t install
  • Your passwords stop working even though you didn’t change them
  • The device runs more slowly than usual, crashes more often than usual, or gets hotter than usual while running
  • The light beside your webcam comes on unexpectedly

Any of these could be signs that hackers or malware have invaded your device. But if you notice your devices doing anything strange, unusual, or out of the ordinary, or see something new on them that you didn’t add, it’s time to look into it.

What to Do If You’re Concerned About Compromise

If you’re concerned that your device might be compromised, and especially if you’ve noticed any of the warning signs above, it’s time to take action. If you already have an antivirus software, make sure it’s updated. If you don’t have one, get a trusted one. Run a scan and see if anything comes up.

You can also take your device to someone to help you out. If you have a techy friend who would be willing to take a look, that’s a great option. But a local computer repair shop should be able to help out. And many stores that sell computers or computer equipment have a service department. Taking it to someone you know and trust – or at least someone you can meet in person and who you know works for a legitimate business – can help you fix any potential compromise without putting you at more risk.

What to Do If You Got Caught by a Tech Support Scam

If you got caught up in a tech support scam, it’s easy to feel ashamed or embarrassed. But even the smartest, most aware people can get caught by scammers. They are experts at manipulation and trickery, and have even swindled security experts. And even though it may be something you want to forget about, don’t ignore it. That lets the scammer do even more damage. Instead, take these steps to protect yourself.

To start, try to stop the scammer from getting your money. If you gave them your credit card or debit card information, contact your bank or financial institution and tell them the card was compromised. Ask them to cancel and replace the card, and to stop the transaction if it’s still pending. If you paid with a gift card, you can contact the company that issued the card and ask if they can stop the transaction.

If the scammer convinced you to download or install something, immediately uninstall it. Download a trusted antivirus program if you don’t already have one and run a scan. Also consider having a professional do a full virus removal. You should also do this if the scammer got you to click on any links or visit any websites. If they got access to your device in any way, change all your passwords.

Be on alert for other scams in the future, too. Tech support scams often keep lists of people who fell for their scams and sell them to other scammers doing other scams. You may be a target in the future.

Finally, save any evidence you have. Store any emails or text messages they sent, names of software they had you install, or websites they had you go to in a safe place. Then report the scam.

How to Report Tech Support Scams

You can report any tech support scam you encounter – even if you didn’t lose any money or give the scammer any information or access.

If the scammer pretended to be from a particular company, you can often report it to that company. Microsoft lets you report scammers pretending to be Microsoft tech support at microsoft.com/reportascam. If the scammer pretended to be from Apple, you can email a report to [email protected].

You can also report scams directly to the government. In the US, anyone can report a tech support scam to the Federal Trade Commission at reportfraud.ftc.gov. If you were a scam victim in the US, you can also report it to the FBI through ic3.gov. In the UK, you can report scams to Action Fraud. If you were a victim in the EU, you can report it on your country’s reporting website or at your local police station. Almost every country has a cybercrime initiative where you can report scams.

Reporting scams is essential because it lets law enforcement know what happens. Often, they allocate resources based on how many reports they get of different types of crimes. When you report, that increases the resources that can go towards fighting scammers. The information you provide can also help them track what criminals are doing and build a case. That’s why it’s important to save evidence. Law enforcement may need it later on to build a case. Your report could be an essential part of an investigation that puts these scammers behind bars.

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