tech support scamsIt seems like there’s nothing scammers wouldn’t exploit to get to your wallet or personal information. Starting sometime late last decade with an explosion of fake Indian call centers targeting English speakers, tech support scams are now nearly a global phenomenon. With scammers making billions from targeting less tech-savvy individuals, these scams are still going strong. This behavior hasn’t gone unchallenged, though, as the Federal Trade Commission shut down major scam outlets on several occasions, sometimes working alongside Microsoft, which has grown tired of scammers abusing its brand. Although these intentions and efforts may have made a small dent in tech support scams, they have also given rise to new scammers with new tactics. Here are some of the more popular tech support scams you should be aware of.

Unsolicited phone calls

Phone scams are tech support scammers’ bread and butter. They typically involve individuals pretending to work for major tech companies – usually Microsoft, Apple or Dell – who call to offer you checkups for your devices, requiring payment or complete control over your device to complete the checkup. In the past, mostly older Windows users were targeted for these types of scams, but the ubiquity of Internet-compatible devices has allowed scammers to expand their reach. From senior PC users to young Android owners, now no one is safe from a tech support phone scam.

If you fall for the scam, the best case scenario is that you’ll be overcharged for software that you can find cheaper or free elsewhere. Usually, though, scammers will request remote access to your device to “show” you what’s wrong. If they’re particularly cruel, they might actually put malware on your machine once they have remote access, including ransomware that will make it so you no longer have access to your device or certain files on your device. That said, normally scammers just charge your credit card for bogus service or warranty programs. The scam doesn’t necessarily end here either, as some scammers might pretend to offer you a refund months later if you weren’t happy with their service, but you’ll have to provide personal information, such as your banking information, before they “return” any money. A recent twist on phone scams involves scammers pretending to be from an international organization like the Global Privacy Enforcement Network, a real entity that investigates spam and fraud. They’ll request access to your personal accounts by alleging your email was hacked and involved in some form of criminal activity. If you refuse to work with the scammer, they’ll claim affiliation to government agencies like the FTC and threaten legal action, such as issuing an arrest warrant.

Warning signs to look out for

As with many phone scams, the biggest tipoff is that no tech company or government-affiliated organization would make unsolicited phone calls offering repairs or threatening legal action. Even if they mention information that is accurate and personally relevant, as was the case for some Dell customers recently, unsolicited calls are almost always scams. Simply hanging up is the best solution but, while it’s easy to do, keep in mind that scammers are persistent and might continue calling back indefinitely. As a precaution, you can place yourself on a do not call list, although scammers likely won’t respect this. Still, it will cut down on the number of unsolicited calls you receive, which will make scammers’ approaches more obvious since most legitimate companies comply with no call lists. If you’ve already fallen for the scam, you’ll want to immediately report it to the FTC, cancel any credit cards or accounts you might have shared with the scammer and take your computer to a reputable, local computer shop so that you can speak to someone in person about your issue.

Fake search engine listings

Scammers know that they can’t get everyone with unsolicited cold calls, which is why some scams require victims’ initiative. Phony tech support groups list themselves on search engines; oftentimes they’re paying for advertisements for their group so their fake sites appear as top search results for those looking for tech support. In other cases, scammers steal a legitimate brand’s assets to push their fake site, as Malwarebytes recently experienced. The scam site appeared on Bing as a top search result for “certified support Malwarebytes.” As Malwarebytes pointed out, it’s far from the only brand that has been impersonated in this manner.

Warning signs to look out for

While search engines, including Bing, have now cut support of third-party tech support advertisements which will hopefully curtail this scam, it’s still important to be on the lookout for fake pages. The best way to avoid this scam is to only search for support on the official website of the company you’re requesting help from. This will ensure that you’re only getting legitimate information from a first-party source. If you’re not sure how to find the legitimate company’s website, be sure to only search for the company’s name. For example, you’ll want to search “Microsoft’s website” instead of “Microsoft’s tech support website,” as the latter may provide illegitimate results.

False system alerts

Imitating the “Your PC might be INFECTED!” pop-ups of the 2000s, false security alerts have made a comeback, but they’ve become much more sophisticated. Today’s false notifications resemble real system errors and instead of just appearing in your browser, you might see them on your computer, which adds to their perceived authenticity. With this tactic, the distinction between tech support scammers and hackers essentially erodes, as these notifications affect your computer using some of the same tricks malware authors do. Sometimes these alerts are merely annoyances, but other times they might prevent you from logging into your computer – essentially a soft form of ransomware. In some cases, scammers might actually install ransomware or other malware onto your system. This harassment won’t stop until you contact them for support, usually by phone, where you’ll likely be exposed to the tactics described above. See our ransomware guide to learn more about this vicious form of malware.

Warning signs to look out for

As horrifying as this scam seems, it’s easily beaten with prevention. While it can be hard to identify where or how these alerts got onto your device, often they’re delivered through what are called malvertisements, which secretly install programs to your machine. Because of this, many of the same cybersecurity practices will protect you from both – namely, making sure your operating system is up to date and that you consider investing in an Internet security software with anti-exploit features.

Keep reading our identity theft protection blog to keep up with the latest threats to your identity and wallet.