Tech support scams are very common these days. The scammers attempt to make you believe that you have a serious problem going on with your computer – like an invasive virus. They talk you into paying for tech support services that you do not need, for a problem that does not actually exist. They also usually ask you to pay them by wiring money, gift cards, reloadable cash card, P2P payment app, or something similar.
So how do you protect yourself?
Let’s start by identifying two of the most common scams… the more familiar you are with the scams, the easier they are to spot.
This is the most common tech support scam. You get a call from “Microsoft” (or other well known large tech company) claiming that your computer is infected with a virus. They will then ask you to allow them remote access to your computer where they pretend to run diagnostic software. They will always “find” something that needs immediate attention (usually virus or malware) and they will ask you to pay them to fix it. These are NEVER real. NEVER. If you get one of these calls, hang up immediately.
Another common phone scam is the refund scam. These are basically someone calling you telling you that you will get a refund for services that you paid for. What do I mean? Typically these calls start with the caller asking if you were happy with your services or they will tell you that you are getting a refund due to the company closing or an overpayment… things of that nature. They will ask you for personal information – mainly banking or credit card information to “issue your refund” to you. These are scams. NEVER give them your bank, credit card, or other payment information. Hang up!
Fake Pop-Up Warnings
Some tech support scams begin as a fake popup. Have you ever been browsing the web and suddenly you get a small screen popup that says something like “WARNING! COMPUTER VIRUS ALERT! THREAT DETECTED. Contact a live technician immediately at 1-888-000-0000.” Real security warnings will NEVER ask you to call a phone number. NEVER CALL THAT NUMBER. Close the window or popup or restart your computer – whatever it takes to get that to go away.
Fake Online Ads/Fake Support Sites
Scammers even go so far as to build their own fake tech support webpages and pay for online search engine ads. They do that in the hopes that you will call them directly. It is best to go with a tech support company that is local and that you can trust. If you do not know any personally, ask a friend or family member for a recommendation.
Scammers have preferences for how they would like to get paid. Crooks need to get your money from you in a way that is not traceable or erasable. Here are the most common:
Credit cards, debit cards, and checks
A scammer will very rarely accept payment via credit card, debit card, or check. These transactions are all closely monitored and recorded by the large issuing financial organization and crooks don’t want Visa or Bank of America coming after them.
Retail gift cards
These cards are actually one of the top choices for scammers. They LOVE gift cards. The cards can easily and quickly be used to buy other gift cards (making them untraceable) or sold online at a discount for cash.
The surge in popularity of online crypto currency have made this an attractive form of payment for scammers. Crypto currency (such as Bitcoin) is not traceable.
Cash is always king!
Peer-to-Peer apps or websites
This type of person to person payment (Venmo, Zelle, PayPal, CashApp, and more) is intended for people who know one another to more easily send money to each other… but these transactions are not very secure. Never accept a payment or transfer request from a stranger.
Wire transfers are convenient and useful however they are mostly untraceable and have very limited protections. You also will not be able to recover funds once they have been sent.
Legitimate tech companies will not contact you out of the blue to tell you that you have a problem with your computer.
Security warning popups that are legitimate will never ask you to call a phone number
So what can you do if you think there is a real problem with your computer?
If you think you have a virus or malware or other computer issue start by updating your computer’s security software and run a scan. If you need assistance, go to someone you know and trust.
You may be asking yourself, “what can I do if I fell for one of these scams?” The answer really depends on which scam and how you paid the scammers.
If you let someone have access, they could have installed malicious software or a backdoor into your computer. If they did not do anything malicious to your computer then the machine itself should be fine to continue to use… though you may want to have a trusted professional take a look at it just in case.
If they never had access to your computer, say you saw one of those fake warning popups but did not call the number, it should be fine to continue using.
If you gave your username and password (any username or password) to the scammer, make sure to change that password right away. If you have used that same password with other accounts – change all of those as well. Make sure that your new password is strong as can be. Even better, use an authenticator app.
Either way, make sure your antivirus is up to date, run a scan, and remove anything that the scanner finds.
Now as far as payment goes… if you paid using a credit card, debit card, or check – your bank may be able to stop the transaction and get your money back. You need to contact them as soon as possible though and explain what happened. If you paid with a gift card, cash, wire transfer, crypto currency, or P2P app odds are extremely low that they will be able to help you recover any funds. It is always a good idea to try but those types of transactions are immediate fund transfers and not traceable.
Make sure to report the scam
If you have received a scam phone call make sure to report that to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. Here is a handy video from the FTC on why it is important to report these criminals>