New Twist to the Tech Support Scam

Man in suit holding 'We are here to help' sign
After seven long years, the tech support scam continues as a reigning rip-off, generating more reports nationwide to the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline (877-908-3360) than any scheme except the IRS impostor ruse. Microsoft estimates that another 3.3 million Americans will fall victim in 2015, losing an estimated $1.5 billion to fraudsters posing as its or other tech company employees.

The typical scenario is scary enough: Callers (sometimes from overseas boiler rooms) claim that your computer is infected with a dangerous virus, but it’s merely a lie to get payment for fraudulent tech support services and to gain remote access to your files.

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But in the latest twist, tech support scammers have been using ransomware — a type of malware that freezes computers and encrypts files, leaving them inaccessible until a ransom is paid.

In this new dual dupe, uncovered by security software manufacturer Symantec (maker of Norton products), some websites that pitch questionable tech support services are simultaneously dishing out ransomware.

The unwary are often led to these websites via pop-up messages claiming a tech or performance problem, tempting users to download ransomware-laden software or to call a number.

“If a victim falls for the scam and dials the number, professional-sounding call center staff members use the opportunity to install malware or potentially unwanted applications (PUAs) onto the user’s computer,” explains Symantec threat analyst Deepak Singh. They do this by persuading targets to visit websites or follow instructions that provide the con artists with remote access to their computers.

“Unfortunate victims could end up paying both the fake tech support scam for ‘help’ and the ransom to decrypt their files.” That amounts to a pretty penny: Tech support scammers charge up to $750 for their nonexistent services (in addition to accessing your files for possible identity theft); ransomware fees are generally between $200 and $10,000, says the FBI.

So ignore pop-up messages claiming you need to download software or “call for support,” and don’t click within the pop-up. The good news: “Most tech support scams that currently operate are browser-based annoyances that can be easily resolved if the victim knows how,” Singh adds. “By manually closing and reopening the browser through Windows Task Manager, users can make their browser usable again. This workaround is likely to be responsible for a lower conversion rate for the scammers.”

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Other ways to beat tech support scams:

  • Know that Microsoft, computer manufacturers and protection-software companies don’t make “personal” phone calls or send email warnings about an infection in a particular computer. When real threats are detected, a security update or warning is usually sent en masse and directly to your computer via the antivirus protection already installed on your machine.
  • Don’t be fooled if a phony tech support caller knows your name, address or even the operating system you’re using. Cybercrooks select their targets through public phone directories and often guess your operating system by citing more popular ones.
  • Unless you initiate contact with a trusted technology assistance firm like Geek Squad, never give strangers remote access to your computer. (They may get it by asking you to type a certain code, to download a program they provide or to provide them with your username and password.)
  • At least once a week, check for updates in your security software, and run scans several times a week. PC users can also check for malware with the Microsoft Safety Scanner and/or install Microsoft Security Essentials, a free program. Mac users should regularly run Software Update.
  • If you’ve already been swindled in this scam, beware of follow-up messages claiming that you’re entitled to a “refund” for fees you already paid. That’s another maneuver that aims to get your bank account information for a supposed direct-deposit reimbursement. “But instead of putting money in your account,” warns the Federal Trade Commission, “the scammers withdraw money from your account.”


For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network . You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and gain access to a network of experts, law enforcement and people in your community who will keep you up to date on the latest scams in your area.

Photo: StockFinland/iStock

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