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How Do You Spot a Tech Support Scam?
Tech support scams are some of the most insidious — and dangerous — types of cybercrimes.
Fraudsters target vulnerable individuals who fear being hacked, and then trick them into either paying for worthless services, providing sensitive data and financial information, or giving up remote access to their devices.
Even worse, according to the latest FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center Report (IC3) [*]:
2022 was the worst year ever for tech support scams — with victims losing over $800 million to fraudsters.
In this guide, we’ll explain how tech support scams work, the latest scams to watch out for, and how to spot, recover from, and protect against tech support scams in the future.
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What Are Tech Support Scams? How Do They Work?
Tech support scams are a type of social engineering attack where fraudsters impersonate service or support representatives from large companies like Microsoft, Apple, or Best Buy and try to trick you into thinking your device has been hacked or infected with malware or ransomware.
Here’s how a typical tech support scam works:
- Fraudsters reach out via emails, text messages, calls, or browser pop-ups and claim that your device is compromised. Tech support scammers may use common phishing techniques to target their victims — but it’s more likely that they’ll use browser pop-ups to make it look like your device has been infected. Whatever the method, you’ll be told to call a number to get help from a tech support specialist.
- In other cases, tech support scammers post fake phone numbers and wait for you to call. Scammers may post fake support phone numbers on websites that show up in search results, pay for ads in Google, or create fake social media accounts to get you to contact them directly.
- Next, you’ll be told there’s an issue with your computer, phone, bank account, or software. The scammers will create a sense of urgency by claiming that some other hacker could have access to your devices and data — and that you need their help to stay safe.
- To fix the problem, you’ll be asked to download an app, provide remote access, or give up sensitive information. Tech support scammers have different goals — but they’re almost always financially motivated. They may ask you to download an app that gives them access to your device, provide sensitive data they can use to steal your identity (including your SSN), give up account passwords and 2FA codes, or share financial information (such as your credit or debit card information).
- Some scammers will pressure you to send them money for their “services” or fake warranty programs. You may also be told to pay upfront to fix the issue — often via non-reversible payment method (such as gift cards, wire transfers, or apps like Zelle and Venmo).
- If you push back, the scammers will threaten you and your family. Fraudsters often try to isolate you from friends and family by threatening you if you tell anyone what’s going on. But, if anything doesn’t feel right about an interaction — especially one in which someone claims to be a representative from a well-known and respected company — you should always tell someone you trust.
Pro tip: Beware of remote access software like AnyDesk or TeamViewer, as these tools can give scammers access to your device and data. If anyone asks you to download one of these apps or give them control of your device, it’s most likely a scam.
5 Types of Tech Support Scams To Watch Out For
- Unsolicited phone calls from “tech support” specialists
- Fraudulent tech support phone numbers in search results or social media
- Fake text messages or emails saying your device or account is at risk
- Website pop-ups claiming your company has a virus
- Malware that makes your browser appear “locked”
By preying on your fear of being hacked or losing money to cybercriminals, tech support scammers bypass your better judgment. If you see any of these warning signs, slow down and make sure you’re not dealing with a scammer.
1. Unsolicited phone calls from “tech support” specialists
Phone scams start when a fraudster pretends to be a support agent from a trusted company, like Microsoft or Apple, and claims to have discovered problems with your computer.
Eventually, they say they need remote access to your device in order to fix the problems, and demand that you download an app such as AnyDesk or TeamViewer. But once installed, the scammers will have full control over your device.
In one example, a 61-year-old victim was contacted by scammers claiming to be from Apple tech support. The caller threatened Neil by saying that his computer was infected with malware and vulnerable to hacking — and then demanded that Neil give him remote access and pay for the service with gift cards [*].
How to spot and avoid tech support scam phone calls:
- Question any unsolicited phone call. Any unexpected caller claiming to have security reports about your device is always a huge red flag. No one can tell you if your device is infected before having access to it.
- Never give a caller remote access to your computer. While the apps that allow them to control your computer are legitimate, they can be used for nefarious purposes.
- Don’t believe what you see on your caller ID. Scammers can spoof the number to make it look like they’re calling from Apple or Microsoft. Remember: Tech support doesn’t call you. You call them. If you have any doubts, call the company directly by using the number on its official website.
📚 Related: What To Do If a Scammer Has Your Phone Number →
2. Fraudulent tech support phone numbers in search results or social media
Tech support scammers take advantage of how much we trust Google, Yahoo, and other search engines to trick you into calling them.
In this scam, fraudsters create websites or ads designed to show up in the search results for common tech support queries. For example, if you search “Microsoft customer support phone number” and don’t check the actual website, you could end up calling a scammer by accident.
In another version of this scam, fraudsters spoof support accounts for legitimate companies on social media. Scammers either wait until unsuspecting social media users reach out or reply to messages pretending to be official support representatives and ask you to call.
How to spot and avoid fake tech support phone numbers:
- Don’t automatically trust search results. Scammers can trick Google into displaying fraudulent phone numbers in search results. Always make sure you’re getting the correct contact information from a company’s official website. When in doubt, check the URL.
- Research a social media account before giving up info. Any official support account will be verified and linked to the company’s official account. For example, if someone on social media claims to be from PayPal support, go to the official PayPal account and see if their account is listed in the bio.
3. Fake text messages or emails saying your device or account is at risk
Scammers use phishing texts (known as “smishing”) to trick you into either calling them for help or clicking on malicious links. In these scams, you’re often told that you’ve “visited a suspicious site/IP address” or some other vague threat.
If you click on the link, it will either take you to a phishing website or infect your device with malware. If you call the number, you’ll be pressured into paying for worthless services or giving up remote access to your computer.
How to spot and avoid fraudulent tech support text message scams:
- Try not to react to urgent texts. Scammers often use exclamation points and phrases like “Security Alert!” to get your attention. Be wary of any text or email that creates a sense of urgency.
- Don’t call phone numbers provided in unsolicited text messages. Instead, always go to a company’s official website and look for its customer support phone number. This way you know you’re talking to a legitimate tech support representative.
- Be cautious if a message doesn’t include personal details. Scam messages use vague terms like “your email” or “your account.” Delete any message that doesn't refer specifically to an account you own.
4. Website pop-ups claiming your computer is infected with viruses
If your computer displays an error message asking you to call a tech support number, it’s a scam. These alerts are fake and are specifically designed to get you to contact the scammers.
When Phyllis Weisberg’s browser was suddenly taken over by a pop-up claiming her computer was infected with malware, she quickly called the phone number listed. But instead of reaching tech support, she ended up on the phone with scammers.
A few minutes later, they’d convinced her to give them access to her bank account — and scammed her out of $20,000 [*]. Scams like these are very common, even among tech-savvy older adults.
How to spot and avoid a fake virus pop-up scam:
- Don’t believe pop-ups. Any pop-up that claims your device has been infected with viruses is a scam. Browsers can’t detect malware infections. Only trust reputable antivirus software to tell you if your device has been compromised.
- Never call the phone number provided in a pop-up. If in doubt, go to the company’s official web page (Google.com, Microsoft.com, etc.) and find its valid contact information.
- Research the error code or details of the scam. For peace of mind, conduct an online search to see what the error means and if it’s legitimate. For example, you could search the phone number (or any other identifying information in the pop-up) to see if other people have reported the scam.
5. Malware that makes it look like your browser is “locked”
Fraudsters want to scare you into acting without thinking. And there are few things as terrifying as a giant red warning stating that “your computer has been locked!” (especially if it’s accompanied by an audio message telling you the same thing).
These scam messages often include a fake error number — usually a string of random characters, like #DY2309X03 — and claim that your computer will suffer further damage if you close the window without resolving the issue.
How to spot and avoid a “locked browser” pop-up scam:
- Ignore fake error messages, and close the website or pop-up. Don’t worry about the “consequences” — as there are none. Scammers just want you to pay money for bogus technical guidance or give them your sensitive information.
- Force quit your browser. If the website doesn’t let you close the window, you may have to force quit your browser instead. Here’s how to force quit an application on Mac and Windows operating systems.
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How To Spot a Tech Support Scam: 8 Warning Signs
Scammers are always finding new ways to trick you. But luckily, most tech support scams share the same warning signs.
Here’s how to tell if you’re dealing with a tech support scammer:
- You’re called by someone claiming to be a tech support agent at Apple, Microsoft, etc. Legitimate companies will never call you unprompted to offer support or tell you that your device is infected with viruses. When in doubt, always hang up and call the company back using its official number to verify what the caller said.
- A text message, email, or website pop-up window claims that your device has been infected. Tech support companies will not reach out about a virus. If you’re still unsure, scan your device with antivirus software or call the company back using an official tech support number.
- You’re asked to download remote access software (AnyDesk, TeamViewer, etc.). Yes, legitimate tech support teams do sometimes need remote access to your device. However, this usually only happens when you’re having a known issue and you reach out to their team directly. Never give access to someone who has reached out to you unprompted.
- They want you to download “scanning” software. Don’t download any “scanning” software from a stranger. If you’re asked to download software, check online reviews first and only download a program from its official website.
- They want to “secure” your bank accounts by transferring money between accounts or using a payment app like Zelle. This will never be necessary. And if you’re in doubt, hang up and call your bank directly to make sure your bank accounts are secure.
- They ask for payment for their services (especially using gift cards or wire transfers). Legitimate technical support services will never require payment in gift cards, cryptocurrency, or wire transfers. Software companies typically help fix your computer for free.
- They ask for personal information, passwords, or two-factor authentication (2FA) codes. Legitimate tech support workers will never ask for sensitive information. They do not need it to fix your computer if there really is a problem.
- They ask for control of your computer. Scammers can spoof phone numbers, so you can’t rely on Caller ID to verify a company. Don’t ever give online computer access to someone you don’t know.
What To Do If You’re The Victim Of a Tech Support Scam
Have you fallen victim to a scam? There are steps you can take to limit the damage and regain control of your device, accounts, and finances.
Here’s what to do:
Disconnect your device from the internet immediately
Scammers rely on internet connections to steal your data or complete their schemes. As soon as you realize that something’s not right, turn off your computer’s Wi-Fi connection and unplug any internet cables.
Use a different device to change all of your passwords
If you’re locked out of an account, request a new password — or reach out to each site’s support team to explain what happened. For added protection, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) on your accounts and store your credentials in a secure password manager.
Run a full scan of your device with legitimate antivirus software
Make sure the software has been vetted and downloaded from the original source. Run a full scan and quarantine or delete any malicious software.
Delete any apps or files that the scammer had you download
Consider backing up your important files and resetting your device to factory settings.
Contact your bank or credit card issuer
If you’ve sent money to a scammer, call your bank to see if they can stop the transaction. You’ll also want to cancel your accounts and cards and request new ones.
See if you can stop or reverse other transaction
Reach out to the payment processor, company that issued the gift card, or cryptocurrency exchange and see if they can stop the transfer. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get back money sent via cryptocurrencies, gift cards, wire transfers, or through payment apps like Zelle, Venmo, and Cash App.
Freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus
A credit freeze prevents scammers from opening new accounts and taking out loans to steal your money. This is especially important if the hacker may have login or card information for your credit card company. To freeze your credit, you need to contact each of the three major credit bureaus separately — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Report the scam to law enforcement and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
If you’ve given up personal information, you should file an official report at IdentityTheft.gov. This will help you dispute fraudulent transactions and recover from fraud. If you think you know the scammer or are in personal danger, contact your local police department as well.
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The Bottom Line: Protect Yourself From Tech Support Scammers
Scammers will target anyone — including those looking for legitimate help with their electronic devices. Always be wary if someone contacts you regarding an issue with your computer or phone — and never give up remote access without knowing for sure whom you’re talking to.
To keep yourself safe from tech support scammers, follow these steps:
- Download legitimate digital security software onto your devices to protect against hackers, and run regular scans for malware.
- Never provide personal information or passwords to someone who claims to be reaching out from a tech company.
- Don’t click on links or call phone numbers in pop-up messages. When in doubt, go to a company’s official website and find its legitimate contact information.
- If you’re unable to get out of the pop-up window, use the keyboard command Ctrl + Alt + Del on PCs (or Opt + Cmnd + Esc on Macs), to force quit the window.
- Do not give remote access to anyone unless it’s a tech support employee to whom you specifically reached out because of a known issue.
- If you’re unaware of a problem with an account, device, app, etc., do not interact with an email, phone call, or pop-up telling you that someone has discovered an issue. Instead, log in to your account directly, or call the company’s support team to double-check.
- Never send money upfront for tech support services, especially in the form of gift cards or cryptocurrency. Legitimate tech support teams will never ask for a payment, especially in these formats.
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