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Tech support scams costing computer users

Just before midnight George got a call. "I was told it was the Microsoft Corporation," George said. "They said there was a problem with my computer but they would fix the problem for free and would install an antivirus to protect against future attacks for $99." George went to bed uneasy, not sure if the supposed Microsoft employee was legitimate or a fraudster. 

Unable to sleep, George watched helplessly later that evening as someone remotely entered his credit card number into a Web site without his control. George frantically called Microsoft and learned that he had, as he suspected, fallen victim to a scam. In an attempt to avoid charges, George called Western Union -- only to find out that $207 had already been charged to his credit card and was being processed in India.

The National Consumers League's Fraud.org has seen a recent uptick in this "tech support scam." These occur when a fraudster, claiming to work for well-known technology companies like Microsoft or Norton, contacts a consumer. The scammers claim that viruses have been detected on the computer and that they can remotely remove it for a fee, typically anywhere from $100 to $400. The victim is then instructed to go to a Web site or open computer program that "proves" that the computer is compromised. Often these programs show computer functions that look scary but are actually normal.

Frightened by the supposed virus -- and reassured because of the reputation of the company the fraudster is claiming to represent -- many consumers agree to pay the fee and give the criminal remote access to the "corrupted" computer. Sometimes the hacker charges a consumer to download harmless programs that are available for free online to demonstrate the alleged virus. Other times, they install tracking software that gives the fraudster access to personal information on the computer.

Estimates of the scope of this scam vary widely. For example, Microsoft reported that the average victim lost $875 and had to pay $1,700 in repair bills. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said it had received more than 40,000 complaints about this scam when it initiated a crackdown in October 2012 and an official with the FTC’s consumer protection bureau said he thought the number of victims was probably “substantially higher.”

Although scams of this sort started in 2008, it has become far more common in the last couple of years, gaining attention from media organizations across the world. The companies that are affected have also noticed, warning their customers and offering tips on how to spot and avoid the scam. PayPal and other payment companies have helped by shutting down the accounts of known fraudsters.

Despite government action to identify and stop scam artists running these schemes, copycats continue to defraud consumers. Consumers should use the following precautions to minimize the risk of falling victim:

  • Know that legitimate companies will not call you without solicitation and tell you that you must pay for tech support;
  • Find a legitimate phone number for the company and ask them whether a representative contacted you;
  • Never allow someone to take remote control of your computer unless you are certain that they are actually representing a legitimate company;
  • Do not disclose sensitive financial information such as passwords, credit card, or bank account routing numbers over the phone; and
  • When buying things over the Internet or phone, use a credit card or a debit card so that you can better dispute fraudulent charges.

If you believe that you are the victim of a tech support scam, please take the following actions:

  • File a complaint with Fraud.org so that we can help others avoid falling victim;
  • Call your credit card company and ask to have the charges reversed;
  • Check your bank and credit card statements for inaccuracies. If you find any, ask that those charges be reversed, too;
  • Contact the major credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) and notify them of the potential for fraud on your account; and
  • Delete the tracking software from your computer. For tips on how to do this, click here.

Visit the following sites to learn more about tech support scams and ways to protect yourself:

  • This post on the FTC’s Web site provides consumers with a video on how to protect computers and phone audio of a scammer conducting a tech support scam.
  • This section of the FTC’s Web site gives an overview of how these scams work and ways to protect yourself if contacted by a fraudster.
  • The Better Business Bureau has a scam alert that describes an incident in Montana involving this scam.
  • Finally, Microsoft’s posting on its Web site details common scams that falsely use its name and the common indicators that you are not truly talking to a company official.