En español | The tech support scam, one of the oldest cons in the digital era, is still going strong. Last year con artists bilked more than $1.5 billion out of unsuspecting Americans using the scheme, in which victims are tricked into handing over personal and financial information by responding to bogus phone calls, emails or pop-up ads from thieves posing as computer technicians.
Here's how the phone call version of the scam typically works: You pick up the line and a caller identifies himself as a technician from a major tech company such as Microsoft or Apple. He explains that he's calling about a dangerous virus or piece of malware that has infected your computer and offers to help you fix the problem by walking you through a few simple steps.
Of course, there is no problem to be fixed at all; the scammer hopes to gain access to your computer to make changes and install programs that could steal your sensitive data including usernames, passwords and financial information. He may also offer you an extended protection warranty plan for your computer in order to obtain your credit card number and charge you for bogus services. Digital versions of the scam use similar tactics via email and pop-ups offering tech support through various web links that install malware and give criminals full access to — and possibly control over — your computer.
The good news is there's an easy way to defeat these scammers.
"Just hang up the phone," says AARP Fraud Watch Network Ambassador Frank Abagnale. "The large computer firms never make proactive calls or send email to provide unrequested technical support."
Although the ruse has been around for years, many people remain unfamiliar with it — and scammers are finding them. A Microsoft survey released last month found that 20 percent of Americans targeted last year fell victim to the tech support scam, and they ended up downloading harmful software, giving the scammers access to their computers, visiting a scam website or providing thieves with their credit card info or other forms of payment. Considering that the Microsoft survey also found that two out of every three Americans were targeted by some version of the scam last year, that’s a lot of fish on the scammers’ hooks.
Perhaps paradoxically, the older you are, the less likely you may be to be taken by the scam. Millennials were victimized most often, accounting for half of the successful scams last year. Consumers over 55 comprised only 17 percent of the victims, perhaps because they are less comfortable sharing personal information through instant messaging and emails.
Whatever your age, skepticism is key. Abagnale warns never to allow anyone to take control of your computer and never to give out credit card information for unsolicited services such as warranties and virus protection.
Here are a few more do's and don'ts to safeguard against the tech support scam.
Do: Take the initiative. If someone claiming to be from a reputable company contacts you, call or email the company directly to check the validity of the offer.
Don't: Trust your caller ID. Scammers have figured out how to spoof the system to make their phone calls appear to come from a legitimate source.
Do: Disregard pop-up ads or messages that appear on your screen and ask you to call a phone number or click on a link for technical advice. These are also scams, and clicking on the wrong link could freeze your computer and give crooks access to your files.
Don't: Forget to update your security software. It's best to make sure you have the latest version every week, as the programs are tweaked as criminals make tiny adjustments to the scam.
Do: Visit the AARP Fraud Watch Network for facts and information about how to guard against the tech support scam. Among other advice, you will find tips on how to ferret out fraud and can view a video of a scammer at work.