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Tech Support Scams

Computer viruses are scary, and for years perpetrators of tech support scams have sought to exploit that fear by tricking victims into believing their computers are infected and they need help. 

As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) notes, some scam callers pretend to be connected with Microsoft, Apple or a familiar security software company such as Norton or McAfee and claim to have detected malware that poses an imminent threat to the mark’s computer. Other scams feature planted website ads or popups that display warning messages, some even featuring a clock ticking down the minutes before the victim’s hard drive will be destroyed by a virus — unless he or she calls a toll-free number for assistance in deactivating the menace.

Once scammers have you running scared, they’ll ask for remote access to your computer in order to run phony diagnostic tests and pretend to discover defects in need of fixing. They’ll pressure you to pay hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs, new software, and other products and services.

Too often it works. Microsoft has estimated that tech support scams bilk 3.3 million people a year, at an annual cost of $1.5 billion — an average loss of more than $450 per victim. And those numbers are probably on the low side, since many victims never realize they’ve been conned. To avoid becoming one of them, follow some basic precautions.

Warning Signs

  • An unsolicited phone call or email from someone claiming to work for Microsoft. The company says it does not contact customers unless they initiate communication.
  • A pop-up window warning that your computer has been infected or invaded and listing a number to call for help.
  • Anyone who asks you to pay for tech support or other services with a gift card, cash-reload card or wire transfer. The FTC says no legitimate company will ask for payment that way.


  • Do check at least once a week for updates for your computer’s security software, and run scans several times a week.
  • Do hang up if you get an unsolicited call from someone who claims to be a tech support provider for your computer or software. 
  • Do read any warning message on your computer carefully. Bad grammar or misspelled words are telltale signs of a phony warning.
  • Do get rid of a fake virus alert message by shutting down your browser. You can do this on a Windows PC by pressing Control-Alt-Delete and bringing up the Task Manager. On a Mac, press the Option, Command and Esc (Escape) keys, or use the Force Quit command from the Apple menu.
  • Do contact your credit card company and request a reversal of the payment if you've been scammed. You’ll also want to look for other unauthorized charges and ask for those to be reversed as well. 


  • Don’t ever allow someone who calls you out of the blue to access your computer remotely. 
  • Don’t rely on caller ID to determine if a caller is on the level. Scammers can make it appear as if they’re calling from a legitimate number.
  • Don’t give your computer username or any account passwords to someone over the phone. 
  • Don’t give financial information to someone who calls a few days, weeks or months after you've made a tech support purchase and asks if you were satisified — it's probably a “refund scam.” If you say “No,” the caller will ask for bank or credit card information, ostensibly to deposit a refund in your account but actually to steal from you. 

AARP Fraud Watch Network

Fight back against frauds and scams! Call our free Fraud Watch helpline at 877-908-3360 to speak with volunteers trained in fraud counseling. You can also sign up for Watchdog Alerts and check out our scam-tracking map.

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Published: Dec. 3, 2018

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