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How Online Searches Fuel Tech Support Scams

Scammers use fake ads to target customers seeking product help

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When Gus Carcione, a 75-year-old man who lives in San Jose, California, saw an unusual charge on his Visa account for Amazon Prime, he did a quick Google search for Amazon's phone number, then called customer service. And just like that, Carcione stepped into a snare set up by crooks.

His call was quickly answered, and he was told the charge could easily be removed — he just needed to confirm his credit card number by reading it back. Then he was asked for his Social Security number, “just so we can confirm your identity.” When Carcione balked, he was given an alternative: Buy some Google Play gift cards for $150 and read them the codes off the back. He'd then be reimbursed for that amount, and the original charge would be removed from his account. He did that but was told the transfer failed. It was only when he returned to the store for more gift cards that a clerk warned him he was being scammed.

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Carcione's mistake is all too easy to make. When he Googled customer service for Amazon Prime, he hadn't looked closely at the search results. He used one of many fake numbers that pop up in customer service searches for companies like Amazon, as well as for airlines, hotel chains, technical support for major email companies and others.

Crooks pay for carefully worded ads engineered to be at the top when certain phrases are searched. Search engine companies root out fake numbers as fast as they can. But according to law enforcement experts — and growing numbers of people who have called AARP — they remain visible long enough to hook lots of victims.

"Scammers will buy and place fake ads that often elude the filters for the online search engines,” says Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D). “When people are searching for customer service numbers, they are in a hurry and quickly scan for the first phone number they see.” Google representatives did not return AARP's calls for comment.

Voice-search devices such as Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa can give you the fake numbers of scammers, too, Weiser says.

Here are some examples of people who have called AARP's Fraud Watch Network helpline in recent weeks:

  • A 55-year-old man from Connecticut was victimized into buying $1,000 worth of gift cards after he searched for Amazon customer support.
  • A 69-year-old man from Houston searched for United Airlines to book a flight to Las Vegas. He ended up purchasing a $1,200 ticket by using gift cards — then a second one after being told the first transaction failed.
  • A 65-year-old man from the Bronx, New York, said his wife was scammed out of $4,000 after calling what she thought was technical support to fix her iPhone. “She was traumatized by the ordeal,” the man says. Amy Nofziger, AARP's director of fraud victim support, says she has seen a huge uptick in customer service scams over the summer. “With phone books now obsolete, people are turning to internet searches. Scammers have adapted with this new way to steal,” she says.
How to Spot a Tech Support Scam

5 Tips for Customer Service Searches

1. Go directly to the company's website to find its customer service number.

2. Don't ask devices such as Alexa or Siri to find customer service information.

3. Check the URL for misspellings or other oddities.

4. Never agree to pay for a service that should be free.

5. Don't give anyone remote access to your computer.

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