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Tech-Support Scams Ensnare Millennials More Than Boomers

Microsoft survey finds younger computer users spend more time online, make riskier downloads

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OK, boomers, ready for some good news? Adults age 54 and older were less likely to lose hundreds or thousands of dollars to tech-support scammers, a new global survey for Microsoft finds.

These unscrupulous scammers pretend you have a computer problem that they can fix, but they're not your friends. They're foes. And they're trying to grab your cash, credit card numbers, passwords or other sensitive information. Some scammers direct you to a sketchy website. Worse, the bad actors may seek remote access to your computer to drain your online financial accounts.

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According to the survey, younger adults — especially men — were most apt to lose money to tech-support scammers. Altogether, 16,254 adults in the U.S. and 15 other countries were surveyed.

spinner image boomers have a two percent chance of losing money on tech support scams versus millennials who have a twelve percent chance to lose money on a tech support scam

Boomers less apt to lose money to tech support scams

The graph shows how consumers in different age groups responded to these scammers. Some ignored the scammer or had no interaction. Others continued/engaged with the scammer, and some of them lost money.

Boomers are less susceptible to tech-support scams, Microsoft says, because younger people are online for longer periods of time and more often engage in potentially risky online behavior — such as downloading movies and music, sharing their email in exchange for content, or visiting so-called “torrent” sites to download illegally copied video games and other entertainment offerings.

The survey shows that most people ignore — or have no further interaction with — tech-support scammers. But among people who were contacted and kept dealing with the scammers:

  • Millennials, ages 24 to 37, lost money 12 percent of the time.
  • Generation Z, ages 18 to 23, lost money 11 percent of the time.
  • Generation X, ages 38 to 53, lost money 6 percent of the time.
  • Boomers and other older adults, ages 54-plus, lost money 2 percent of the time.

Overall, 3 in 5 respondents said they had encountered a tech-support scam in the previous 12 months. One out of 6 people kept engaging with these scammers, and some of them suffered a financial hit.

All consumers — regardless of age — should follow cybersecurity protocols. Those who were victims paid out at least $200, on average, and many victims “faced repeat scam interactions” to tech-support scammers, says Mary Jo Schrade, a Microsoft attorney who leads its effort to address tech-support scams. Here's her blog post on the topic. Reports filed with Microsoft show that “quite a few unlucky victims even lost thousands of dollars for fake technical support to fix nonexistent problems,” Schrade adds.

According to the survey, some victims paid using bitcoin, which experts warn is virtually impossible to recover.

More than 200 complaints a day

Microsoft, headquartered in Redmond, Washington, receives about 78,000 complaints a year from victims of tech-support scams. That works out to about 6,500 a month — or more than 200 every day. While the complaints are half what they were in years prior — about 156,000 annually — keep in mind that Microsoft isn't the only computer firm whose identity has been hijacked by scammers bent on theft, identity theft and other wrongdoing.

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Meantime, as Schrade notes, criminals now are adapting with “more sophisticated tactics or ploys” than in years past. Scammers once hit up consumers in cold calls, and moved on to using computer pop-up ads, she says. Today there's more in their toolbox: affiliate marketers, who deliver professional-looking pop-ups to prompt people to contact fraudulent call centers; scam attempts using email; and use of social engineering and search-engine optimization. Plus, the perpetrators are sharing resources with other bad actors: leads, call-center referrals and payment processors, she says.

In a statement to AARP, Schrade highlighted the need for consumer education. “We know that the best way for people to protect themselves is to learn how to recognize the scams, so we have been focused on educating consumers,” she said, “and appreciate AARP's dedicated efforts to educate its members."

The new findings are in Microsoft's 2021 Global Tech Support Scam Research, which follows similar surveys in 2018 and 2016.

Recent reports to the Federal Trade Commission are another reason boomers and others should not breathe a sigh of relief. Complaints of tech-support scams to the U.S. consumer protection agency picked up in the first three months of 2021 after a few years of decline.

From January through March, there were 32,340 tech-scams complaints, and if that rate holds there will be 129,360 for all of 2021. In 2020, the first full year of the pandemic, there were only 98,122 tech-scam cases, down from 108,318 in 2019, 148,539 in 2018, and 154,826 in 2017.

About 1,000 U.S. adults answered the Microsoft survey, conducted in May by YouGov, a British internet-based market research firm that also tapped the experiences of about 1,000 adults in each of these foreign countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Red Flags of Tech-Support Scams

Here are the key warning signs of tech-support scams that Microsoft has identified, and its tips on what to do if you are targeted:

1. Urgent pop-ups warning you that your computer has a serious problem, telling you not to turn it off and giving a phone number to call. Real error messages from Microsoft do not include phone numbers to call for support, the company says.

Do restart your device immediately. Do not call the number provided or click any links.

2. Unsolicited phone calls or messages warning you that a critical problem with your computer has been spotted and needs to be fixed.

  • Do delete the suspicious messages. If it's a call, ask the caller for their full name and hang up. If you're going to call a company back, use the phone number on its authenticate website, on the back of your membership card, or on a recent financial statement.
  • Do not click any links or call any numbers in the message.
  • Do not give the caller remote access to your computer or any personal information, such as passwords or account numbers.

Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.

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