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Tech Support Scams Are Rampant in 2023

How to thwart criminals who pretend to fix computer problems but steal your money instead

spinner image laptop with collection of fraudulent popup alert and warning windows directing users to call tech support
Getty Images/AARP

In Southern California, Helen (who's asked that we not use her real name), a retiree in her 80s, was reading her sister’s obituary on the web when a pop-up screen suddenly appeared, announcing that her computer had been infected with a virus.

“Do not turn off your computer!” a loud voice warned through the computer’s speaker.

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Helen was instructed to call the phone number that appeared on her screen, according to her son, a retired U.S. intelligence agency official who — with her permission — shared her story with AARP. She soon found herself talking to someone who claimed to be a tech support staffer from Microsoft. He asked for her cellphone number, and he probably was able to use that number to look up where she banked because such information exists in dark web databases.

“There are 36 hackers in your computer right now,” he warned her.

Helen didn’t realize that the helpful technician was actually part of a fraud ring, and that the pop-up on her computer was a fake, possibly triggered by a malicious ad planted on a website.

He offered to put her through to its security department, where someone posing as a bank official told her that hackers already were stealing from her account, and she needed to quickly move her funds to a new, safe account.

Helen followed his instructions, withdrawing cash and buying gift cards and sending wire transfers and cashier’s checks to addresses in other cities. She lost most of her retirement nest egg to the criminals, before a bank fraud investigator intervened, convincing her to speak to her family about what she was doing.  

Huge losses from tech-support scams

Criminals posing as online helpers and offering to rescue people from computer viruses — usually in order to gain access to their targets’ computers and other devices — isn’t a new phenomenon. But in recent years, such scams have surged, as criminals continue to come up with new tactics. Tech support scams were by far the most often reported category of fraud against people age 60 and older last year. Nearly 18,000 victims reported total losses of nearly $588 million in 2022, according to a report issued by the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.  

Why are these scams increasing? “[It] could be the simple — and unfortunate — reason that they work,” says Michal Salat, the threat intelligence director at cybersecurity software company Avast. He adds that tech support scammers often will attack hundreds of thousands of people around the world in the span of three months. “If just a few of those people fall for the scam, this can mean a high return on investment for the scammers.”    

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

How tech support scams work

Since tech support scams began emerging about 15 years ago, the criminals’ techniques have evolved. Today’s scammers, for example, might gain access to your computer (perhaps through malware) and make it difficult for computer users to simply close a window to get rid of a fake virus warning pop-up, by switching the browser to full screen mode and hiding the exit button. “This way, people are easily convinced they really have a problem with their computer and therefore don’t see any other option than calling the hotline that is promoted on the pop-up window,” Salat explains.

Then they contact you offering help — for a hefty fee — in removing viruses that weren’t on your machine in the first place.

The criminals might also request remote access to your computer, allowing them to inflict all kinds of damage, including stealing your personal information and bank account login credentials.

Besides pop-ups, some tech support scammers utilize text messages, emails or robocalls to reach vast numbers of people. They might say they’re from a big company, such as Norton, Apple or Microsoft. Some tell their targets that their security software has expired, or even claim that child pornography has been implanted on their computer. Pay up and the problem will be solved.

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There have also been instances where the supposed tech expert calls someone to say that criminals have gained access to their bank accounts, and that it’s necessary for their safety to move the money (as in Helen’s case). A New Jersey resident who recently filed a report with the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker database, for example, said that a scammer impersonating a Microsoft technician convinced him to withdraw $6,000 from his savings account and redeposit it into a cryptocurrency account at an ATM.

And while tech support scammers once primarily targeted desktop and laptop computer users, these days they’re also going after your other devices as well. “A lot of people forget that the device you call a phone is actually a computer,” explains Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

Unfortunately, once tech support impersonators get inside your computer, it’s tough to get them out. “Often, the scammers will then install a second remote software in the background in order to keep the connection up and running even after the phone call,” Salat says. That way, even after someone thinks that the problem has been fixed, the criminals can quietly look for ways to steal money and data.  

If your computer has been invaded by scammers, you may want to hire a professional to find and remove any programs they’ve installed, as Helen’s son did. Baker recommends taking your computer to a brick-and-mortar repair shop, run by someone you trust.

Catching the criminals

Tech support scammers are difficult to identify, because many of them are working out of call centers on the other side of the world. “I think now all of these folks are basically out of India,” says Steve Baker, a former Federal Trade Commission (FTC) official who now publishes the Baker Fraud Report newsletter.

The criminals also sometimes make it difficult to follow the money trail by convincing their targets to pay in the form of gift cards, which they pass along to confederates who use them to buy electronics and other goods for resale on the web, Baker says.  

It’s still extremely important to report these crimes. (See below.) The more information the authorities have, the better they can identify patterns, link cases and ultimately catch the perpetrators.

How to protect yourself and loved ones

  • When in doubt, shut it down. If you can’t close a browser window to get rid of a fake virus-warning pop-up, try to reboot the computer. “If I’m really stuck, I just pull the plug,” Baker says. “You’re going to lose data and documents that you’re working on and tabs on browsers, but that’s a small price to pay.”
  • Don’t ever call the phone number in a pop-up. Legitimate tech companies will never ask you to call a phone number or click a link, according to the FTC.
  • If you get an unsolicited call, email or text telling you that there’s a problem with your computer, ignore it. Real tech support staffers will never contact you out of the blue.
  • Be wary of anyone requesting remote access. Don’t let an unknown, unverified person get into your computer or device.
  • Resist pressure. The FBI notes that scammers urge targets to act quickly to protect their computer or bank accounts. That sense of urgency is to prevent you from having time to think clearly and question their behavior.

Where to report fraud

If you spot or have been victim of a scam, report it to your local police and to the FTC at and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at

The AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, is a free resource; call to speak with trained fraud specialists who provide support and guidance on what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also offers online group support sessions.

VIDEO: How To Avoid a Tech Support Scam

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.