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.
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.”