Tech-support scams: how to recognize them and what to do if you fall for one

Tech-support scams make up ridiculous claims about viruses, errors and other issues on your computer in order to trick you into paying for services you did not get, nor need. Tech-support scammers are a whole new level low in the world of scams, as they primarily target the elderly and those who have little knowledge of computers.


Tech-support scam

Tech-support scams can come in different forms, some may show a fake alert on a computer, while others may begin with a phone call. But they are all more or less the same. They take advantage of impressionable people and lure them into paying hundreds of dollars for fake computer services. But when one becomes familiar with what tech-support scams look like and how they work, they become quite obvious and easy to recognize.

Making unnecessary payments is not the only worry when it comes to tech-support scams. Scammers usually request to remotely connect to a computer, which could allow them to steal personal information and important documents from a computer. They could also install malware that locks files or spies.

Types of tech-support scams

Fake error and warning messages in your browser

This is probably the most common form of tech-support scams. The way they work is pretty simple, you get redirected to a website that is imitating the legitimate Microsoft, Apple, or some other site, and see an alert saying you need to call the shown number to get tech-support. Tech-support scams can appear no matter which browser you are using, or which operating systems.

Depending on the scam, the alert may say different things. One might claim that your computer is infected with some kind of virus that is stealing your information, while another may say that you need to activate your Windows. One thing that is always the same with these scams is a displayed phone number.

These tech-support scams make ridiculous claims such as:

  • “Your computer has alerted us that it was infected with virus and spyware”;
  • “Your computer’s registration key is blocked”;
  • “If you close this page your computer access will be disabled to prevent further damage to your network”;
  • “Critical Security Warning! Your Internet may be infected with a malicious virus attack”.

Tech-support scam (2)

If users were to make the call to the shown number, they would be greeted by a professional scammer, likely operating from India as the country has many tech-support scam call centers. They usually introduce themselves as technicians from Microsoft, Apple, or some other known company. After asking why you are calling, they would lie through their teeth about how your computer has a serious issue that needs immediate fixing. To supposedly be able to help you, the scammers will direct you to a certain program that would allow them to remotely connect to your computer.

Once these scams gain remote access to a computer, they will use various tactics to convince the user that the issue is real. A common technique is opening Command Prompt and typing in something like “Trojan”. This is supposed to convince users that their computer is indeed infected with something. They will mess about the computer, install questionable “anti-virus” programs, potentially steal personal information and documents, and possibly install malware.

One session with these scammers can last hours, and by the end you’d be asked to pay hundreds of dollars. They can be pretty persistent, going as far as setting a password on your computer and preventing you from accessing it until you pay.

Phone calls from tech-support scammers

Another type of tech-support scam is fairly similar to the one we discussed above, but it begins a bit differently. To start the scam, scammers will call you or leave a voice message saying that your phone or device has been hacked. A common scam claims that users’ iCloud accounts have been hacked. The voice messages leave a phone number for users to call to get tech-support.

The messages left on users’ phones usually say things like:

  • “Your iCloud account has been breached. Before using any Apple device, please contact Apple Support advisor”;
  • “Your iCloud account has been breached, so do not perform any online activities”.

When users call, they are greeted with scammers who perform a very similar scam to the one described above.

How to recognize a tech-support scam

Once you become familiar with tech-support scams, you will be able to recognize them immediately. But what exactly makes a tech-support scam so obvious?

Virus/issue alert appears in the browser

The first thing you should notice when you encounter a tech-support scam is that it appears in your browser. In fact, you will be redirected to it when browsing certain sites, such as those providing pirated content. The scam will very clearly appear as a pop-up in a browser, no matter how much it tries to imitate a legitimate alert. Some alerts may even go full-screen and prevent you from closing them.

The fact that these virus alerts appear in your browser is a dead giveaway that you are dealing with a tech-support scam. Your browser is not capable of detecting malware or other issues on your computer, so you will never see legitimate virus alerts in your browser.

A phone number is displayed in an alert/Unsolicited contact from Microsoft or Apple

Every single alert with a phone number will be a scam. Whether it’s Microsoft, Apple or any other company, if there’s a phone number, it’s a scam. Nor Microsoft, nor Apple make unsolicited contact with their users, nor do they keep track of which computer is infected with what. So whenever you encounter an alert with a phone number, ignore what it says and simply close the window.

Furthermore, Microsoft or Apple will never call you, not to inform about your hacked device, not ever. They do not make unsolicited contact, including phone calls. If users need tech-support, they have to call them themselves.

They ask for payment in gift cards, prepaid cards or cash reload cards

When scammers are nearing the end of a scam they are performing on someone, they will mention that a payment will need to be made. They usually demand a couple of hundred dollars, and the fact that they request the money be paid in gift cards, prepaid cards or cash reload cards is yet another sign that it is a scam. No legitimate service will ask for gift cards as payment for a service.

What to do if you have fallen for a tech-support scam

If you have fallen for a tech-support scam, there are a couple of things you need to do. First of all, if you paid via bank, contact your bank to try and null the payment. Explain what happened and provide as much information as possible. Your bank will instruct you on what you need to do next.

Carefully check programs installed on your computer for anything you do not recognize. If you know that scammers installed something on your device, delete it immediately. Also, scan your computer with anti-malware software to find any malware that could have been placed on your computer.

After you have checked your computer for malware, we suggest changing all passwords. There’s no way of knowing what information scammers were able to access, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Finally, we should mention that users who have fallen for one scam are likely to be targets again, as their phone numbers make rounds across various scam call centers. Thus, you may be contacted by scammers in the future. A particularly common followup scam is the “Refund scam”. Scammers try to convince you that you are eligible to get a refund for something, trick you into thinking that they have accidentally transferred you a large sum, and then demand that you transfer it back. Since they didn’t actually transfer you anything, you would be sending them money out of your own pocket.