Carolyn Aronson got caught not once, but twice, by tech-support scams, to the tune of $800.
The first time she was trying to download Windows 10 for free back in 2015. But a dire-looking warning popped onto the screen.
“All of a sudden, my computer just went nuts,” said Aronson, 74. “I’m rattled at this point.”
So she quickly called the number that showed up on her screen. The so-called rep politely convinced her to turn over control of her computer system to the company to fix it. The scammers had remote access to her computer for 15 hours, and she was out $600 on her credit card.
A couple of weeks later, what was supposedly Dell’s tech support contacted her to tell her that her computer files were corrupted. There went another $199.99.
“I said ‘OK, get it fixed,'” said Aronson, who lives in a small town in Tennessee.
It’s easy, of course, for anyone not taken for a ride by a con artist to wonder how people can fall for such scams. But the Federal Trade Commission estimates that more than $24.6 million has been lost to tech-support scams alone in the last two years. On average, a typical consumer can lose about $280.
Aronson told her story at a media briefing held by the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida Attorney General’s Office. She ultimately got her money back after disputing the purchase with her credit card company and PayPal, and proving that she didn’t receive any services for her money. Many consumers who wire money aren’t as fortunate.
In early May, the FTC and other regulators announced “Operation Tech Trap,” a nationwide and international crackdown on tech-support scams. Scammers are not only bilking people out of a couple of hundred bucks a pop, but con artists also can trick consumers into installing malware that gives them access to an individual’s user names and passwords.
“Tech-support scammers create an artificial emergency,” said Tom Pahl, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. As part of the scam, your computer screen can flash threatening messages such as, “Your hard drive will be deleted if you close this page.”
While many of us are still getting phone calls from some dude who claims to be from Microsoft, the phony pop-up messages on computer screens are increasing.
Regulators take notice
The FTC said it continues to investigate how scammers reach consumers with the pop-up ads. But some problems occur after the consumer goes to a misspelled domain name involving fake sites, or other problems occur via search engines.
The scammer’s goal is to get the consumer to call a toll-free number where a telemarketer pressures the person to buy unnecessary repair services, service plans, anti-virus protection or software and worthless warranty programs.
The “computer scan” alerts warning of suspicious activity can look authentic because many times they claim to be from big-name companies, such as Microsoft, Apple or Dell.
Frank Abagnale, a security consultant and expert on identity theft, said scammers have the ability to turn a computer screen dark, make the images look fuzzy and convince a consumer there is a problem.
“This pop-up shows up, and it all seems legitimate,” said Abagnale at a Michigan speaking engagement. “They can make it look very believable.”
A survey released by Microsoft in 2016 indicated that Millennials ages 18 to 34 are more likely than baby boomers to be tricked by online pop-up ads connected to tech-support scams.
Microsoft and the American Association of Retired Persons Fraud Watch Network have published a booklet on how to avoid tech-support scams.
“It’s really not an age thing,” Abagnale said. “It’s more about just being naive about what’s going on.”
In general, he said, consumers are honest and do not think about how con artists are trying to take advantage of people. “So when that pop-up comes, they’re not sitting there going ‘Ooh, this might be a scam. Somebody is trying to get my money.'”
Abagnale was once a master of deception as a teenager who, among other things, forged payroll checks. His story inspired Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent tracking him down.
The pop-ups tell consumers to call a number to deal with a computer virus. No virus exists, of course, but many people jump into action because they are terrified of losing access to their photos, online banking, business records and the like.
If you call, the con artists on the other end of the phone can turn aggressive and argue that the consumer cannot turn to a friend or outside company because they “won’t even have the right tools to get this done.” They keep repeating that the situation needs to be fixed now.
Small businesses and individuals who work from home are also vulnerable to tech-support scams.
News of a coordinated cyberattack that hit computer networks across the globe last week will no doubt only put more elderly consumers and tech novices on edge. The latest attack — dubbed WannaCry — appears to have taken advantage of holes in the Microsoft Windows systems. Some experts said cybercrooks are infecting computers through a Microsoft Word document attached to a phishing email.
Some forms of malware can shut down your computer and delete important files. Ransomware can actually lock you out of your system until you pay the crooks who installed it.
Scam artists play off the news
Once something is in the news, scam artists take even greater advantage of our fears.
Best bet: Never click on links in emails. If you get a pop-up message that tells you to call tech support, ignore it. Do not call a number provided on your screen via a pop-up that warns of a computer problem.
Don’t agree to give control of your computer to someone connected with a pop-up. Don’t send money. If worried, research a phone number online for Dell or Apple, or the company that appears on the screen, and call that number to be certain you’re calling a legitimate company.
The FTC said consumers who end up paying for a bogus service with a credit card can call the company and ask to reverse the charges. You’ll also want to check your banking or credit card statements for any charges that you did not make and have those charges removed, too.