“Hi, this is tech support”

Fake tech-support has long been a trend in fraud worldwide. We explain how it works, and what you can do to protect yourself.

Fake tech support scams: what they are and how to stay safe

According to the FBI’s 2023 Internet Crime Report, more than 37,500 complaints about fake tech-support scams were reported in the U.S. last year alone — resulting in over $924 million in losses. In this post, we discuss how these scams work, the dangers they pose, and how to protect yourself from this type of fraud.

How fake tech-support scams work

In this scheme, scammers typically impersonate technical or customer-support staff of major companies — most often in the tech industry. This allows the cybercriminals to use impressive-sounding terms and technical details that are incomprehensible to the average user.

The most common pretext under which fake tech-support scammers initiate contact with potential victims is by claiming to have detected some problem on the latter’s computer. For example, fake employees of a software developer or well-known antivirus company call you with a made-up story about their having detected malware on your computer.

Scammers thus overwhelm their victims, instilling panic and a sense of helplessness. The scammers then manipulate these emotions to build trust — these schemes are usually designed to ensure the victim has no choice but to trust the scammer. It’s this trust that the scammers ultimately exploit to achieve their goals.

How fake tech-support scammers find you

To make initial contact with the potential victim, tech-support scammers use a variety of tricks. But in general there are three basic scenarios.

Fake websites and social media accounts

Some scammers create web pages or social media accounts that mimic those of legitimate companies. They may also use search engine or social media ads to promote these fake resources, hoping that potential victims will come to them looking for help with technical issues.

To carry out the attack, the scammers need to be in continuous contact with the victim. For this reason, they usually come up with some pretext to switch communication to phone calls or messaging apps.

Pop-up windows and “problem detected” notifications

Another popular scenario for this scam involves using pop-up windows and notifications that mimic operating system or antivirus warnings. These notifications, usually alarmingly red or orange in color, warn that something is wrong with the victim’s computer — most often that there’s a virus.

Again, since the scammers need to actively communicate with the victim, they usually provide a phone number to call in order to resolve the detected problem.

Phone calls

Finally, the most popular method of contacting victims is direct phone calls. These can be roughly divided into “cold” and “warm” calls. In the former case, fake tech-support scammers simply dial random numbers, often posing as representatives of major companies whose products are widely used. For example, you don’t have to try very hard to find a Windows user.

Warm calls involve using information obtained through breaches or leaks of customer data from certain companies. Naturally, knowing the victim’s name and the products they use gives the scammers more credibility, increasing their chances of success.

What is the main danger of fake tech-support scams?

Looking closer at the figures we started this post with, you’ll notice that tech-support scams aren’t about small charges for non-existent services. The average reported loss is almost $25,000.

This highlights the main danger of fake tech-support: scammers don’t settle for small profits, but instead try to extract as much from their victims as possible. To do this they devise intricate schemes and utilize social engineering techniques.

In particular, tech-support scammers often pressure victims into installing remote-access or screen-sharing software, disclosing or exposing passwords for financial accounts, and sharing one-time transaction confirmation codes. They might even stage elaborate performances involving multiple phone calls from various “company employees”, “financial institutions”, or “government agencies”.

How to protect yourself from fake tech-support scammers

If someone contacts you claiming to be from tech support, warns you of some danger, and asserts that action must be taken immediately — most likely it’s a fake tech-support scammer.

Try not to panic, and avoid doing anything you might regret later. It’s better to discuss what’s happening with someone else, as this can help you identify inconsistencies and holes in the scammer’s story. To buy time, ask them to call you back — say that you’re busy, you have another call, your phone has low battery, or simply pretend to get cut off.

In addition, to protect against scammers, you can take the following measures:

  • Install a reliable security solution on all your devices and trust its warnings.
  • Never enter your login credentials while someone else is watching, for example while you’re screen sharing or if someone has remote access to your computer.
  • Avoid installing remote access software on your computer, and certainly never grant access to strangers. By the way, our protection can warn you about such dangers.

It’s also worth remembering that the people particularly vulnerable to tech-support scams are the elderly. They may not be particularly cyber-savvy, so they need reliable protection more than anyone.