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How do tech support scams work?

Tech support scams are an increasingly common type of fraud where scammers trick users into paying for unnecessary technical support services. These scams often start with a phone call from someone claiming to be from a well-known tech company like Microsoft or Apple. The scammer will claim that your computer has a virus or other issue that needs immediate tech support. If you agree to the services, you’ll likely be asked to provide remote access to your computer and pay an exorbitant fee to “fix” non-existent problems. Tech support scams cost victims an estimated $1.5 billion per year globally. Understanding how these scams work can help you avoid falling victim to them.

Common Tech Support Scam Tactics

Tech support scammers use a variety of tactics to trick unwitting users. Some of the most common approaches include:

  • Cold calling and claiming you have a virus – One of the most popular methods is to cold call users while impersonating a well-known tech company. The scammer will say they’ve detected a virus or other issue on your computer that requires immediate tech support.
  • Pop-up ads and fake error messages – Scammers will also use pop-up browser ads or windows with fake error messages claiming you have a technical issue. The pop-up will urge you to call a tech support number for help fixing it.
  • Redirecting your web browser – Some tech support scam pages can actually hijack your web browser and automatically redirect you to a scam support page, often without you clicking on anything.
  • Free technical support offers – Scammers may offer free tech support promotions to get remote access to your computer. But when connected, they’ll claim to find numerous problems that require paid support to fix.
  • Fake refund offers – Scams often promise refunds if they can’t fix your issue, but victims never end up getting that money back.

Being wary of any unsolicited contact or pop-ups regarding your computer is key to avoiding these malicious scams. Legitimate tech companies don’t operate in these ways.

How Tech Support Scams Unfold

Once scammers have gotten your attention through one of the tactics above, the scam typically unfolds in several phases:

1. Diagnosis of fake issues – Whether connected to your computer remotely or just through cold calling, the scammer will claim they’ve conducted a scan of your system and found issues like viruses, malware or hardware problems. Of course, none of these detected issues are real.

2. Offer of expensive support and services – To fix the fake issues, the scammer will offer technical support and services like virus removal or hardware upgrades. Prices often start at $200 or more. Scammers often pretend to give you discounts to make offers seem more legitimate.

3. Request for payment information – If you agree to the services, the scammer will ask for personal payment information like credit card details to pay for the fake technical support. In some cases, they may ask for prepaid debit cards or gift cards.

4. Remote access to your computer – The scammer will frequently ask for remote access to your computer to supposedly begin fixing the fake issues. Once connected, the scammer can steal personal data, install malware or do further harm.

5. Fake fixes or lack of service – At best, the scammer may walk through some standard computer maintenance tasks to pretend to fix the nonexistent issues. More often, once payment is received you’ll receive little to no tech support or follow-up.

By following these steps, scammers can defraud victims out of hundreds or thousands of dollars. It is best to hang up immediately if you suspect a scam.

Who’s Behind Tech Support Scams?

Tech support scams originate from fraudsters worldwide:

  • Individual scammers – Scams are sometimes run by individuals just looking to make quick money through fraudulent means.
  • Small scam groups – Groups of collaborating scammers running small operations specifically focused on tech support fraud.
  • Large criminal networks – In some cases, tech support scams are part of sophisticated worldwide criminal enterprises also involved in other types of fraud.
  • Offshore scam call centers – There are reports of large overseas scam call centers in India and other countries focused on perpetrating tech support fraud, often at enormous scales.

Scammers are skilled at hiding their identities and locations. They often use VoIP services and spoofed phone numbers to further mask their whereabouts when calling potential victims.

Warning Signs of a Tech Support Scam

While scam methods are constantly evolving, there are some common warning signs that can help you detect and avoid fraudulent tech support:

  • Receiving an unsolicited call or pop-up message – Legit companies don’t use cold calls or unsolicited pop-up ads to address tech issues.
  • Scare tactics like threats of malware or hacking – Real tech companies won’t threaten or pressure you to take immediate action or pay money.
  • Requests for remote access to your computer – Don’t allow remote access to your device unless you initiated the technical support request through a verified company.
  • Upfront fees or gift cards – No legitimate technical support will demand upfront payments with gift cards or pre-paid debit cards.
  • Aggressive sales tactics – High pressure sales tactics insist you pay immediately are a red flag.
  • Lack of detailed invoices or receipts – Secure companies will provide detailed invoices and payment receipts, which scammers fail to provide.
  • No company call back number – Verify a return phone number can reach an actual support rep for the company mentioned.

Pay attention to your gut instinct if anything seems suspicious or too good to be true. Don’t fall for scare tactics pushing you to act immediately.

Top Tech Support Scam Companies

Some of the most reported companies imitated by tech support scammers include:

  • Microsoft
  • Apple
  • Amazon
  • Norton Antivirus
  • McAfee

However, scammers may impersonate nearly any technology company or software provider. Any unsolicited call claiming to be tech support from a major company should raise suspicions. Scammers often use names very similar to real companies hoping you’ll be tricked by small details.

How to Avoid Tech Support Scams

Here are some key tips to protect yourself from fraudulent tech support scams:

  • Never give control of your computer to unsolicited callers. Deny any remote access requests.
  • Don’t call numbers provided by pop-up messages – independently look up company contact info.
  • Hang up on aggressive sales call tactics pushing immediate payments.
  • Verify the company’s number by calling them back through an official customer service line.
  • If you need tech support, reach out directly to the official company first.
  • Don’t trust caller ID – numbers can be faked through spoofing.
  • Never make payments with gift or pre-paid cards per the scammer’s request.
  • Use reputable anti-virus software and firewalls to secure your device.

Being cautious of any uninitiated technical support contacts can protect you from fraudulent activities.

What to Do if You Get Scammed

If you’ve fallen victim to a tech support scam, take these steps:

  • Immediately end all contact with the scammer – Hang up calls and don’t respond to any future contact attempts.
  • Call your bank or credit card company – Alert them to the fraudulent charges so payments can be stopped or reversed.
  • Change online account passwords – Update passwords to protect compromised accounts from further access.
  • Scan your device with legitimate anti-virus software – Check for any malware or spyware the scammer may have installed.
  • Report the scam – File reports with the FTC, BBB, and legitimate tech companies being impersonated.
  • Spread awareness – Help others avoid the scam by reporting it through community groups or social media.

Additionally, contact your local law enforcement if funds were stolen as part of a scam. Provide them with details like names, phone numbers, payment info and the scammer’s specific tactics. This can help authorities track down cyber criminals.

Scam Statistics and Trends

Some revealing statistics and trends provide insight into the prevalence of tech support fraud:

  • Losses of $1.5 billion per year globally from tech support scams (Microsoft)
  • Median losses of $250 per scam victim (Microsoft)
  • 56,000 scam complaints reported in a year to U.S. Better Business Bureau
  • Nearly 60% of scams originate from India per the FTC
  • Windows tech support scams account for 39% of fraud reports (Microsoft)
  • Computer owners over the age of 60 see higher scam rates
  • Scammers increasingly use cryptocurrency for payments
  • High scam complaint increases during tax season and COVID-19 pandemic

The high success rate of scams allows them to remain prevalent and constantly evolving. Awareness and caution are the top defenses.

How Scammers Use Personal Data

Once scammers gain access to your computer or personal information, they may use it for:

  • identity theft
  • accessing and draining bank accounts
  • installing spyware, keyloggers or malware
  • stealing credentials for financial, social media or email accounts
  • remotely controlling devices to carry out other criminal actions
  • reselling personal information and login details on the dark web

Providing any sensitive information to scammers gives them ammo to commit fraud or steal funds. Guard personal data closely.

Government Actions to Stop Scams

Governments and agencies worldwide are taking actions to combat tech support scams through:

  • Consumer scam reporting – The FTC allows reporting scam calls, websites or companies.
  • Consumer fraud alerts – Alerts regarding current popular scam tactics.
  • Prosecuting scammers – Arresting and prosecuting individuals involved when possible.
  • Disabling scam call centers – Working with authorities overseas to shut down and disable scam call centers.
  • Public service announcements – Media alerts increasing scam awareness.
  • Coordinating with tech companies – Partnering with Microsoft and others on prevention.

However, the persistent evolving nature of scams makes them difficult to stop completely until more offenders are caught and prosecuted.

Top Scam Prevention Software

Some software options can help identify and block tech support scams:

  • Nomorobo – Blocks known scam phone numbers and robocalls
  • Webroot – Antivirus and cybersecurity software
  • Malwarebytes – Detects and removes malware
  • Spybot – Anti-virus and malware protection
  • Router firewalls – Block unused ports and IPs

Proactive software defenses combined with smart practices are the best protections.

How to Report Tech Support Scams

If you encounter a scam, report it to the following organizations:

  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – Report scams to help investigations
  • Better Business Bureau (BBB) – File a scam report for tracking
  • Microsoft – Report Microsoft-related tech scams
  • Apple – Report Apple-related scams directly
  • AARP Fraud Watch Network – Report scam targeting seniors
  • Local police – Contact police regarding losses from fraud

Your reports provide crucial data to protect others and understand scammer tactics.


Tech support scams are a persistent cyber threat that trick countless victims through social engineering tactics. Understanding common scam techniques like fake virus alerts and requests for remote computer access can help you avoid being defrauded. Always independently verify the source of any tech support contact before providing payment or device access. Caution is the best defense against the evolving methods scammers use to exploit users and steal personal information. Following smart practices, using scam prevention tools, and staying on guard while online can help you protect your devices and data from tech support fraud schemes and cyber criminals.