Telephone Scams on the Rise: How to Keep Your Computer Safe

The phone rings (usually right as you are in the middle of something important), and when you answer, the person on the other end of the line has an urgent message for you: They are calling from your computer’s tech support department, and have detected a problem with your machine. Could you give them access so they can fix the issue and keep your computer working as it should?
On the one hand, you are skeptical. After all, how could Microsoft or Apple possibly know that you have a problem — and would they really reach out to help you fix it without you asking for help? On the other hand, if there really is a problem with your machine, you want to get it taken care of right away. The potential for malware or other issues to wreak havoc on your life is too great to ignore the warnings.

But here’s the thing: These calls offering free, unrequested “tech support” for a supposed issue? They are a scam, and if you allow the caller access to your machine, you could be in for more trouble than you bargained for.

Fake Calls on the Rise

The Federal Trade Commission reports that there were nearly 50,000 consumer reports about so-called tech support scams in 2014 alone — and that the number is only growing. Phone scams like this are nothing new either; in 2012, an FTC investigation uncovered six different companies that were making the calls and had successfully infiltrated tens of thousands of computers to spread malware, spyware, adware, and more, in addition to stealing personal information.

As word has spread about these calls, many people are aware of the risks, and simply hang up. However, consumers are falling victim every day, which only encourages the hackers to keep going.

Responding to Fake Support Calls

Armed with information, you can avoid becoming a victim to a telephone con artist. Again, the best thing to do when you receive one of these calls is to just hang up, and block the number from your phone. That doesn’t mean the scammers won’t try again, but if they use the same number, they will not get through.

If you don’t hang up right away, a few key questions can keep you safe. Before you do anything, ask the caller if there are any fees or subscriptions involved with the “support” that they are offering. Some will say no, but ask for a credit card number anyway, while others will rattle off a list of charges. Either way, it’s a red flag, and you should just hang up.

Some consumers have asked the caller for some more information, such as a callback number, the name of the company, or file number or code. If you can capture this information to report to law enforcement, it could be helpful, but chances are, the information you’ll be given is fake. Again, it’s best to just hang up.

Never, ever give a caller access to your computer. The only time that anyone should have remote access to your computer is when you contact your legitimate internet technical support provider with whom you have a relationship already. Remember: A major technology provider like Microsoft is not going to reach out to consumers because they suspect that there is a technical issue. It’ simply impossible, given the number of customers they have. Therefore, if you do suspect an issue, don’t rely on a hacker who calls you, but you seek help on your own.

Law enforcement also cautions consumers against taunting these callers or doing things to keep them on the line just to annoy them. While it might be tempting to give “the bad guys” a taste of their own medicine, it doesn’t really accomplish much and could lead to threatening or harassment. The likelihood that you would ever be in real danger is low, but some callers have threatened violence to consumers and caused unnecessary anxiety.

If You Have Given Information

Everyone makes mistakes, and if you have given information or computer access to a phony tech support caller, you can limit the damage. First, call your bank or credit card company to explain the situation, and ask for the charges (and any other charges you didn’t make) to be reversed. You can also put an alert or freeze on your account to prevent any further charges.

Next, work with a reputable tech support company, and use powerful antivirus software to remove any malware that was installed on your machine. If you shared any passwords, change them — and if you use that same password on any other accounts, change them as well.

As long as there is malware, there are going to be criminals who will use any means necessary to spread them. Understand the risks, and you will protect yourself against these nefarious individuals.

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