Guidry: Tech support scams continue to run rampant

Tech support scams have been a menace for some time, but the problem is getting worse. Companies including Google and Microsoft have recently ramped up their efforts to halt these scams. How can you avoid such schemes?

A typical tech support scam goes like this. You might receive a phone call claiming to be from a company like Microsoft or Apple. The caller may say that they’ve noticed your computer is having problems, and offer to help. This is your first red flag. Microsoft and Apple don’t monitor computers, and they certainly don’t call people out of nowhere. Bear in mind that callers can spoof real phone numbers. When in doubt, hang up, look up the real tech support number, and call back.

Other ways you might encounter tech support scams include fake ads, pop-up windows, phony web sites, and spam email messages. Always be suspicious of these. Pop-up windows in particular can look like real system errors. Never click these links, and do not call the phone numbers because they may lead to fake tech support companies instead of legitimate support.

There is usually some level of user interaction necessary to grant the attacker access to your computer. Once they have access, they can siphon your usernames, passwords, and other sensitive data. This can lead to financial fraud and identity theft. They may even ask you for your passwords. Never give your passwords out to anyone!

Often they will try to convince you to open remote access to your computer by having you open a few log files, then claiming the errors you see are dire enough to warrant immediate action. They frequently use confusing technical jargon to put you off your guard. Bear in mind that all computers log system information. What might appear to be a dire warning could be a normal system message.

The scammers often try to sell you useless software—which not only gives them access to your computer, but also your credit card information! Scammers may also try to sell you worthless warranties or maintenance agreements. If you are scammed and try to recover your money, they may offer fraudulent refunds in order to gain access to your financial account information.

Only use trusted antivirus and security programs. It’s best to visit the website of the antivirus company directly rather than through a suspicious link. And just because a program is in the app store, doesn’t make it a legitimate product.

There’s plenty of malware out there that can seem convincing. Be sure your antivirus is kept up to date at all times, and that you have installed all system updates for your computer. This helps prevent scammers from exploiting software vulnerabilities in your system and apps.

If you’re having trouble with your computer, it’s best to call your computer’s tech support number yourself. If you’ve been victimized by tech support scams, contact your credit card company to dispute the charges, and have a reputable tech support person review your computer for malware.

You’ll find more information about tech support scams on the FTC’s web site.

• Triona Guidry is a computer specialist and freelance writer. Her Tech Tips blog offers tech support advice for Windows and Mac.