Victim of an Cyber Incident?

The message is an unnerving one. Your computer has a serious issue — an invasive virus or a hacker attack. You need to contact tech support right away, or there will be serious consequences. Maybe your computer’s hardware will be damaged or crucial files encrypted. Perhaps your user accounts for Apple or Microsoft will be frozen or even deleted. Time is of the essence — you need to act right away. Fortunately, the message includes a number to call. Anxiously, you pick up the phone.

You don’t know it yet, but you’ve just fallen victim to an increasingly common swindle: the fake tech support scam. Sometimes it begins with a pop-up message on your screen; other times it begins with an email or a phone call. All too frequently, it ends with an unsuspecting user handing over hundreds or even thousands of pounds, often along with precious personal information that can be used for identity theft.

Pop-ups

These are a very common starting point for tech support scams. A window appears on your screen, informing you that your device has been infected with a virus or your account has been hacked, giving you a number to call. There may be an audio component — a recorded message that creates an even greater sense of urgency. Typically, there’s a time limit by which you need to respond; this is a ploy to stop you from pausing to consider the situation and perhaps realizing that the message isn’t real. Some pop-ups originate with infected websites, while others come from malware infections on your own computer.

Emails

Another method used by tech support scammers is the ever-popular phishing email. The message will usually purport to come from Microsoft, Google or an anti-malware purveyor such as Norton. The content will be similar to the pop-ups: an assertion that your computer or user account is at risk and a number to call to resolve the problem. It may also try to send you to a fake site, where your personal details may be harvested.

Fake search results

It’s all too easy for a scammer to lure people to a fake tech support site via search results. They load their sites with search terms such as “phone number for Microsoft tech support” and pay to be included in sponsored results — often the first links that you’ll see at the top of the page.

Cold calls

Telephone calls from tech support scammers have become increasingly common. You will be contacted by someone posing as an employee of a large and well-known company such as Microsoft, offering you help with your computer or reporting a supposed issue.

What happens next

Once you respond by calling the number or continuing the telephone call, you will usually be asked to download software onto your computer. This remote access software will give the alleged tech support staff full control of your computer — they’ll be able to access files, change settings, disable your security software, etc. This will allow them to mine your device for useful personal information such as bank account and credit card details.

Most tech support scams will also ask you for money. This may be described as a fee for their services, or perhaps presented as a subscription to upgrade your software. The amounts can range from relatively small sums to thousands of pounds — money you don’t need to spend and you won’t easily get back

Avoiding scams

You can avoid being taken in by scams of this type by keeping a few facts in mind. First, companies like Microsoft or Norton don’t use cold calls to inform you of issues with your computer; simply ignore such calls and hang up the phone. All pop-ups and emails featuring a phone number and a request that you call can likewise be ignored, as reputable companies won’t use these. You can often find other clues: malicious pop-ups and emails will frequently include misspellings, poor grammar, or low-resolution versions of logos and background images. It’s better to avoid searching for tech support numbers if you need help; instead, you should visit the company’s main site and then find the proper phone number from there.

If you’re still not sure, try copying and pasting the phone number into a search engine. If it does relate to a scam, you’ll see it appear repeatedly in search results, as it’s likely to have been reported to scam alert websites.

Finally, you should never install remote access software or hand over money unless you have made absolutely certain that you’re dealing with a legitimate company. Keep calm, don’t panic, and take the time to do some research.

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