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12 Oct 2023

Tech support scammers

Online Safety - Computers

When good geeks go bad. In the guise of being the ‘good guys’ tech support scammers are preying on the old and unsuspecting like the proverbial wolf pack.

A typical ‘tech support scam’ plays out something like this. You are blissfully grazing on the Web when suddenly literal alarm bells start ringing. Suddenly a series of pop up messages appear on your screen warning that your computer has been affected by a myriad of viruses. The call to action is plain. Urgently call Microsoft (or another tech supplier) and the problem will disappear. 

Tech support scammers prey on people’s fears of being hacked. In a world of phishers, scammers, and other predators this is a bona fide concern. Which makes the trickery of the tech support scammers even more insidious. 

Feeding the Fear

As well as persuading their victims into paying for computer repairs that they do not actually need, scammers add insult to injury tricking the victim into helping them hack their computer.

A common tactic is to make a popup appear on the victim’s computer which displays a fake computer virus warning, urging the victim to call a telephone number to get technical support to fix the ‘problem’. The scammers will often pretend to be from Microsoft, Spark, Vodafone, or other recognisable IT companies and use their logos in the message to make the victim trust them.

Once the victim calls the fake ‘helpline’, the scammers usually try to trick them into installing software that will enable remote control of the victim’s computer. They tell the victim they need this installed to potentially remedy the ‘problem’ only to then have this open hacking entrance well and truly opened. 

As well as losing money and having their privacy invaded, many of the victims are subjected to severe verbal abuse by these scammers.

Targeting older people

Statistics from around the world show that tech support scams are the type of cybercrime most reported by older people. There have, however, been numerous cases of younger people becoming victims of tech support scammers. Meaning anyone and everyone needs to be cautious.  Older people who are not necessarily fully computer literate make the easiest prey, so they are the ones that need being looked after by family, friends and whanau. 

When geeks get loose

Like most cybercriminals, tech support scammers are trying to steal money. However, as well as causing immediate financial losses, some tech support scammers will use remote access software to install spyware on the victim’s computer. Mainly with the goal of stealing all their personal information. This can lead to far worse consequences for the victim as the scammers can use the personal information to perform identity theft. The worse situation is them taking out lines of credit under the victim’s name and causing long term financial consequences. In addition to causing financial losses, the scammers often become so abusive and cruel that they cause emotional distress or even a state of clinical shock in their victims. 

Are tech support scammers all lacking in manners? 

No, there are many kinds of scammers. Some scammers with more advanced IT skills will politely chat with the victim, covertly hack their computer, and use software to secretly steal banking credentials. In this case, the victim may never know exactly how they were hacked, only discovering the crime when they are contacted by their bank or the police.

However, scammers with weaker technical (and even social) skills tend to use more bullying tactics to trick their victims into performing actions like installing malware (malicious software), surrendering bank details, authorising credit card payments, or buying gift cards.

This bullying will typically be aimed at undermining the victim’s confidence and making them feel stupid. The reason for this abusive treatment is that the scammers are trying to cause an emotional response that will prevent the victim from thinking clearly.

Even those who normally are alert and vigilant can let their guard down. Particularly if they believe they are talking to someone from a reputable company such as Microsoft. Pride may mean the target does not want to appear stupid by not following instructions. 

If it pops, then stop

Having a basic awareness about tech support scams can prevent any serious harm from being caused. Clearly this is the best outcome. Remember that if you ever see a popup with a virus warning that is asking you to call a telephone number, you can be 100% confident this is a scam.

Take note of the website you visited when the popup appeared, as this website may be infected with malware and you should avoid visiting it again. Close the popup and website, and you will usually experience no further problems. To be safe, run a scan with your antivirus software to detect any real malware.

 Get them off the line

After initiating a phone call with a tech support worker who causes you to be suspicious, or if you receive a phone call ‘out-of-the-blue’ from a tech support worker you were not expecting to hear from take this simple and safe step. Calmly state that you are not interested in their help and hang-up. If you really do need technical support, check the official helpline for the company you are trying to contact by visiting their website. In many cases these companies will be aware of active scams using their company’s identity and can confirm your suspicions.

Attack the hack

If scammers succeed in tricking you into installing remote access software, you need to immediately disconnect your computer from the Internet. It is possible that the scammers may have used the remote access software to install malware on your computer, and because professional malware can easily evade standard antivirus software, you may need professional help to repair your computer.

One common technique for tech support scammers is to lock the victim’s computer and demand a fee to install antivirus software or perform repairs. If you find yourself on the phone to a person claiming to require payments to unlock your computer, you should never pay them as this will show the scammers that you are a good target. Another huge warning signal is if the scammer asks for a gift card.  It is money well spent if you do need to get an IT expert to undo the problem and damage. 

The Nature of the Beast

Global blog site Huffington Post say there are a number of upfront indicators to let you know a scammer is on the prowl. 

  1. You’re confronted with an enticing offer or demand.
  2. There is an emotional aspect to the deal.
  3. You’re asked for something in return for their offer
  4. The offer or demand has a time-sensitive deadline.

Remain safe in your flock

Remember in any attack situation there is safety in numbers.  And reliable ‘shepherds do keep you safe along with others’.

  • Be aware of the possibilities of a cyber-attack but do not fret or panic.
  • Often common sense and ‘gut feeling’ will be a good guide of what to do…or not.
  • You do not have to make any immediate decisions. If in doubt hang up, or log off, and leave it at that.
  • You will likely know organisations you personally have dealt with or have accounts with. If anything or anyone untoward appears in your world…then be suspicious and do not engage.
  • Ask friends or family for information or support. Similarly, if you know something is happening on the Web let your friends, caregivers or family know.
  • The minute anyone gets abusive or heavy handed in any way, discontinue the contact immediately.
  • If you think you have been hacked then reputable organisations and IT specialists can help and guide you through.
  • There is MUCH to be enjoyed and experienced on the Internet. Enjoy it but like anything else in your life, be aware of risks and dangers. And avoid them.

Cry Wolf

If you believe you have been the victim of cybercrime, the first step is always to contact your bank so you can verify your suspicions, try to prevent further losses to yourself, and help to protect other customers. After discussing it with your bank, you can use the NZ Police’s 105 number for non-emergency situations or call 111 for emergencies. You can also report online scams to Netsafe on 0508 NETSAFE (0508 638 723) or visit the CERT NZ website and complete their online form.

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Published.  July 2020 

Reviewed: June 2022

To be reviewed: June 2025