PSA: Beware Tech Support Scams!

Apple does what they can to protect their users from attacks, but as security systems have become more sophisticated in recent years hackers and scammers are becoming more creative in finding a way. Recently they have turned to the weakest link in your computer security: you! Security software is largely unable to protect you in these cases, so the best course of action is to learn how to protect yourself.

How Tech Support Scams Work

Tech support scams start by trying to get you on the phone. You might see an alarming pop-up message informing you of some problem and giving a number to call for help, end up on a Web site that offers a free “security scan” that will pretend to find problems and urge you to call, or even receive a direct cold call from someone claiming to be from Apple, Google, or Microsoft. You can end up on one of these pages even by visiting a legitimate website because there are more ads on the internet than can be policed.

Once you’re on the phone, the scammers’ goal is to convince you to pay them to solve your “problem.” They do this by throwing around technical terms and having you look at low-level files that, they’ll say, show evidence of issues like malware infection or file corruption. They may even ask for remote access to your Mac using legitimate software like TeamViewer and use it to show you log messages that look like concerning errors.

If you fall for this tech talk, the scammers close in for the kill. They may ask for your credit card number to pay for the “services” they’ve rendered, enroll you in a fake maintenance or warranty program, sell you software that is normally available as a free download, or install malware that will give them continued access to your computer. Not good.

How to Protect Yourself from Tech Support Scams

Luckily, it’s easy to ensure that you don’t get scammed if you know what to watch out for.

  • Never call a phone number that appears in a pop-up dialog, no matter what it says. Legitimate messages will never ask you to do that.
  • If you get an unexpected call from someone you don’t know claiming to be tech support, hang up immediately. Don’t be fooled by caller ID, since it can be spoofed to look like the call is coming from a legitimate company, like Apple.
  • Don’t give your passwords to anyone who contacts you on the phone, and never allow anyone you haven’t met in person (and trust!) to control your Mac remotely.

How to Recover from Being Scammed

First, I’m here to help for real, so please feel free to contact me for assistance. That said, there are three main things to focus on:

  • Change any passwords that you shared. Plus, if you use the same passwords on any Web sites, change those passwords too. (And start using a password manager like 1Password so every site can have its own secure password without you having to remember and type them.)
  • If you have legitimate anti-malware software, run it to make sure the scammer didn’t install anything evil on your Mac. If you don’t have up-to-date anti-malware software I always recommend MalwareBytes (even their free version works very well).
  • If you paid for any bogus services, call your credit card company and reverse the charges. You can also report the incident to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission at ftc.gov/complaint.

Finally, beware of the followup “refund scam.” Several months after you’ve been scammed, you might get a call asking if you were satisfied with the service and offering a refund if you weren’t happy, or saying that the company is filing for bankruptcy and providing refunds. Either way, the scammer will then ask for your bank account or credit card number to process the refund, but instead of depositing money, will extract more. If you get a call like this, hang up immediately.

What to do if you see one of these popups

If you see one of these popups (or hear them–some of them talk which is scary!), don’t worry, you likely aren’t infected with anything. You are just seeing an advertisement. Just like you’ll sometimes get an ad for JC Penney or for a Purple Mattress, you’ll sometimes instead get an ad that is a scam. There are too many ads on the internet for them to be policed effectively. Simply close the window, quit your browser, or restart the computer, whatever it takes to make it go away. As long as you don’t follow the links or call the number provided you are fine. Sometimes the ad is really persistent and you may need some help to get rid of it.

One extra level of caution, in case the ad is on your computer because you have adware, you may want to run MalwareBytes to make sure your computer isn’t infected with something. If you are a customer of mine you probably have my Proactive Diagnostic tools already installed (that’s the little umbrella icon in the top right corner of your screen), in which case I will let you know if you catch malware and I will walk you through removing it.

Learning more

If you want to learn more about the inner workings of a tech support scam company listen to episodes 102 and 103 of one of my favorite nerdy podcasts, Reply All (warning: language like sailors).