FTC to crack down on bogus ‘tech support’ lines

Bogus sites claiming to be Microsoft are the new Nigerian scammers.

tech scam sweep Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
United States Federal Trade Commission (One-Time Use)

In an extremely fortunate bit of timing, I visited my parents just as my father nearly fell for one of the worst scams floating around on the Internet. He had inadvertently clicked on a bogus link that popped up an equally bogus blue screen claiming his computer had been compromised and he needed to call a toll free “Microsoft” support line to get help.

Of course it wasn’t Microsoft and the pop up was fraudulent, but he didn’t know that. I practically screamed “hang up!” at him and explained why after he did.

These tech support scams have always been growing in frequency and severity, and the fact that they have an 800 number (or some derivative) not only gives them validity and makes people more willing to call, but also shows they are flying under the radar and using legitimate means against their victims.

Thankfully, the Federal Trade Commission is finally stepping in. It has announced "Operation Tech Trap," emphasizing 16 actions it is undertaking with the U.S. and international law-enforcement partners to combat these tech scams. This brings to 29 the number of law enforcement actions brought by Operation Tech Trap partners in the last year to stop tech support scams.

“Tech support scams prey on consumers’ legitimate concerns about malware, viruses and other cyber threats,” said Tom Pahl, Acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a statement. “The FTC is proud to work with federal, state and international partners to take down these scams, and help consumers learn how they can safeguard their computers against real cybersecurity threats.”

Tech support scams take the form of ads disguised as legitimate security messages designed to look like they come from the company in question. In the case of my father, who still had the browser open, the screen was made to look like a Microsoft blue error screen. Except it had a message on it saying files would be deleted if he did not call an 844 number.

Once people call the “support line,” they are given a bogus diagnosis of their computer and will be asked to pay a fee for fake repair services. They then pronounce the computer fixed when nothing was ever wrong with it. Except now a crook has your credit card information.

At this point, getting these guys will be a challenge. You would think they are stupid enough to be based in the United States where they can easily be tracked down and arrested. They are likely in nations with no extradition treaty or one that just plain doesn’t care.

But then again, the FTC did announce four actions taken against U.S.-based firms, in Ohio, Alabama, Florida and Colorado. So the more homegrown scammers they root out, the better.

In the meantime, education is the first and only real line of defense. Tell anyone you know who might not know better that no, Microsoft will not pop up a message box to call them, no, Windows will not begin deleting files in a few minutes if you don’t call that number, and be careful where they click, because these scams often hide on the side panes of webpages.

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