"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," wrote noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. Our computer technology is certainly advanced enough that, to many, it looks like magic. As a result, the kind of wizardry that those with technical savvy can perform can be simply baffling.
That confusion is exactly what some scammers have come to rely on for making their money. The Federal Trade Commission is warning about a range of scams featuring phony tech support. From fake phone numbers to malware-loaded scanning software, these schemes all have one goal: compromise your technology to steal personal information and money.
Even if your tech skills are legendary, these scams are set up to push your buttons. If you want to browse the internet in peace, you need to be vigilant. Watch out for these three tech support scams.
1. Yahoo phone support
Data breaches always have two sets of victims. There are the people who were immediately affected, and then there are those who are victimized in the confusion following the breach. Yahoo's data breach appears to have found a new group of the latter.
Scammers have created a variety of replica sites that convincingly look like Yahoo help sites. Some of these detail common account problems and then offer a phone number for "Yahoo Customer Care" or something along those lines. If you call, one of several things might happen: You might be asked for credit card information to pay a support fee. You might be asked to allow remote connections to your computer. Or, you might be asked for account information, including your username and password.
Regardless of what the scammer requests, the help they provide is bogus, and the damage they can do is very real. Yahoo is very clear: It will never charge for tech support, nor will its employees ask for your password or to remotely connect to your computer. Most other internet platforms follow similar rules. While pay-for-support lines do exist, they're increasingly rare in an era of video tutorials and widespread internet access. Of course, you should never allow anyone you don't absolutely trust to make a remote connection to your computer.
2. Spyware scanners
Most commonly, this scam begins with a banner ad. A flashing icon on any ordinary webpage claims to have discovered infected files on your computer. A list of suspicious-sounding file names flash past, including some that are actually on your computer. The ad will inform you that you need security software and provide you with a download link.
As with many other downloadable software offerings, what happens next is largely a mystery, but it's most likely going to go badly. The piece of software may log your keystrokes so a hacker can steal your passwords. It could also allow remote access to your computer, allowing the scammer to riffle through your personal information. It could also be "ransomware," which encrypts all information on your computer until you pay a fee, which can sometimes be pretty hefty. Some of these scammers even have the gall to charge for the download!
The best way to protect yourself here is to be proactive. Don't download files from websites you don't explicitly trust. Get a reliable anti-virus software and a malware scanner, and run them regularly. That way, you can confidently ignore pop-ups that claim your computer is infected.
3. Inbound tech support
The FTC has also reported an uptick in unsolicited "tech support" calls. These scams usually start with a call from an unknown number. If you answer, the caller will tell you he's detected a problem with your computer. You'll be instructed to provide him with remote access so he can fix it. The person on the phone will even walk you through the steps.
Once the scammer has control of your computer, he'll do any of the things described in the previous scams. Worse yet, it's incredibly hard to reverse this process. You may end up losing your computer in the process!
No tech support company will call you about a supposed monitoring of your computer. If you get an unsolicited call from an unknown number about your computer, just hang up. Better yet, report the number at donotcall.gov.
Despite how advanced it looks, technology isn't magic. It operates by a predictable set of rules. Learning just a little bit about how it works can help keep you safe.
What's your best tip for staying safe while using tech support? How do you get the best advice while avoiding scammers? Let us know in the comments!