According to a 2016 global survey commissioned by Microsoft, 2 out of 3 people have experienced a tech support scam in the previous 12 months.

Share story

If you haven’t experienced a tech support scam yet, chances are you know someone who has. According to a 2016 global survey commissioned by Microsoft, 2 out of 3 people have experienced a tech support scam in the previous 12 months.

The “old school” method of tech support scam was as follows: fraudster calls a senior citizen at home claiming to have a relationship with a reputable company; misrepresents the existence of malware, computer viruses or other technical problems on a personal computer; and proceeds to sell unnecessary tech support.

While fraudsters still target seniors, Microsoft research indicates a startling number of millennials also are falling victim to tech support fraud. Fifty percent of all respondents in a Microsoft survey who experienced this type of scam fell between the ages of 18 and 34. These results may appear surprising, challenging a previous belief that fraudsters target mostly senior citizens, but they prove that cybercriminals are a growing threat to everyone.

By leveraging pop-ups, unsolicited email and scam websites, fraudsters are reaching a broader number of people,  including younger-than-expected victims. The data indicates victims older than 65 are more likely to be reached by telephone. In contrast, millennials aged 18 to 34 are more likely to have been redirected to a fraudulent website (50 percent) or duped by a pop-up advertisement (59 percent) as compared to receiving an unsolicited call (26 percent).

Regardless of the audience or method, the goal of the fraudster remains the same – use fear and deception to persuade a consumer to call for support, then seek remote access to the consumer’s device and provide a fraudulent sales pitch. Then, the fraudster charges the victim for ineffective tech support services and may save the victim’s contact information for future fraud schemes.

Microsoft’s approach to combatting tech support fraud

Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit is actively combatting this scourge of cybercrime. The company is using a data-driven approach to better understand and investigate tech support fraud networks, then refer cases to law enforcement. Microsoft applies what is learned to strengthen technology to better protect consumers and educate them about how to stay safe online as tech scams evolve.

To date, Microsoft has received more than 160,000 customer complaints. The data analytics team uses smart tools to sort and group information to build a more comprehensive view of the scope of the fraud. The Microsoft Artificial Intelligence & Research team tackled another problem – capturing images of pop-ups being served around the globe at scale and using machine learning to collect critical information.

The scale and scope of tech support fraud requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. In May 2017, law enforcement took action against a number of tech support fraudsters targeted by Microsoft’s DCU. As part of this coordinated effort, the FTC and its partners announced 16 new actions, including complaints, settlements, indictments and guilty pleas involving deceptive tech support operations. Seven individuals received criminal indictments for their role in the Florida-based Client Care Experts fraudulent operation. This one company is estimated to have victimized over 40,000 people, generating fraudulent proceeds in excess of $25 million.

Building a safer platform and educating consumers

Microsoft is building what is learned about the behavior of cybercriminals into improved products for consumers. Microsoft has built-in protection in Windows 10, which includes more security features, safer authentication and ongoing updates delivered for the supported lifetime of a device. Windows Defender delivers comprehensive, real-time protection against software threats across email, cloud and web and helps protect against many of those frustrating pop-up windows.

The best thing you can do to help protect yourself from fraud is to educate yourself. Microsoft partners with organizations like the AARP and state Attorneys General for education and outreach. Here are a few key tips you should keep in mind:

  • Do not purchase software or services from an unsolicited call, email, or online ad.
  • Never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team with whom you are already a customer.
  • Do not be fooled if a phony tech support scammer knows your name or some facts about how your computer operates. Cybercriminals trade info and often claim to have specific information about your computer that is very generic.
  • Take the person’s information down and immediately report it to your local authorities.

Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit investigates tech support scams and partners with law enforcement as well as the Federal Trade Commission to take legal actions against scammers. Microsoft also partners with advocacy groups such as AARP to help educate consumers.