How the ‘tech support’ scam robs the elderly, including my mom


My 76-year-old mother is an incredibly tech-savvy senior citizen who commands her gadgets more like a millennial than someone born in the same year the ballpoint pen was invented. She also has an array of tech support experts built in all around her – including me – her own daughter!

Yet when a giant yellow “alert” covered half of the screen of her MacBook Pro a few weeks ago, warning her that hackers had taken control of her device and immediately calling the “Apple number” Support ‘on the screen or else … it just does that. But the real danger wasn’t a virus on his computer, it was the man who answered on the other end of the phone.

A new version of the old tech support scam

“I’m so embarrassed,” she told me, crying. “There was a crazy cursor on my screen. I tried to grab it, and when I couldn’t, I told myself that since it was on a Mac, it was real. I called the number on the screen, a man answered, “Apple Support”, she pauses and her voice cracks again. “You know, these people are really good at what they do.”

My mom lost $ 2,000 and although she reported it to her bank right away, she was told there was nothing they could do (more on that below). She feels horrible about it. I keep telling her not to feel bad. She is the victim of the most successful online fraud against the elderly in America today – a new version of the “tech support” scam – which has defrauded billions of dollars in recent years.

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What’s new is that scammers are targeting more people over 60 online than over the phone, according to an October 2020 report from the Federal Trade Commission. It coincides with the pandemic and more people of all ages spending more time in the digital world. The FTC also reports that fraud losses totaled $ 388 million in the third quarter of 2020, a figure up 23% from 2019.

It got so bad that Microsoft and Apple are now warning people of various iterations of this scam on their websites. The FTC, FBI and AARP are also trying to get the word out. But the tips of cyber crooks evolve and become more and more convincing every day.

“If this is your first encounter with this type of sociopathology, the most dangerous thing you can do is think that you are too smart to fall into the trap,” warns Bob Sullivan, consumer safety expert. and host of AARP’s Perfect Scam podcast. “They’re really good at those quick emotional turns and put you in a panic very quickly. This is when you are ripe for the taking.

How it works

Scammers can call you directly on a landline or cell phone, or send a fake email, text, calendar invitation, or even direct message through social media. They can “spoof” the phone number to look like a legitimate call from a trusted company or someone from your own area code.

In my mother’s case, the crooks initiated the contact using a scam pop-up ad through her Chrome browser. He warned his device was compromised, hackers were controlling him and he would call the number on the screen or risk losing everything on the laptop, including his identity, passwords and even access. to his bank accounts.

An example of a scam price alert is displayed.

Fake pop-up ads are quite common – many of us have seen this “price alert” scam message at least once in our online lives. This most often happens if you click on a questionable website while typing a URL or following a malicious link from a spam message.

Regardless of how the thieves launch the threat, the immediate result is often the same. “You panic and want to fix it,” says Sullivan. “If you call the number you get a really nice voice on the other end, reiterating the grave danger you find yourself in, but that they are, in essence, going to protect you from real harm.”

Once they call you, the real commotion begins. The scammer says he’s an Apple (or Microsoft, or some other well-known company) certified technician and offers to give you his certification number. The conversation is fast, fluid and the con artist has an answer for everything.

“You asked a lot of good questions and at every turn they were ready with what seemed like a sane answer,” Sullivan told my mom directly on Zoom. “And that’s because they practiced this, they perform dozens of them every day.”

The fake technician may ask you to download an application that allows them to “run a diagnostic test”. Then they pretend to spot all kinds of horrible hacks, and offer to either fix it, perhaps for a price, or download more software – which is likely infecting your machine with malware for real.

“He told me to download TeamViewer from the (Apple) App Store, and that it would allow him to see my desktop, but not take control of it,” my mother recalls. “Then he said ‘we’re going to test your bank accounts to make sure they’re secure. We will transfer money from your savings to your check. When it worked he said I should transfer money to the technician’s official account through Zelle, which I had never heard of. But he explained that it was part of my bank and it was protected against fraud, just like my bank accounts and credit cards, and don’t worry because he was going out and coming back immediately. He also said that all of this service was “free” from Apple. . “

This is the part of the story where I lay my head on my desk and moan out loud, “Mom, why did you think this was real?” Why didn’t you call me?

“I trust Apple. I trust my [(USAA) bank, and because Zelle was right there on the USAA site, I trusted that, too.” The scammer did take money out of her account and put it all (she thought) right back in. He then sent her off on a wild goose chase to buy Target gift cards for some other convoluted diagnostic test, and that’s when she finally called me – five hours after first responding to the alert on her laptop. 

By then a blaring alarm was going off on her laptop and she didn’t think she could turn it off. “Just shut the lid,” I said. Of course, that made the horrible siren noise stop, but she’s far from over the entire ordeal.  

A screenshot of the app TeamViewer.

You have been scammed. Now what?

The first thing I had my mom do was contact USAA and report the fraud. Then, block the swindlers’ phone number. 

Scammers are relentless. They kept calling back after my mom hung up, so it’s important to block the calls, and not answer any more from numbers she doesn’t recognize. (If it’s legitimate, people leave a message.) 

I also had her change all of her passwords, report the scam to several authorities including the FTC and FBI, back up her files, and do a full reset and restore of her MacBook, iPhone, and iPad. 

Some people suggest running additional anti-virus software, too. “You can make an appointment at an Apple Store or contact Apple Support online, tell them what happened, and see if there are any additional precautions they suggest,” Sullivan said.  

The next day, while monitoring her bank accounts, she saw that three of the five Zelle money transfers had been returned. But there is still $ 2,000 missing.

USAA told her there was nothing they could do because she had authorized transactions through Zelle. She contacted Zelle and they too told her that she would not get her money back.

“We caution consumers in all of our marketing and consumer education,” says Meghan Fintland, Zelle spokesperson we contacted for this story. “Zelle is only used to pay people you know and trust. Use it as you would cash, because once you send money it’s gone in minutes and you can’t get it back. ”

“I’m responsible for fraud and core operations for USAA Bank, and my parents were victims of it,” wrote Stacey Nash, senior vice president of bank fraud management and email operations. “Financial abuse of seniors is something we train to detect and conduct awareness campaigns to prevent. It can happen to anyone, but it’s especially disheartening when it comes to an elderly member of your family. “

“It’s my fault for being too confident, I guess,” my mother said. “It may be a question of generation. I do not know. I’m sure $ 2,000 doesn’t seem like a lot of money for some people, but it’s a lot for us. I just hope sharing this keeps someone else from getting ripped off. “

How to avoid getting ripped off

Apple and Microsoft are giving you the dos and don’ts of this tech support scam and other popular scams on their sites. AARP offers a class for spotting scams and has an entire web page warning people of the dangers. The best advice includes:

  • Apple, Microsoft, and other reputable technology companies do not contact customers about “technical support” unless the customer initiates the communication – period.
  • If a pop-up window or error message appears with a phone number, do not call the number. Error and warning messages never include phone numbers.
  • If you get a tech support scam pop-up, close the browser. On a Windows PC, press Ctrl-Alt-Del to display the Task Manager. On a Mac, click the Apple icon in the upper left corner of your screen and use the Force Quit command.
  • Never pay for tech support or other services with a money transfer app, gift card, cash recharge card, or wire transfer.
  • If you receive a call, do not answer. If you answer, hang up and block the call. Once the crooks know they’ve hit a working number, you become a repeat target. One of the most common scams after you have interacted with cyber crooks for a fraudulent service is the “Refund Scam”.
  • Never trust any company – tech or otherwise – that asks for personal or financial information.
  • Keep your security software, browser, and operating system up to date, and consider using your browser’s pop-up blocker.

Last, but not least, remember when we were taught to stop, fall and roll, if our clothes catch fire? Sullivan says it’s also a good rule of thumb not to get burned by modern scams. “Anytime you’re in one of those moments where you think, ‘Oh my God, something terrible can happen,’ stop what you’re doing. Let go of the mouse and move your chair away from the desk. ”

Then call someone you trust. Like your daughter.

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer technology columnist and host of USA TODAY’s TECHNOW digital video show. Email him at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.

The opinions and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

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