Common Tech Scams that Target Seniors & How to Avoid Them

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Updated: August 21, 2019

Common Tech Scams that Target Seniors & How to Avoid Them

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If you ever get a call that goes something like this, hang up immediately:

“This is a call from Microsoft (or another reputable tech company). We encounter a serious issue coming out of your computer. It seems to be someone is trying to hijack your identity and trying to steal your social security number and personal information. If it’s not fixed right away than your computer will become obsolete and all of your credential information may got compromised. If you are the one who is using Microsoft Windows in your computer, then please call 602-483-1686 (or a different number they give you) or press one now to speak with security team now. Please ignore if we called you by mistake. Thank you.”

If you do talk to a representative, they will probably tell you your computer has a virus or has been hacked. They will then tell you that they can help you fix it for free. However, there are no tech companies that will call you and offer services for free. Nor would they send you a pop-up message in your browser offering these services.


Scams like these have been popping up more in the last year

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Scams like these have been popping up more in the last year. The Federal Trade Commission released an article that concluded (based on their data) that seniors were the hardest hit by tech support scams. They reported losing money to scams five times more often than those 60 and under. The FBI released a report saying that scams like the one described are becoming more frequent than any other scam on the internet. In 2017 alone, the reported total money scammed from people increased more than one and a half times over. Of course, that is only the number of reported cases. There are probably many cases that go unreported, either because the victims are embarrassed and take care of the problem themselves, or because the victim has not yet discovered that they have been scammed.

Telemarketers committing fraudulent activities often try to find people who have fallen for scams before, believing them to be more susceptible to scams and come up with a new script to trick the person. In fact, these telemarketers will often keep track of the numbers for people they have tricked, then trade those numbers around a large network of scammers. Experts say that if you realize you have fallen for a scam, it might be best just to change your number right away.

Of course, seniors are not the only ones affected by scams. In fact, one survey done by Microsoft concluded that young people who were contacted by tech support scammers were more likely to lose money than seniors. However, scammers specifically target older generations due to the higher level of unease and fear regarding computers. Since baby boomers did not grow up in the digital era, they are more likely to experience anxiety and feel less confident in their technological abilities. Scammers are able to prey on that fear. Older people who do not have extensive computer knowledge tend not to want to take chances when someone calls and says their computer has been infected. Using scare tactics has been found to be far more effective than more positive scams, like fraudsters calling to say you have won the lottery. They will do everything they can to inspire panic.

In addition, older generations are more likely to answer the phone for numbers they do not know. People who grew up before caller ID often answer their phones without checking to see who it is first. Generation x through z usually just ignore calls from random numbers.

Of course, robocalls are not the only problem. Scammers are increasingly reaching people by showing pop-ups in their web browsers with fraudulent ads prompting the user to call the number in the ad for tech support. These even appear on reputable sites. Scammers are able to take advantage of gaps in the security system around the site’s ad economy. From there, they can send fake ads for tech support or even redirect the user to a site that is difficult to click off of using some complex coding. They might even simply buy ad space beside the search results for various computer problems, so their phony tech support ad will pop up anytime someone is looking for help with their computer. Most fake ads though are identified and filtered out over time by reputable ad space companies and search engines selling ad space.

Scams are also getting increasingly more elaborate. They may not just be trying to steal money and are therefore harder to identify. They might tell you that they want to try to remove a virus from your computer or block a hacker and ask for your password. Once they have your password, they could install spyware and gain access to your personal information, bank account information, or just about any other sensitive information that you store on your computer. However, since they are not directly asking for a credit card number or something similar, warning bells might not go off right away.

Scammers use several tactics to make it appear as though they are helping you fix a legitimate problem with your computer. Once you grant them access to your computer, it is not hard to make it look like a problem is present. They might open a command line window on your screen and quietly type “malware detected” into the box. They could also access your operating system, find a page of scary-looking data and numbers, and display it on your screen. Another possible tactic is to show you your computer’s event logs. For anyone not overly familiar with tech support or coding, such tricks could resemble very real threats. Once they have been granted access to your computer, it can be very hard to detect the true threat.

After they convince you that your computer has a problem, the scammer will start trying to get you to pay to remove it. They could offer a security package or something similar. The chances are that they’ll tell you it will cost a few hundred dollars to get the malware off of your computer.

This problem is not unknown to content distribution networks or hosting providers. These companies definitely shut down scamming sites once they are made aware of them. However, it is quick and easy for scammers just to make new accounts with the providers. They might just use free trial periods and start scams in that short amount of time.

The Federal Communications Commission is also doing its part to stop internet fraud crimes. They have been encouraging companies operating in the phone industry to work harder to prevent scammers from calling consumers. Phone companies have invested in developing tools to reduce robocalls. They have even developed ways of blocking robocalls on phone services that are internet-based, as is becoming more and more common. There are companies that have formed specifically to search for and block robocalls. Nomorobo has a quarter of a million phone lines that it monitors incoming robocalls. Then, Nomorobo records and analyzes those calls so that it can better recognize robo-callers and block them from reaching whoever they are calling. Stir/Shaken is another new invention designed to stymie robo-callers.

Stir/Shaken is a cryptographic technology that is meant to limit fraudsters’ ability to use fake numbers to trick people into answering the phone. Scammers might call using a fake number associated with a legitimate operation like the IRS or Microsoft. More recently, scammers have started calling using a number similar to the person they are calling, so the person assumes whoever is calling is nearby and probably legitimate. Stir/Shaken limits “caller ID spoofing,” like in the situations described above.

Several initiatives have also been started to educate consumers about different tech support scams and to detect and end scams. Microsoft, for example, has tried to educate people about possible robocall, phishing, and tech support scams they might encounter. They also have a place where people can report scams, and work with officials to end scams worldwide.

The entire Justice Department has re-committed to putting an end to fraudulent activity and arresting scammers, especially scammers targeting elders. In 2018, the Justice Department coordinated the largest nationwide elder fraud sweep in history. On an international level, law enforcement officials, with the help of Microsoft, have recently conducted raids on approximately 30 Indian call centers that were known to be the base of operations for scammers.

Also, a group of Democrats and Republicans in Congress have drafted a bill known as the Senior Security Act. This would, in effect, set up a division of the Securities and Exchange Commission devoted solely to investigating scams that seem to be targeting seniors. This bill is not focused on tech support scams alone. They would focus on any scams that target senior investments and securities, tech support fraud among them.

What you can do to protect yourself and your family from falling victim to a tech scam?

  • First, do not answer the phone for a number you do not recognize, and tell your family members to do the same. This goes double for anyone over the age of 60 since they are heavily targeted by scammers. If you do answer a call that you think might be a scam, but seems legitimate, there are a couple of tell-tale signs that the call is a fraud. First, the call is more likely to be a scam if the caller is a “robot” or electronic sounding.
  • Second, if the robot’s script has some grammatical problems or irregularities, it might be a scam, since many scams are run out of other countries and scammers do not necessarily proofread their scripts. Another sign is if the caller is using unprofessional language, like “hijacked.” Ultimately, scams tend to sound less polished than legitimate calls.
  • Third, no tech company is going to monitor your computer and call to offer free services if there is a problem. If the caller is offering something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If you do discover that you have been the victim of a scam and have allowed scammers to access your computer, take it to a trustworthy professional right away, even if nothing appears to be wrong with your computer. The fraudster might have installed spyware on your PC. Check your bank account as well for any fraudulent charges and contact your bank to contest them. Then, make sure to report the incident to the FTC or the police. Many scams go unreported, allowing those scammers to prey on other people. Make sure there is a law enforcement official that is aware of the crime. If people are on the lookout for scams and regularly report them to the people who can stop them, tech scams may be less of a problem in the future.