FBI issues new warning over tech support scams — how to stay safe

FBI seal on building
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The FBI has issued a warning following a surge in tech support scams that use a new tactic to trick unsuspecting users into forking over their hard-earned cash.

As reported by Bleeping Computer, the U.S. government agency has raised the alarm on a series of new tech support scams in a public service announcement posted on its Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3).

Unlike malicious apps and other cyber threats that go after a much broader range of targets, tech support scams primarily target the elderly through phone calls, texts, phishing emails and misleading pop-up windows. 

Even though you may not necessarily be the main target of these kinds of scams, someone else in your family could be, especially if you have older relatives that live alone. This is why the FBI is warning people about this new series of tech support scams, which use a unique method to put cash into the hands of the cybercriminals behind them.

Changing tactics

Tech support scams often start with a message or email that aims to be helpful. For instance, scammers may warn potential targets about fraudulent activities linked to their accounts or promise to refund a subscription fee. Regardless of the lure used, a phone number is provided and targets are encouraged to call the number for additional assistance.

Once on the phone with a scammer, potential victims are then persuaded into downloading and installing remote access software to give the scammers full control over their computer. From here, they then convince victims to log into their bank accounts where a larger amount of money is deposited. The scammers then ask the victim to send back the extra cash because if they don’t, they could end up losing their job.

In the past, scammers have had victims send back this extra money using bank transfers, cryptocurrency or even gift cards. However, this latest round of tech support scams does things a bit differently.

According to the FBI, scammers are now instructing victims to “send the money in cash, wrapped in a magazine(s), or similar method of concealment, via a shipping company to a name and address provided by the scammer." Unlike with other methods of transferring money, there’s no way to call your bank and say you got scammed when you willingly sent cash using the method described above.

At the same time, targets also run the risk of falling victim to a jugging attack when getting the cash to send to these scammers. For those unfamiliar, jugging is a real-world attack where someone follows you after you withdraw money from a bank or ATM in order to rob you. In this case, you could be assaulted and robbed right outside the bank or a criminal could even follow you home to do so away from prying eyes.

How to stay safe from tech support scams

A nervous woman looking at her phone

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When it comes to protecting yourself and loved ones from tech support scams, the FBI has a few recommendations.

First off, you should never download any software onto your computer at the request of an unknown individual that contacted you via text message, email or over the phone. Likewise, you should never allow them to take control of your computer, especially under the guise of helping you fix an issue with it.

You also want to avoid clicking on any pop-ups that appear on websites warning you there’s something wrong with your computer. The same goes for links sent via text messages, social media or email. 

Most importantly though, you should never call any phone numbers provided in emails or messages that arrive in your inbox from unknown senders. Cybercriminals like to use your emotions against you by creating a sense of urgency in order to make you more likely to call a phone number they’ve provided.

If you do come across a tech support scam though, the FBI recommends that you report it to its Internet Crime Complaint Center immediately to help others know what to look out for. You may also want to consider investing in the best identity theft protection as falling victim to a tech support scam could lead to having your identity stolen by hackers.

Tech support scams are one of the oldest tricks in the book and while the scams themselves may not change much, the way in which the cybercriminals behind them steal money from victims can as we’ve seen here. This is why we all need to remain vigilant when checking our email, messages and even when browsing the web.

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Anthony Spadafora
Senior Editor Security and Networking

Anthony Spadafora is the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to password managers and the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. Before joining the team, he wrote for ITProPortal while living in Korea and later for TechRadar Pro after moving back to the US. Based in Houston, Texas, when he’s not writing Anthony can be found tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.