FBI warns of rise in costly technical support scams

(NEW YORK) — The Federal Bureau of Investigation has issued an alert about the rise in technical support scams spreading across the country.

FBI field offices in Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Boston and Chicago continue to warn the public of heightened fraud and cyber security risks.

According to the FBI bulletin, the technical support scam involves a cybercriminal posing as technical support offering to resolve issues such as compromised email or bank accounts, computer viruses, or software renewals.

“You may be on your computer, and you may get a pop-up,” said Ashley Johnson, the acting special agent in charge of the Chicago division. “And this pop-up will tell them, ‘Hey, your accounts have been hacked. Call this number.’ And [the scammers] will represent themselves as a reputable software company.”

Recent FBI statistics reported that Americans lost nearly a quarter billion dollars last year from this scam alone — an increase of over 137% compared to last year.

YouTube star Pierogi, who runs a YouTube channel called “Scammer Payback,” which posts videos of phone calls with scammers, told ABC News he first noticed an uptick in this type of scam earlier this year.

He shared a screenshot of a “pop-up alert” scam he received on his computer that claimed to be from Microsoft and directed him to call a phone number for support.

A spokesperson from Microsoft told ABC News that Microsoft will never send unsolicited messages or make unsolicited phone calls to request personal or financial information, or to provide support to fix your computer.

They added that the real Microsoft warning messages never include a phone number. If a consumer does receive a pop-up, the spokesperson recommended closing the message or using the key combination CTRL+ALT+DEL to quit the program they’re currently using and run a security scan on the computer.

For Bert Smith, 85, and his wife Ann, a month-long tech support scam ended up costing them $3 million.

Smith, who used a pseudonym for this report, said he logged on to his computer to play solitaire, like he does most days. Almost immediately, he experienced a frozen computer followed by a pop-up advising the computer was hacked and to call a phone number claiming to be a well-known computer software company.

According to Smith, when he called the phone number, he was transferred to another person claiming to be a federal agent, who told him he needed remote access to his computer to scan it. Smith said the scammer told him that his Social Security numbers, bank and investment account information were all compromised, and that their money was at risk.

He said he was told the solution was to transfer the money out of their current accounts and invest it in cryptocurrency for safekeeping.

“They had told me that if anybody asks why we are doing this, well, the stock market was down,” said Smith. “And Bitcoins were going down too, so this would be a good time to invest.”

According to Smith’s daughter Kerry, the scammers even gave her parents Bitcoin wallet numbers to try to convince them their money was safe.

Smith said he was instructed not to tell anyone, including bank employees or members of their family, and was given a script to recite at the bank if questioned by employees about the nature of his money transfers.

Their daughter Kerry said she only learned about the scam after the $3 million was gone.

“It was devastating to hear because of how hard my parents worked for their money,” said Kerry. “This shows just how manipulative these scammers are … for them not to share something like this with us.”

Over the course of a month, Smith said he made a dozen wire transfers in amounts as high as $750,000 until a bank employee became suspicious and notified the local police, who have since referred the case to the FBI. Smith told ABC that their case is still currently under investigation.

While they still hope they can recover some of their money, Bert and Ann said it was more important for them to share their story so that others are aware of what these scammers can do. “As I look back on it, I [think], ‘How gullible could you be?’ But on the other hand, they had a good story,” said Smith. “We wanted to share our story, so that seniors can learn from this … and for them not to feel that it’s something they did.”

Johnson urged victims of scams to contact the FBI through ic3.gov or report suspected scams to their local law enforcement agency and their banking institution.

According to Johnson, the FBI’s Recovery Asset Team has recovered over $300 million of fraudulently obtained funds. “We have an 82% recovery rate,” she said, but encouraged victims to report as early as possible, making it more likely to recover money.

FBI field offices nationwide also work directly with banking institutions to combat criminal activity, said Johnson. Through FBI investigations and intelligence, the agency provides education on emerging phishing and scamming trends for banks.

“We do see [companies] being vigilant in trying to make sure their customers are protected,” Johnson added.

Additionally, the FBI provided a list of tips to avoid being scammed:

  •     Avoid installing apps or programs that allow strangers remote access to your computer.
  •     Never call the number in a pop-up window.
  •     Always disconnect your device from the internet immediately if you see a scam-related pop-up screen. Do not turn your computer off or reboot.
  •     Always be skeptical if someone tells you not to talk to your family about a money transfer.
  •     Always be skeptical if a “government agency” asks you to conduct business in Bitcoin.
  •     Always call companies, banks, or government agencies directly with numbers you have independently verified.
  •     Always contact the FBI at ic3.gov to make a report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.