Security

FTC looks to shut down fake tech support scams with Operation Tech Trap

The Federal Trade Commission recently announced new efforts to end scams that target consumers through fake security alerts. Here's how to spot them and stay safe.

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A screenshot of a sample deceptive ad.

Image: FTC

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is cracking down on tech support scams that have cost consumers hundreds of dollars. Operation Tech Trap, announced on Friday, is an effort by the FTC and state, federal, and international law enforcement partners to end scams that con consumers into thinking their computers are infected with viruses and malware, and charge them for unnecessary repairs.

The FTC announced 16 new actions against support scammers, including complaints, settlements, indictments, and guilty pleas, as part of the effort to stop their actions. A total of 29 law enforcement actions have been taken against these criminals since last year.

"Tech support scams prey on consumers' legitimate concerns about malware, viruses and other cyber threats," said Tom Pahl, acting director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a press release. "The FTC is proud to work with federal, state and international partners to take down these scams, and help consumers learn how they can safeguard their computers against real cybersecurity threats."

The scammers targeted by Operation Tech Trap tend to follow the same pattern: First, an advertisement resembling a pop-up security alert appears on their victim's screen. The ad tells the victim that their machine has been infected with a virus or has been hacked, and advises them to call a toll-free number to resolve the issue. These ads sometimes include a countdown clock that makes victims believe they only have a set amount of time before their hard drive files will be deleted, according to the press release.

SEE: Major ransomware attack hits hospitals in England, shutting down IT systems

After the victim calls the fraudulent support line number, they are connected to a call center where scammers pretending to be representatives from Microsoft, Apple, or other tech giants tell them they must gain remote access to their computer to diagnose the problem. The scammers tell victims that their machines have a number of issues, and pressure them into paying hundreds of dollars for repairs, service plans, and anti-virus protection or software.

"Tech support scams prey on people's fear of losing important work, family photos or sensitive identification information. Using that fear scammers trick thousands of consumers into paying millions of dollars to fix problems that never existed," said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in the press release. "These scams will not be tolerated in Florida and that is why we are bringing more cases, against more tech support scammers than any other state in the country—in an effort to protect consumers and recover money for victims."

This isn't the only tech service scam on the web. In January 2017, when you Googled "Facebook customer support," the top hit was a scam. And in February 2017, a top Google search result that appeared to be an ad for Amazon.com was actually a malicious link to a Windows support scam.

Despite these new efforts from the FTC, these scams will likely remain pervasive, noted ZDNet's Liam Tung. Last week's massive ransomware attack that closed hospitals across England demonstrated the level of sophistication that these attackers have developed. "The FTC has been cracking down on the scams for several years and, with the rise of ransomware and Friday's outbreak, the lies told by scammers are likely to continue to trick victims," Tung wrote.

Consumer knowledge of cybersecurity issues remains a large problem as well: A recent Pew Research study found that about half of internet users are unable to identify phishing emails, and only about half know what ransomware is.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

1. On Friday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced Operation Tech Trap, an effort to stop tech support ads that trick consumers into believing that their computers have been compromised, and that they need to pay hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs and services.

2. Since last year, the FTC has taken a total of 29 actions against support scammers, including complaints, settlements, indictments, and guilty pleas.

3. Despite these efforts, it's likely that these types of attacks will continue, as scammers develop more sophisticated techniques to target consumers.

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About Alison DeNisco

Alison DeNisco is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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