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Tech support hustlers make bad situations worse

By now, most people know about tech support scams and the way that a spoofed company – often, it’s a fake Microsoft or Apple – will scare you into believing there’s a serious problem with your computer and then offer to fix it for you. You have to pay a steep price, though, and provide access to your computer.

But you should also be aware of a different way the scammers pull this off, besides the usual email, popup or phone call. It can happen when you do have a legitimate computer problem and you do an online search looking for someone to fix it.

Turns out that such a search can alert scammers, who now know you have an actual computer problem and will more likely fall for their we-can-help-you scheme.

One recent lawsuit brought by the Federal Trade Commission against a Utah company involves allegations regarding this kind of approach. Elite IT Partners, Inc. is accused of buying key words on Google so that people searching for how to recover lost email passwords were directed to an Elite web page, the FTC complaint said.

From there, they are instructed to provide their name, email address, and phone number, after which a company representative calls them and insists they provide computer access to perform a “sham diagnostic,” the FTC alleges. The likely diagnosis: computer “viruses and infections.” The cure: large sums of money to correct the problem and to purchase ongoing technical support service, the FTC complaint said.

“The vast majority of consumers Elite contacts are elderly and/or unfamiliar with the workings of computers or the internet,” the complaint says. “Defendants use intimidation and scare tactics to take advantage of these consumers’ limited knowledge about such technology.”

The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Here are some tips from the FTC:

• If you’re looking for tech support, go to a company you know and trust, or get help from a knowledgeable friend or family member. If you search online for help, search on the company name plus “scam,” “review” or “complaint.”

• If you get a phone call you didn’t expect from someone who says there’s a problem with your computer, hang up.

• Never call a number in a pop-up that warns you of computer problems. Real security warnings will never ask you to call a phone number.

• If you think there’s a problem with your computer, update its security software and run a scan.

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On a related matter, the latest figures show that people who are 60 and over are particularly vulnerable to tech support scams. The FTC says its 2018 numbers show that age group is five times more likely than younger people to report losing money on tech scams – even though they were less likely than younger people to be duped by a number of other types of scams.

Over the past four years, older adults filed more reports of losing money to tech support scams than they did in any other fraud category tracked by the FTC. The reported median individual loss to such scams for older adults was $500 last year – 25 percent higher than the median individual loss reported by younger people.

But it’s not just money that’s at risk. When people give scammers remote access to their computer, they are handing control over to fraudsters who can “readily steal sensitive information or install spyware – a form of malware that lets them quietly gather information,” the FTC says.

Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact her at or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-844-255-9210.