How to protect yourself from PC tech support scams

In the third time since 2011, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has shut down another operation selling bogus tech support.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission's game of whack-a-mole with Windows tech support scammers continues.

The FTC and the State of Florida recently announced the temporary shut down of several businesses in two new cases of Windows tech support scams. The two cases involved scams that bilked "tens of thousands" of Windows PC owners out of more than $120 million, the FTC says.

For at least four years now, scam artists have been trying to pull one over on gullible computer users with phony tech support calls. The FTC said its latest operation was the third such case since 2011. More are sure to come since putting together a scam like this is relatively cheap compared to the potential million dollar windfall.

PC users need to be wary of scams like these or risk falling prey to them. We've included a few tips that should help you stay scam free.

How the scam works

Previous scams involved cold-calling customers over the phone and then convincing them their computers were riddled with malware. This time around, however, the scammers had to wait for a user to download a bogus desktop program.

Usually people are enticed to download these phony apps with promises of improved security or performance for their PC. Then after they download a trial version, the app runs a scan and discovers non-existent errors on the PC.

To fix the phony errors, the user has to purchase the full version of the scam program, which can be priced anywhere from $29 to $49, according to the FTC.

But it doesn't stop there. Once the victim has purchased the full version, the software prompts them to call a toll-free number to activate the software.

After calling, the victims are shunted to telemarketers who convince their targets to give them remote access to their PCs. The call center people then show victims various screens on their own computer and claim there are serious problems with their PC.

At this point, telemarketers try to sell more phony goods such as extra security software and tech support services that can cost up to $500.

Protect yourself

While the scams can do some serious damage to your wallet, they are easily avoided if you follow a few simple tips.

First, never download an app to your PC that promises better security or improved performance on an impulse. Yes, there are some legitimate programs that can boost performance in minimal ways, and of course you need some kind of security program.

But as the saying goes, "the best things in life are free." These days there's little reason to pay for security software with so many third-party free options out there such as Avast, AVG, and Microsoft's own Windows Defender built into the latest versions of Windows. Our guide to building the ultimate free PC security suite can help.

If you're thinking about grabbing some performance boosting software, check it out before you download. Do a little research, such as looking for reviews or recommendations on sites like this one.

Second, never believe a website that says your PC is having problems. If you're concerned your PC may have an issue or some new program you don't recognize says you have a problem, get it checked out in person.

If you live near a Microsoft Store, try the retailer's Genius Bar-like service called Answer Desk that will check out your PC for free. Otherwise your local PC repair shop can help, and paying a legitimate service provider is a lot cheaper than paying a scammer. Of course, asking a geeky pal for help is always an option, too.

Finally, keep in mind that these kind of scams have grown beyond PCs. In January, security firm Malwarebytes discovered a tech support scam targeting mobile devices. In those cases, the call centers were cold-calling prospective victims posing as tech support specialists responding to supposed problems. Similar scams try to entrap users with unsolicited email.

If you receive a cold call or an unsolicited email regarding tech support, do not respond. Just hang up the phone! More importantly, no matter how convincing they seem do not hand over personal information such as your name, address, or payment information.

As with most scams, as long as you keep your wits about you and use common sense online, you'll be fine.

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Tags U.S. Federal Trade CommissionFederal Trade CommissionsupportMicrosoftsecurityscams

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