Tech support scams have been around for several years now but there are no signs of them going away. A recent crackdown by the Federal Trade Commission revealed that one Florida-based scamming company alone, victimized over 40,000 users between November 2013 and 2016. This resulted in these victims losing a total of $25 million. Another report published by the FBI, reveals there were 10,850 tech support scam complaints in 2016 alone, resulting in a loss of $7.8 million. These victims reported fraud from 78 different countries, highlighting how far and wide do these scammers cast their net.
A survey conducted by Microsoft gave deeper insight into these scams. 2 out of 3 people experienced tech support scam in 2016, nearly 1 in 10 lost money, 17% of those who continued with a fraudulent transaction were older than 55 and surprisingly, 50% were between 18 and 34.
Anatomy of a scam
A tech support scam typically begins through any of the following techniques:
- User gets a cold call from the scammer.
- User visits a site that maliciously redirects them to the scam site or pops up another window through embedded links on the source page.
- User mistypes the URL in a browser and the scammer controls the incorrectly typed domain.
The video below shows how interacting with the webpage can get very painful and how at the end, the browser hangs completely. Notice how the page in fullscreen mode, has a background image with address bar that shows Microsoft’s secure support website. This is obviously an attempt to trick users into believing it’s the real Microsoft site.
Users who fall for such scam, end up calling the phone number listed on the website. The scammer then takes control of the user’s computer, shows them some benign files – calling them malicious, and then asks for money to fix it. The monetary transaction typically happens through services like PayPal or simply by asking user’s credit card information over phone.
Another variant of the scam is when the scammer says they want to refund the money from a previous call to the same victim. The scammer then takes control of the computer again, asks user to open their bank account and transfers money from within their bank accounts (between checking and savings etc.). Even though the transfer was made within the same user’s accounts, the scammer claims they made the transfer. Then they claim that they transferred more than what they were supposed to, by mistake, and that the victim should wire the extra money back the scammer.
Victims typically report losing a few hundred dollars on average.
Analysis of the latest scam sites
Even though the crackdown by law enforcement in U.S. and other countries have shut down several offenders, tech support scams are far from over. A study for a month (Jun ’17 – Jul ’17) with URL data collected from large-scale email honeypots and several other data sources, revealed the following:
- On an average, about 50 new scam sites are registered each day. Almost all of the scam URLs are from newly registered sites with very few coming from older, hijacked websites.
- A newer top level domain (TLD) .online was used the most by scammers to register these sites. 43% of all domains were registered on .online.
- Other popular TLDs were .info, .tech and .xyz. .com was fifth in terms popularity with scammers, followed by .site and .club. The use of these TLDs were presumably because of their low cost.
- Scammers sometimes adapt their scare tactics based on malware attacks that are popular in the news, for example, “Ransomware” alerts or “Zeus trojan” alerts.
- The scam sites were not just abusing Microsoft’s Windows brand. There were several variants targeting Apple’s Mac users and Google Chrome users with site content tailored for each variant.
We provide details below of top 10 scam phone numbers and IP addresses associated with tech support scam sites. The phone numbers listed comprised of 31% of all scam sites while the IP addresses were associated with 38% of all scam sites. All the IP addresses listed below are located in the USA.
Full list of phone numbers can be seen here.
The screenshots below highlight some of the scam variants:
Stay vigilant to thwart these scams
Even though tech support scams can be sophisticated, the scammer still largely relies on the user to fall for it. Therefore, user awareness is the key to identify and thwart such scams. It begins with knowing how to identify them:
- If you get an unexpected call claiming your computer is infected, it’s a clear sign of scam and you should hang up immediately. It is not advisable to rely on called ID as often times, it is spoofed to make it look like the call originated from a legitimate company. The caller also typically pretends to be from a well-known company like Microsoft and uses a lot of technical terms to bait the user.
- A pop-up on your computer screen warning you of “malware infection” or similar alerts, is fake and you should close the window immediately. Often times, these scam sites will hang your browser if you wait for even a few seconds. If that happens, you can close the browser using Activity/Process Monitor application of your Operating System.
In addition to the above, if you have a concern about your computer, you should call your security software company directly, whose details you can get from the company’s website. Do not call the number listed on the pop-up website. You should also never share passwords or give remote control of your computer to anyone. For more tips, check out FTC’s official guidance on tech support scams.
Tools and Resources
It takes work from various parties to fight the menace of Tech Support scam.
If you wish to lookup whether a URL is a scam site, you can use these freely available tools: CheckPhish
If you are a researcher, and would like to find out who the abuse contact for the offending IPs are, you can use a handy tool querycontacts to find out the email address where you can report.
If you wish to report to FTC, use their official complaint form at ftc.gov/complaint under the Internet Services, Online Shopping, or Computers section.