From Pop-Up Warnings to $9 Million Payout: Inside the Tech Support Scam

From Pop-Up Warnings to $9 Million Payout: Inside the Tech Support Scam



How do scammers reap more than $9.5 million with phony pop-up ads or blinking alerts warning of a crippling computer virus or security problems?

Their scareware success usually starts with “malvertisements” (malicious online advertising intended to damage or disable computers), which are designed to trick their prey into believing the bogus bug and calling a designated “support line” for help. It usually ends with a victim-made call lasting 17 minutes and a request for an average $291 to supposedly “repair” the feigned problem.

And the intriguing in-betweens? It’s all part of a new study, reported as the first analysis of its kind, by researchers at the National Security Institute (NSI) at Stony Brook University, who spent eight months studying the tactics of tech support scammers.

First, they built a tool — ROBOVIC, short for Robotic Victim — to automatically crawl the web to find the scammers. After collecting some 25,000 domains and thousands of phone numbers used in these schemes, the three researchers made 60 calls to various scammer-provided numbers displayed in pop-up warnings, posing as recruited “victims.” What they learned:

  • To spread malware that generates the bogus pop-up warnings — sometimes disguised with a Windows blue-screen background to make it more believable — fraudsters obtain thousands of low-cost domain names, such as .space and .xyz (which, after .com, .net and .org, is the fourth most-registered global top-level domain name on the internet).
  • Most scammer-run domains have a life span of only 11 days, with about half of scam domains operating no longer than three days. Con artists frequently use URL shorteners, to better hide on legitimate websites.
  • In addition to bogus warnings, these scams sometimes use intrusive programs and other techniques so computer owners can’t close their browsers or leave the “Call this number” page.
  • Of some 5 million pages visited, ROBOVIC discovered about 22,000 tech support scam pages hosted at roughly 8,700 domains. With previous research on fake antivirus scams indicating about 2 percent of targets fall for such ploys, the researchers estimate that each domain generates $2,000 per day.
  • Once targets call, swindlers usually follow a script. First, they say they need to learn more about what could have caused the alert, leading prey to a designated website to “run tests.” There, a remote administration tool is loaded so scammers can access their computers. Asking would-be victims about recent usage, they offer “all is not lost” assurances to incentivize callers to pay for bogus repair services.
  • In backtracking the scammers’ connections to their PCs, the Stony Brook team determined that the overwhelming majority of these con artists (some 85 percent) operate in India. About 10 percent work in  the U.S., and about 5 percent in Costa Rica.
  • Although 15 telecommunications providers were used, more than 90 percent of scammer-controlled support-line numbers were routed through four VoIP services — Twilio, WilTel, RingRevenue and Bandwidth.
  • Scammer call centers employ an estimated 11 tech support fraudsters.
  • Prices for rip-off repairs ranged between $70 and $1,000, but the average price was $291. All told, the research teams estimated that $9.7 million in profits were made from these scams.
  • The bottom line, according to lead researcher Nick Nikiforakis: “Don’t trust what your browser tells you about the safety and security of your system. People need to understand there’s no legitimate scenario where your computer will start beeping and ask you to call a toll-free number.”

 

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo credit: iStock/daboost



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Beware of These “Last-Minute” Tax Scams, Even if You Already Filed

Beware of These “Last-Minute” Tax Scams, Even if You Already Filed


As the April 18 filing deadline looms, a new wave of tax scams is heating up. Whether you’ve already filed your 2016 return – and especially if not – here’s how to protect yourself from these “last-minute” schemes currently making the rounds:

Don’t trust “update” requests. One popular phishing ploy this time of year involves emails supposedly from tax software providers such as TurboTax or TaxACT. They request users to “update” their information. “These ruses generally urge taxpayers to give up sensitive data such as passwords, Social Security numbers and bank account or credit card numbers,” warns the IRS. In addition to emails, beware of similar “update” requests by phone or text supposedly from tax software providers, banks and credit card companies.

Step lightly on TAP requests. Another info-phishing con: Emails that promise a refund that supposedly come from the Taxpayer Advocacy Panel. While TAP is an authentic volunteer board that advises the IRS on taxpayer issues, it doesn’t deal with refunds, or even have access to any taxpayer’s personal and financial information, notes the agency. There emails are from scammers phishing for SSNs and financial account information.

Know the drill. Tax-related correspondence is mailed; the IRS and other tax agencies do not initiate contact by phone, text or email. In the 2016 season, the IRS saw a 400 percent uptick in phishing and malware attempts, most commonly scam emails claiming information or a problem related to refunds, filing status, confirming personal information, ordering transcripts and verifying PIN information. These fakes include an attached link, which can harbor malware, that leads to an IRS-mirroring website run by scammer. Note the tinkered address such as “irsgov” (without the dot between “IRS” and “gov”), irs.net, or a similar variation.

Meanwhile, the IRS imposter phone scam is alive and well, preying on taxpayers including recent immigrants. In addition to the usual ploy – threats of arrest, deportation or property seizure over an allege debt – a new spin has IRS imposters promising a refund, a move to trick targets into sharing private information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request. Ignore it, instead calling the IRS at 800-829-1040.

Choose preparers to not lose. Good luck finding a preparer this late in the game, but if you’re still looking, some tips to finding one who’s reputable (if only for next year): Check this IRS directory for credential preparers, and here for organizations provided free help. The AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program offers free, individualized tax preparation for low-to moderate-income taxpayers at more than 5,000 locations nationwide. If your adjusted gross income was less than $64,000 last year, you qualify for the IRS Free File program. Beware of preparers (especially with temporary storefronts or conduct business at your home) who promise overly generous refunds, want you to sign a blank return, say that fees are based on the size of your refund claim “secrets” loopholes.

Accountants under attack. Let your numbers-cruncher know of these schemes against them: In a new scam, the IRS reports that fraudsters pose as a client (namely, you), asking tax preparers to make a last-minute change to their refund destination, often to a prepaid debit card. Tax preparers are urged to verbally reconfirm information with clients should they receive last-minute email request to change an address or direct deposit account for refunds.

Another scheme: Emails to tax preparers that warn they need to update or access to their own tax preparation software via a bogus “unlock” link that leads to a fake web page, asking for their user name and password so cybercrooks can access client information. Ruses also include other tax prep provider-posing ploys and attempts to steal data such as PTINs, EFINs or e-Service passwords.

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

 

 

 



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Why and How College Students are Scammed

Why and How College Students are Scammed


College students are ideal victims for identity theft, with clean or still non-existent credit histories ripe for exploitation…and often clueless to their risks and value to scammers.

They are more likely to boast birth dates and other personal nuggets on social media that can be pieced together by Facebook-trawling identity thieves. Use public Wi-Fi for risky online shopping, banking, and to access email. Open links that hide computer malware touting free music and games, information-requiring surveys and prizes, or intriguing text messages and emails.

If they have credit, it’s usually free of problems being jointly held or otherwise supervised by a parent; if they don’t, even better for scammers to use their identities to open fraudulent accounts for credit cards, loans and utility service. In between classes and keggers, few college students check their credit reports, explaining why those 18 to 24 take five times longer than other age groups to detect identity theft that’s already occurred – and that discovery is often made when they apply for car loans, mortgages and post-degree jobs.

How are college students scammed? The top ruses targeting your children and grandchildren include:

Fake employment. In the latest, fast-growing scheme, scammers place advertisements for phony job opportunities (often administrative work) on college employment websites, and/or recruit students via hacked school email accounts, warns the FBI. Gleaning Social Security numbers, bank account details and other sensitive information, “hired” students (often interviewed in nearby hotel lobbies or other non-workplace locations) are paid with counterfeit checks, instructed to deposit them and wire-transfer a portion to a provided vendor under the guise of job-necessary software or other equipment. Students lose the money wired, any funds drawn from the bogus deposit, and their bank account could be frozen. Plus their SSN and other valuable info is in enemy hands.

Pay now imposters. Using caller ID spoofing to make calls appear to be from the IRS or school financial aid office, scammers phone those with student loans threatening dire consequences – including arrest or non-graduation – unless they immediately pay a non-existent “federal student tax” or other bogus fees. Again, scammers make a quick buck and glean personal details for possible identity theft.

Scholarship and grant scams. These services claim to have lists of “secret” or “guaranteed” awards for current and future college students, or will provide no-fail help with paperwork. They demand upfront fees and then don’t deliver. The better route: Get reputable scholarship info for free at websites like FinAid and FastWeb, or directly from individual colleges.

 

False freebies. From must-have gizmos touted in surveys and bogus social media giveaways to free-trial offers of acne creams, gym memberships and you-name-it, expect attached strings, such as having to provide ID-worthy personal details, credit cards and hard-to-cancel memberships.

 

Credit card cons. Offers are all over campus and the internet, but beware. Plastic pitched heavily to college students often have sky-high interest rates and/or annual fees. Others are from identity thieves who merely pose as credit card companies. When shopping for credit and prepaid debit cards, stick with recognized and reputable names; run from anything with an APR near or above 25 percent or an annual fee of $30 or more.

 

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo: Martin Dimitrov/ iStock

Also of Interest


See the AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.



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