How to Recover From a Tech-Support Scam

About 3.3 million people are victimized by unsolicited technical support scams every year. Here's what to do if you're one of them.

Stressed businesswoman
(Image credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It starts when you see a notification that your computer is sending an error message or is infected with a virus. Maybe you (rightly) shrug it off as just another scam. But maybe you panic, call the number on the screen and listen to someone posing as a Microsoft technician offer to fix the problem if you allow him to gain remote access to your computer. You give him the go-ahead.

Uh-oh. That’s exactly what the scammers are counting on. Once in, they’ll install spy software that lets them return through a back door or watch your activity down to the keystroke. Then they’ll claim they have fixed the original problem and ask for payment. Each year, about 3.3 million people are victimized by unsolicited technical support scams, and the fraudsters rake in $1.5 billion. That amounts to a victim nearly every 10 seconds, according to Microsoft’s Digital Crime Unit.

What to do now. You need to make sure the scammer doesn’t set up camp permanently. Disconnect the affected machine from the Internet immediately to keep the crook from accessing your computer while you batten down the hatches. Use another PC, tablet or smartphone to change your passwords, starting with financial sites and e-mail accounts. If you paid for the bogus service with a credit card, ask your card issuer to dispute the charges, and monitor your statements.

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To boot the intruder off your computer, you’ll need to identify any sneaky programs left behind. Start by running a full anti-virus and anti-malware scan and removing anything it flags as a problem. Visit your Web browser’s settings page to remove any unfamiliar extensions or add-ons, or restore the browser to its original settings. Before reconnecting to the Net, check your downloads folder and delete or uninstall anything that looks suspicious.

Another alternative: Call on one of several services to clean up your machine. Best Buy’s Geek Squad charges $150 for remote or in-store virus and spyware removal, and $250 if the technician comes to you. Staples charges $100 for its remote service, $160 if you take the machine to the store, and $300 if the tech makes a house call. If you choose an independent repair service, check the company’s record with the Better Business Bureau. If you allow the technician to access your computer remotely, watch the screen as he works. You should see a window notifying you that the session has ended. Ask that the temporary software used to control your computer be removed.

Even if you think you’ve eliminated the malware, you may not have gotten it all. Watch for suspicious activity, such as slow PC performance, unfamiliar websites in your browser history, or strange e-mails in your inbox or sent folder. If the infection lingers, your computer’s hard drive may need to be reformatted and the operating system and apps reinstalled.

To ward off attacks in the future, use an anti-virus and anti-malware program, and keep it up-to-date. Regularly back up your files to an external hard drive (disconnect it when you’re done) as well as to the cloud so your data won’t be lost for good if your hard drive needs to be reformatted. And even if you’re not a victim, report any unsolicited offers of technical support to the Federal Trade Commission.

Kaitlin Pitsker
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Pitsker joined Kiplinger in the summer of 2012. Previously, she interned at the Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y., and with Chronogram magazine in Kingston, N.Y. She holds a BS in magazine journalism from Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.