Carolyne Aronson was in the thick of enrolling people for medicare at work when her computer stopped in November, 2015.

“It went nuts,” said the 74 year old Tennessee resident. “Then popped up a message saying to call the national help desk.”

So she called the number, assuming she’d get help from Microsoft. Instead, she almost lost $800. She is one of thousands, who together have lost at least $24.6 million to tech support scams.

Aronson is one of nearly 96,000 people who have reported the scams to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) since 2015. The problem affects Americans in every state, including Illinois; but older people are particularly vulnerable.

“The scam used to be a telemarketing cold call,” said Thomas Pahl, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Now it’s a pop-up on computers. This new technique makes it more insidious — and more effective.”

Pahl and other officials held a teleconference call on Friday, May 12 asking news outlets to spread the word because the FTC thinks the actually number of victims is much higher.

The scam typically follows this pattern:

  • First, there is a technical problem and a pop-up appears warning the user to call the number on the screen quickly or risk losing everything on the hard drive.
  • Then, a telemarketer in a call center convinces the person to grant them remote access to the person’s computer.
  • Finally, they charge the victim hundreds of dollars for an unnecessary service.

The average cost for victims is $281, but the problem doesn’t stop there. “Once granted access to your computer, they can steal your photos, they can steal your information,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi during the teleconference.

Educating people is the most effective way to fight the problem. “All of us working together – that’s the only way we’re going to be able to put a halt to this,” said Bondi, who urged people to talk to friends and family about the scam.

Here’s what to do if you get a call or pop-up, according the FTC’s guide:

  • If you get an unexpected or urgent call from someone who claims to be tech support, hang up. It’s not a real call. And don’t rely on caller ID. Criminals can make it look as though they’re calling from a legitimate company or a local number.
  • If you get a pop-up message that tells you to call tech support, ignore it. There are legitimate pop-ups from your security software to do things like update your operating system. But systems updates never contain a phone number.
  • If you’re concerned about your computer, call a security software company directly. But do not use the phone number in the pop-up or on the caller ID. Instead, look for the company’s contact information online, or on a software package or your receipt.
  • Never share passwords or give control of your computer to anyone who contacts you.

If you have been a victim, you can report it by visiting:

For more information and help on technology support scams, visit:

Public Narrative is a nonprofit housed at Columbia College Chicago that produces journalism and trains journalists and people in nonprofits how to tell better stories.

This article is also available in Spanish in La Nueva Semana (page 11).

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