If a Pop-up Says You’re About to Lose Your Data, Don’t Panic. Call the FTC

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If you only had minutes before your hard drive crashed and every document, picture and music file on your computer disappeared forever, you’d probably be willing to take help from just about anyone — at least that’s what scammers are hoping.

The Federal Trade Commission knows that.

That’s why this week, officials are taking a series of actions to help protect you and crack down on those committed to stealing your hard-earned money.  

On May 12, the FTC announced 16 new actions, including legal complaints, settlements, indictments and guilty pleas, involving deceptive tech support companies.

How Tech Support Scammers Fool You

Many of these scams work the same way.

They start with a pop-up in your web browser that looks like it’s from Microsoft. The warning messages are urgent and meant to get you to act before you think.

In some cases, the pop-up will imitate blue error screens. In others, it will mimic an alert from a popular anti-virus software. Either way, the messages will be similar. You will see a message that alerts you to a problem on your computer and a prompt to call a toll-free number for help.

According to the FTC, the most aggressive messages urge consumers to call immediately or risk losing personal data.

Some will even show a countdown clock to make you feel an even greater sense of urgency. If you call that phone number, you will be speaking directly with your scammer.

Once you’re on the phone, the scammer’s goal is to be convincing and insistent.

Most calls start with the scammer acting as tech support and asking you to give them remote access to your computer. From here, the scammer will pretend to run a diagnostic test to solve your fictitious problem.

The scammer will then try to convince you that the initial alert prompting you to call was true and try to get you to pay to have your problem fixed.

According to the FTC, the scammer’s “services” can be relatively minor actions like selling security software you can get online for free or pretending to fix a problem that didn’t really exist. Or they can be harmful and use remote access to install malware that will help them steal personal information from you later.

If you try to counter their arguments and say you don’t need help fixing your problem, the scammer will try to convince you that no one else can fix the problem for less money.

In many cases, the scam can be difficult to spot, especially if the initial pop-up was convincing enough to get you to call the toll-free number.

How the FTC is Fighting Tech Support Scams

The latest actions are part of an international operation spanning several states that includes a partnership with the government of India to crack down on overseas companies scamming U.S. consumers.

“Tech support scams prey on people’s fear of losing important work, family photos or sensitive identification information,” said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. “Using that fear, scammers trick thousands of consumers into paying millions of dollars to fix problems that never existed.”

Many of the scammers are now facing arrest, and others have had to repay money they stole. Some financial penalties were more than $1 million.

It’s not yet clear how the FTC will get that money back to the people these scammers wronged. But if you believe you may have been a victim of this type of scam, be sure to report what happened to the FTC.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.