How to Spot a Tech Support Scam

"Hello, I am from Windows. Your computer is sending us errors."

Man surfing on a laptop computer in a pedestrian tunnel, symbolic image for computer hacking, computer crime, cybercrime, data theft
Jochen Tack / Getty Images

Be on guard when you receive phone calls advising you that you've got computer problems: You've just become a target and potential victim of a PC-support scam. This con job is known by many names: the Fake Tech Support Call Scam, the Event Viewer Scam, the Ammyy Scam, and the TeamViewer Scam (the last two names denote the name of the legitimate remote connection tool used by the scammers to connect to and take control over your computer).

This scam is global and has likely bilked millions of dollars out of victims worldwide. The broad outlines of the con have been around for several years and it doesn't appear to be losing any steam.

Spot a scam by noting some common-sense clues.

Clue 1: They Called You

Microsoft, Dell, or any other major company's tech support organization will not waste their resources to call you. If you have tech-support problems, they know that you will call them. They are not going to go looking for trouble. The scammers will tell you that their call is a "public service" — a lie.

Clue 2: Caller IDs

It's a trivial matter to "spoof" the caller-ID system to display any name or number that the scammer wants. Don't trust that just because your phone says "Microsoft" or "Dell" that these companies are on the other end of the line.

Clue 3: Name and Accent Mismatch

The scammer will usually have an extremely thick foreign accent but will claim that his name is something decidedly Western such as "Brad." If you tell him that he doesn't sound like a "Brad" then he will usually counter with something like "my name is so hard to pronounce that I use Brad instead to make things easier for people."

Many of these scams are run from giant call centers in places like India and Pakistan, or parts of China or south-central Africa.

Clue 4: Your PC Allegedly Sends Bad Stuff

Callers will claim that your computer is "sending out errors," "sending spam," "infected with a new virus undetectable by current scanners" or something similar. Even if all of these problems were true, corporate tech support wouldn't know your phone number. And they wouldn't know that it was your computer that did these things, because there's no public directory of Internet Protocol addresses that would aid them in tracking you down.

Clue 5: The "Event Log Viewer" Trick

The scammers want you to think that they are knowledgeable and that there is a problem by showing you that your system has errors. They do this by asking you to open the Windows Event Log Viewer so that they can attempt to prove their case.

Some kind of minor error or warning will almost always appear in the event log viewer. The presence of these routine glitches doesn't mean that your system is having any real problems or is infected by anything.

Clue 6: Tool Installation

This is the part where the scam gets dangerous. The scammers want to take control of your computer, but not for the purpose of fixing it as they claim. The scammers want to infect your computer with malware, rootkits, keyloggers, etc. In order for them to do so, they need a way in.

There are several free remote connection software packages that are completely legitimate tools designed for remote tech support. Some of the more popular ones used by the scammers include Ammyy, TeamViewer, LogMeIn Rescue, and GoToMyPC. The scammers will ask you to install one of these tools and provide them with an ID number or some other credential generated by the remote connection tool, They will then use this information to gain access to your computer. At this point, your computer has been compromised.

If You've Been Breached

The tech-support scam works because sometimes people fall for it. If you suspect you've been hacked, take appropriate steps to protect your information.

The quickest way to get these people off the phone is to tell them that you don't have a computer at all.

As with any scam, there will be new variants as the scam is refined, so be on the lookout for new tactics, but the basic clues above will probably remain unchanged.