Fraudsters are branching out into ransomware and malvertising with the goal of installing scareware on computers and then charging victims for fake services.
Tech support scams used to involve cold-calling computer users to convince them to buy dubious software that did little to help victims or their computer systems.Over the past few years, however, the scams have become far more insidious, according to a report by security firm Malwarebytes. From fake antivirus alerts to notices that seem to come from a victim’s Internet service provider, tech-support scammers are diversifying their approach to convincing consumers to fall for their cons.In the first quarter of 2016, more than 3,600 people complained to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s online hotline—the Internet Criminal Complaint Center (IC3) —that they had lost more than $2.2 million to tech-support fraudsters.The scams have moved on from cold-calls to more sophisticated targeting through malware and scareware pop-ups advertising, Jerome Segura, lead malware intelligence analyst at Malwarebytes, told eWEEK.

“We have seen more and more scams, primarily because malicious advertising—malvertising—makes it much easier to fool people,” Segura said. “The random cold calls are still happening, but they have been supplanted by targeted attacks.”

The evolving nature of the attacks means that the scams are not only targeting the less tech-savvy older generation, but a broader swath of the population, he said.Historically, tech-support scammers have flourished in India, because many workers already have experience in call-center support and costs for support staff are low.Yet, Florida has also become a hub for such scams. In June, the Federal Trade Commission and the State of Florida settled a complaint against two companies and their chief operating officer, alleging that they used software to trick consumers into paying fees for dubious tech support products and services. The government agencies had originally shutdown the operations of the companies in 2014, claiming that had conned consumers out of more than $120 million.“Each scam starts with computer software that purports to enhance the security or performance of consumers’ computers,” the Federal Trade Commission stated in 2014. “Typically, consumers download a free trial version of software that runs a computer system scan. The defendants’ software scan always identifies numerous errors on consumers’ computers, regardless of whether the computer has any performance problems.”Even though the companies are in the United States, prosecuting the scammers is not always easy, because they make their software and services convincing enough to arguably be of a benefit, Segura said.“In India, they will take your money and run,” he said. “But in the U.S., when they scam you, they try to offer a good service, because they want to make it legit.”Since then, the scams have become more sophisticated and more subtle, Malwarebytes’ Segura said.In software-activation scams, consumers convince victims to purchase a program and then make the license key difficult to find. When the consumers call support, the scammers try to up sell the individuals on additional support to solve issues with the system.Tech-support scams have also adopted ransomware tactics, infecting a victim’s computer with software that locks their systems to force them to call the scammers to regain access.Why not skip the tech-support scam and do straight-up ransomware? Talking to the victim can make them more likely to pay and less likely to report the crime, Segura said.“It is a more customized way to manipulate people and scare them,” he said. “Once you make the mistake of calling them, they essentially know who you are and where you live.”

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