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Google Cracks Down on Tech-Support Scams

By Richard Adhikari
Sep 5, 2018 10:38 AM PT
google has taken new steps to restrict use of its ad platform to enable third-party tech support scams

Google last week announced new steps to combat the placement of fraudulent tech support ads on its platform.

The company will roll out a verification program in the next few months to ensure that only legitimate third-party tech support providers can place Google ads.

There are many legitimate tech support providers that offer local or regional services, or affordable support for out-of-warranty products, Google pointed out in comments provided to the E-Commerce Times by company rep Caroline Klapper. Its goal is to separate those providers from bad actors.

However, enforcement actions are "particularly challenging because often the ads themselves look legitimate on their face, and the actual fraud is taking place off our platform, on the phone," Google said. "That's why we've decided to take this approach and begin initiating a pause on all ads."

The number of misleading third-party tech support ads has increased, observed David Graff, Google's director of global product policy.

Some Kinds of Scams

One tech support ploy involves scammers calling a potential victim, posing as an employee of Microsoft, Apple, or a third-party tech support service, and saying there's a problem with the consumer's computer, or that its software needs updating.

They offer to resolve the problem for a fee and ask the potential victim to log in to screen-sharing software or click on a URL so they can resolve the problem for a fee.

Or, an ad or warning might pop up while a consumer is online, claiming a scan shows the consumer's machine has been infected, and urging the consumer to click on a link to resolve the problem.

Again, there's a fee involved.

In another attack, the consumer's computer freezes and an error message pops up saying the consumer's data, email and passwords have been stolen. It displays a number that can be called for help.

The Size of the Problem

Tech support scams "have duped thousands of customers who thought these were legitimate offerings," noted Matan Or-El, CEO of Panorays.

"Because they found them on Google, this reinforced their belief that the service was reputable," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Microsoft Customer Support Services last year received 153,000 reports from consumers in 183 countries who had encountered or fallen victim to tech support scams, according to Erik Wahlstrom, Windows Defender research project manager. That was up 24 percent from the prior year.

That figure represents just a small part of the problem, as it doesn't include scams on all devices and platforms, Wahlstrom noted.

About 15 percent of the consumers lost between US$200 and $400 to the scammers.

Microsoft has been using machine learning to identify tech support scams going through call centers, Wahlstrom said at the RSA security conference this spring. ML tech can detect when victims give scammers access to their computers, and when they go online to pay for the fraudulent service.

Further, Microsoft scans the Web looking for sites that have been newly created; that have a poor reputation; that recently have changed registrations; that use JavaScript tricks like going fullscreen or autoplaying audio; or that use images, text or phone numbers known to be associated with tech-support scams.

Prodded by the Press

Microsoft forecast escalation of the problem in 2016, and the Better Business Bureau earlier this year issued a warning about tech support scams.

Google's announcement of a crackdown came after a Wall Street Journal investigation found fraudsters were buying ads on Google's platform and posing as authorized service agents for vendors such as Apple and Microsoft.

However, Google's actions may not have been prompted by that investigation.

"We are constantly reviewing our ad policies, especially in those areas that are prone to abuse," the company said in the notes provided by Klapper.

"In categories where we see a rise in misleading experiences, we take additional actions like the pause we initiated on Friday," the company maintained.

"If there's anything driving Google's decisions over the past year, it's the growing number of consumer data privacy laws sweeping across many parts of the world that prohibit the collection, processing or sharing of consumer data without the consumer's consent," Chris Olson, CEO of The Media Trust, told the E-Commerce Times.

How to Stay Safe

Consumers should make sure they've implemented basic security practices to reduce their risk of falling prey to online scams.

For example, enable a firewall and install cybersecurity software. Ad blockers are another useful tool.

Exercise caution when clicking on links, and note that Microsoft and Apple will not call users of their software and hardware.

If a caller claims to be from a tech support company, hang up. If you have no dealings with that company, there's no need to follow up. Consumers who want to work with a third-party tech support company can call up the company directly and speak to someone there.

Consumers who buy PCs from large vendors such as HP can sign up for tech support when making their purchase. Or, they can sign up for third-party tech support with big box stores such as Best Buy or Staples.

The BBB recommends that consumers who have been hit by a tech support scam take the following steps:

  • Notify their bank immediately;
  • Have their computer checked out by a trusted local business;
  • Remove any software that authorized remote access to their computer;
  • Change their passwords; and
  • File a report with BBB Scam Tracker and with law enforcement.


Richard Adhikari has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2008. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile technologies, CRM, databases, software development, mainframe and mid-range computing, and application development. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including Information Week and Computerworld. He is the author of two books on client/server technology. Email Richard.


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