Cracking down on tech support scam operations

What is a tech support scam? Imagine one day that your computer freezes and a pop-up message tells you that your data, email, and passwords have been stolen by hackers. Fortunately, the pop-up message has a number you can call for help. Unfortunately, it’s a tech support scam. Tech support scams are a growing problem around the globe. Since 2015, Microsoft has received over 300,000 customer reports regarding fraudulent tech support scams, where scammers pretend to be Microsoft technicians offering help to resolve the non-existent computer viruses and infections, then con people out of their hard-earned money for bogus tech support. More than half of the scammers target potential victims through pop-up messages on computer screens, but there are other popular methods including phone calls and emails.

Using AI and cloud technology to investigate

To address this problem, Microsoft researchers and the company’s Digital Crimes Unit worked together to use artificial intelligence to help unravel the complex web of technical tricks the scammers were using to swindle users and avoid law enforcement. The biggest challenge was the scammers are very good at compartmentalizing their business, separating the telemarketing operation from the people building the pop-ups. In addition, few victims have captured screenshots of the original scam pop-up to help with the investigation. To catch the scammers, Microsoft sleuths first had to figure out where the attacks were coming from – no easy task, since they often only used an IP address, or virtual home, for a day or less before moving on to another location to avoid being caught. To find them, it would be impractical, if not impossible, to manually scan through the hundreds of thousands of questionable pieces of content they found, so the team turned to a branch of AI called machine learning to sort the data. With machine learning, a system can learn to recognize similar words or images used by scammers to determine the chances that the pop-up was relevant to the fraud investigation. Lastly, they used the computer vision API from Microsoft Cognitive Services to scan the ads for phone numbers and other bits of information that could provide clues as to their origin.

New breakthroughs in combatting tech support scams

Tech support fraud operations typically involve multiple entities including those engaged in marketing, payment processing and call centers. On Nov. 27 and 28 of  2018, over 100 local India law enforcement officials from Gurgaon and Noida raided 16 call center locations identified as engaged in tech support fraud by Microsoft, resulting in 39 arrests and the seizure of substantial evidence including call scripts, live chats, voice call recordings and customer records from tech support fraud operations. These call center operations fraudulently represented themselves as affiliated with a number of respected companies including Microsoft, Apple, Google, Dell and HP. Microsoft alone has received over 7,000 victim reports associated with these 16 locations from over 15 countries.

Tips to stay safe online and avoid falling victim to scams 

Here are a few key tips to keep in mind if you receive a notification or call from someone claiming to be from a reputable software company: 

  • Be wary of any unsolicited phone call or pop-up message on your device.
  • Microsoft will never proactively reach out to you to provide unsolicited PC or technical support. Any communication we have with you must be initiated by you.
  • Do not call the number in a pop-up window on your device. Microsoft’s error and warning messages never include a phone number.
  • Never give control of your computer to a third party unless you can confirm that it is a legitimate representative of a computer support team with whom you are already a customer.
  • If skeptical, take the person’s information down and immediately report it to your local authorities.

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