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Tech support scams are on the rise — how to avoid them

August 4, 2018

Arzella “Sally” Moser is a retired banker in Hayward, Calif., who said she should’ve known better than to be sucked in by a tech support scam.

“I used to be a signature expert,” said Moser, 76. She helped to detect forgeries while working in the fraud division of what is now Chase bank.

Yet she and others — many of them elderly — are among a large number of people targeted by companies pushing a growing scam: bogus tech support. Microsoft said it received 153,000 reports last year from customers who “encountered or fell victim to tech support scams,” a 24 percent rise from the prior year.

Moser is among several Bay Area residents who recently shared their accounts of how they were targeted, while Microsoft and Mountain View-based cybersecurity firm Symantec described warning signs that a company or caller may not be on the level when offering online support services.

Moser and many others became victims of a scam whose accused perpetrator ran Hayward-based Genius Technologies. Parmjit Singh Brar, operator of Genius, reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission in June. He must pay $136,000, although under the settlement he neither admits nor denies the allegations.

The FTC accused Brar of working with telemarketers to trick elderly Americans into buying fake tech support services. The telemarketers claimed to be from well-known tech companies and told people their computers were at risk, the FTC said in a June press release. Those who allowed remote access were charged money to get outdated security software installed on their computers, and their personal information was stolen, the FTC said.

The FTC settlement also bars Brar from operating tech support services again.

Brar’s attorney, Guyton Jinkerson, said he had no comment on the matter.

It’s unclear at this point whether Moser — who was scammed out of more than $3,500 by a few different companies — and other victims will get their money back. The FTC judgment was for $7.6 million, but it was partially suspended because of Brar’s inability to pay the full amount, according to the FTC.

“We are evaluating whether a refund program is feasible in this case,” said Juliana Gruenwald, an FTC spokeswoman.

Moser recounted how it all started for her. She got a phone call one morning not long after logging onto her computer to find a message that she had been hacked.

“They told me there was a Russian spammer who attacked my system,” she said. “Then they asked, ‘Do you do banking online? Hopefully they haven’t gotten to your banking. Give us $300 and we can correct this for you.’ ” After that first amount, which was charged to her credit card in 2015, her computer worked fine, she said.

Then she said she was shaken down again in 2016, and a couple more times last year. In April 2017, she wrote a $1,918 check to Genius Technologies and sent it to a Newark address.

A copy of her Genius Technologies paperwork shows that it even asked customers not to “allow anyone to access your computer on a call you receive.”

Eventually, Moser said she used her age to her advantage, telling the callers that she didn’t remember owing them money.

Another company she paid has been reported to the FTC at least a few times, according to documents obtained by this news organization as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. The FTC was careful to note that it has not necessarily verified all the complaints. The email address and phone number the company provided to Moser are unreachable and appear to no longer be in service. This news organization is withholding the name of that company because the complaints are unverified.

So, what should people do to avoid being scammed?

“If you think there’s a problem with your computer, take it to a friend or take it to a computer repair shop,” said Kevin Haley, director of product management for security response at Symantec. “It’s sort of like with your car. You have to find a mechanic you can trust.”

In addition, Symantec — which owns Norton antivirus and other security software — would never call a customer about a frozen computer, he said.

“Right there, 100 percent of those phone calls are scams,” Haley said.

The scams also take other forms: Last year, Symantec blocked 154 million phony messages suggesting a problem with users’ computers.

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