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Tech support scams subside somewhat, but Millennials and Gen Z think they're bulletproof and suffer

Microsoft study says India is most susceptible, other studies suggest the USA cops it most

Tech support scam attempts dropped in frequency over the past two years, but remain a threat. And Millennials and Gen Z – not Boomers – fall prey most frequently, according to Microsoft in its 2021 Global Tech Support Scam Research report, released Thursday.

Tech support scams involve cybercriminals convincing users they have malware or other problems with their computer that can best be addressed with unsolicited proactive assistance. The crims usually seek to gain remote access to machines under the guise of "diagnosing problems," then steal money or information, or sometimes install malware to give them access later.

Victims often even pay for the service of being scammed, believing the person on the other line is helping them with their tech problems.

Microsoft commissioned YouGov to survey netizens in 16 nations about their tech support scam experiences. YouGov found that in pre-pandemic 2018, 64 per cent of consumers were targeted by such scams, with 19 per cent falling prey. In 2021 those numbers have very slightly improved, to 59 and 16 per cent respectively.

What may seem surprising to many who act as ad hoc tech support for their older parents is that the study found people aged 18 to 37 were the most likely to continue interactions once targeted by scams – 23 per cent of Gen Z and Millennials failed to ignore scammers. Most troublingly, ten per cent of those surveyed lost money in the fraud schemes.

The higher rates are attributed to younger netizens indulging in riskier online activities and being over confident about their computer literacy. While a Boomer might get into trouble socially on Facebook, a Gen Z or Millennial is often tech-savvy enough to find a dodgy pay-per-view stream, but not cautious enough to recognize the scam potential therein.

Men fell for tech support scams more than women, the survey found. Twenty per cent of the surveyed male population continued interactions with scammers and half of those lost money, compared to 13 per cent and one-third respectively for women. Geographically, Japanese consumers were the least susceptible to tech scams, Australia and Singapore were around global average, and India was three times as likely as the rest of the world.

Indian netizens continued interacting with scammers a staggering 49 per cent of the time.

Like the rest of the professional world, scammers have adapted, recently shifting their operations away from pop-up scams and web site redirects. Almost a third of today's unignored schemes focus on tricking users into downloading software or visiting web sites to solve their "computer problems". The next two most popular scams involve compromised passwords (23 percent) and fraudulent use of credit cards (18 percent).

Consumers are wising up and becoming more wary of unsolicited contact

A tech support professional told The Register stolen information like credit card numbers can end up sold on the dark web, leaving a gap between the scam incident and when the card is used or a bank alerts the victim of the fraud. Victims often think they were randomly hacked and fail to connect the incident to their supposed tech support incident months earlier.

The number of victims losing money has increased – of those who engaged with scammers, seven per cent globally ended up out of pocket. That's up from six per cent the previous year. However, more people have recovered some of that lost cash. Victims also spend less time and money recovering from the incidents.

However, Microsoft also reports that around a quarter of victims didn't improve their security after an attack. That's an unfortunate oversight, as scammers are known to install malware on computers that allows them to access passwords, accounts or other sensitive information long after they stop interacting with their victim.

The bad news for scammers is that, according to Microsoft's report, consumers are wising up and becoming more wary of unsolicited contact and unlikely to trust it. Seventy-nine per cent find it unlikely a reputable company would contact them – up five points from 2018.

The Register's tech support contact had this advice to offer:

The first clue of a scam would be when any company pretends to care about you more than you are used to.

While the Microsoft-sponsored report claimed attempt frequency has slowed, last month Avast Threat Labs pushed a narrative supported by FBI data that tech support crime increased by over 171 per cent from 2019 to 2020. Furthermore, it reported senior citizens made up over 66 per cent of victims, flying in the face of Microsoft's Millennial/Gen Z claim. Avast also said the USA, not India, is the nation most targeted by the attacks.

Regardless of who is right, Avast had some handy tips for those targeted by such scams, including this nugget you can pass along to anyone: "There is no real threat until a bad actor gains access to your information or devices. Although criminals may try to pressure you, stay vigilant and skeptical when online, and if unsure disengage and verify credentials on your own. ®

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