An investigation conducted by City of London Police and Microsoft culminated in the arrests of four UK persons accused of perpetrating tech support scams.
On 27 June 2017, officers from North East Regional Special Operations Unit (NERSOU) placed a 37-year-old man and 35-year-old woman living in South Shields under arrest. Authorities later released those two individuals pending further inquiries.
That same day, Surrey and Sussex Police Cyber Crime Unit arrested 29-year-old man and a 31-year-old woman in Woking. Those persons have since posted bail.
The arrests follow a two-year investigation conducted by Microsoft and City of London Police into computer software service fraud. Officers took all four individuals into police custody on suspicion that they helped perpetrate tech support scams against unsuspecting users.
A common tech support scam, otherwise known as computer software service fraud, is when a fraudster contacts a user, tells them there’s something wrong with their computer, and convinces them to authorize remote access to their machine. In some cases, the bad actor abuses that access to install malicious software, adjust some settings in such a way that leaves the user’s computer vulnerable to malware, or direct the user to a web page that tricks them into handing over their financial information. In other instances, the scammer fools the user into paying for a phony piece of software.
Michael from London, who is 68, almost fell for this type of scam in October 2016. As he told the BBC:
“He seemed to have a lot of information about the fact I had been having problems – he said I had been experiencing issues over the last few months, but he might have been guessing. He asked for remote access to my computer and connected in – and then showed me what seemed to be a list of incidents where I had been having computer problems. He kept me on the phone for as long as he could – at least an hour. At the end of the call, he told me what it would cost. He wanted a few hundred pounds and for me to sign a running service contract – there was no way I was going to pay that.”
Action Fraud, the United Kingdom’s national fraud reporting service, received 34,504 reports of computer software service fraud in the 2016-17 financial year. Victims in those cases lost an average of £600. The average age of those who fell for the scams was 62.
Microsoft’s Hugh Milward says the tech giant will continue its work with law enforcement agencies in their pursuit of tech support scammers. As quoted by City of London Police:
“Unfortunately, the names of reputable companies, like Microsoft, are often used by criminals to lull victims into a false sense of security. That’s why we partnered with the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau to track these people down and bring them to justice. It’s a collaboration which can cohesively combat and investigate computer service fraud. Today’s arrests are just the start.
We’d also like to reassure all users of Microsoft software that we will never cold call you out of the blue or use tech support pop ups on websites.”
Users can protect themselves against tech support scammers by never giving control of their computers to a third party unless they contact a company’s tech support service directly and by closely guarding their financial information. If they think they’ve fallen victim to a tech support scam, users should change their passwords and scan their computers using a reputable anti-virus solution.