Identifying and Preventing Tech Support Scams

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Ron Cresswell, J.D., CFE
ACFE Research Specialist

While reading a blog on your laptop, a pop-up message suddenly obscures your computer screen. The message, which appears to be from Microsoft, says that your computer is infected with a virus and instructs you to call a toll-free number immediately. You call the number and speak to a woman who falsely identifies herself as “Sarah with Microsoft Tech Support.” Sarah wants you to download a program that will give her remote access to your computer so that she can diagnose the problem. If you comply, Sarah will claim to find a dangerous virus, or another serious security issue, which she will offer to fix for a fee.

This is called a tech support scam, and, according to the FBI, these scams are on the rise.

Tech Support Scams
In tech support scams, fraudsters impersonate major high-tech companies (usually Microsoft, Apple, Dell or Google) and convince victims to grant remote access to their computers. In most cases, victims are instructed to download and run common remote access software, such as TeamViewer, GoToMyPC or LogMeIn.

The goal of most tech support scams is to convince the victim to pay for unnecessary computer services to repair nonexistent viruses or other problems. However, in other variations on the scam, the fraudsters:

  • Steal the victim’s usernames, passwords and other personal information
  • Install spyware or malware on the victim’s computer
  • Refuse to relinquish control of the computer until the victim pays a ransom
  • Try to sell the victim software that is useless or free
  • Try to enroll the victim in a worthless computer maintenance or warranty program
  • Direct the victim to a website that asks for credit card numbers and other personal information
  • Harass the victim with phone calls seeking additional fees

To prevent being victimized by tech support scams, consumers and businesses should take the following precautions:

  • Do not give unknown, unverified persons remote access to computers or install software at their direction.
  • Resist the urge to act quickly. In tech support scams, fraudsters create a sense of urgency and fear to compel the victim to act immediately.
  • Disregard pop-up messages that instruct the user to call a telephone number for tech support. Legitimate companies do not communicate with customers this way. 
  • Hang up on unexpected, urgent calls from outsiders who claim to be tech support, even if the caller ID says Microsoft, Dell, Apple or Google. Those companies do not make unsolicited tech support calls.
  • If there is a question about whether a communication is legitimate, look up the company’s telephone number and call to verify. Do not use the number on the questionable communication (e.g., pop-up message, caller ID).
  • Ensure that computer networks are protected by strong and regularly updated antivirus software and a firewall.

While tech support scams are common, they are usually easy to spot. Generally, they involve an unknown person asking for remote access to your computer. Once identified, such scams can be defeated by following the guidelines listed above.

Funeral Fraud: Scamming the Dearly Departed


Misty Carter, CFE, CIA
ACFE Research Specialist

Scamming the elderly or taking advantage of the mentally disabled are considered among the most repugnant of fraud schemes. But what about when fraudsters scam the deceased?

Believe it or not, many criminals take advantage of those who have died using funeral fraud schemes. These types of frauds come in many forms and mainly target and affect the families of the deceased. One of the most common funeral fraud schemes involves prepaid funeral expenses. According to the Federal Trade Commission, millions of Americans prearrange their funerals by entering into contracts and prepaying all or some of the related expenses. Some states have laws in place to regulate these contracts,. Other states, however, are more lenient, which leaves a window of opportunity for unscrupulous individuals.

Consider the case of James “Doug” Cassity, a disbarred attorney and resident of St. Louis, Missouri. His company, National Prearranged Services Inc. (NPS), engineered a fraud scheme that caused fraud losses of more than $600 million. Cassity devised a scheme to defraud purchasers of prearranged funeral contracts or insurance policies obtained through NPS.

How did the scam work? NPS promised customers that, for a fee, the company would cover all their funeral expenses when they died. Depending on the type of funeral arrangements requested, customer’s fees could run upwards of $10,000. After finding out what customers wanted, NPS determined an agreed-upon price and accepted payment. NPS then made arrangements with the funeral home designated by the customer. NPS supposedly placed the funds in a trust — to be used for safe investments or to purchase a life insurance policy — with a third party in the customer’s name.

What customers didn’t know was that NPS, instead of putting their funds in a trust or life insurance policy, often altered documents by changing deposit amounts and listing the company as a beneficiary. NPS then converted these policies and used the money for risky investments, to pay existing funeral claims, and to purchase personal items. According to court documents, Cassity sold approximately 100,000 prepaid funeral contracts. The scheme was discovered when several agencies reported suspicious practices by NPS to the FBI. Cassity was sentenced to nine years in prison.

There are many other funeral fraud schemes that individuals should also be on guard against. For example, some scammers might try to capitalize on a family member’s unfamiliarity with funeral services and add unnecessary charges to their bill. Some might even insist that a burial casket is necessary even though a body will be cremated and a less expensive cardboard casket could be used.

Some suggestions that can help you minimize the risk of becoming a victim of a funeral fraud scheme are:

  • Be informed. Shop around before making a purchase. Take a friend along who might be able to offer a different perspective before you make a final decision.
  • Educate yourself about the goods and services, such as caskets or cremations, provided by funeral homes.
  • Understand the difference between fees, such as funeral home basic fees and fees for any additional services.
  • Carefully read all contracts and any other paperwork before signing.
  • Before signing, make sure that you understand the contract language and that all your requirements have been included in the contract.
  • If you are considering prepaying, be sure to include specific details about what funeral arrangements have been made in the prepaid contract.

While funeral fraud might at first seem hard to believe, the reality is that wherever there is a cheap buck to be made, fraudsters will find an opportunity. By being informed and aware, people can help protect themselves – and their friends and family – from becoming victims of this insidious type of fraud.