Protecting yourself from tech-support scammers

Patrick Marshall answers your personal technology questions each week.

Q: It occurred to me (and two other people I was just talking to) that Microsoft might be running a worldwide scam with their subcontracted tech support. When something bad happens to my computer (and I have Windows 10 and a Dell Inspiron), I call Microsoft technical support and get through to someone in India. It always costs $100 to fix something, and the people are constantly pushing me to buy a $150 annual support plan — which I can’t afford.

On two occasions they have taken control of my computer to fix something.

My question is — what is there to stop these people from installing a time-release virus that screws something up, and forces me to go back to another Indian subcontractor?

In other words, these days no one at Microsoft will answer a simple technical support question (on the phone) without getting paid first.

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Are there other people out there complaining about this (possible) scam?

— Name withheld, Seattle

A: Obviously, I can’t tell if you’ve reached a legitimate Microsoft support person or not. Yes, while Microsoft does charge roughly $100 if you have a problem that requires an extended, personal support session, and while you can buy an annual support plan for $149, I’ve never found Microsoft tech support to be pushy about getting users to cough up for those options.

At the same time, there are a lot of scammers out there purporting to be Microsoft tech support staff. Microsoft offers a webpage to help avoid such scammers: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/4013405/windows-protect-from-tech-support-scams. The long and short of it is that you may have malware on your computer that pops up an alert warning of a problem and instructs you to call tech support at xxx-xxx-xxxxx. Microsoft also offers a page where you can report such a support scam: https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/reportascam/?locale=en-US.

And the Microsoft support site — https://support.microsoft.com/en-us — offers a lot of free options for getting support, including a navigable set of solutions to common problems, video and a link to contact tech support directly.

From how you describe your experience, I have to suspect you were dealing with a scammer. As for whether a scammer can upload malware through a remote link, yes, absolutely. So it’s important to make sure you’ve gone…

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