More tech support scams targeting Singapore consumers: Microsoft

Police received twice as many reports of such ruses last year amid a Covid-19 fuelled rise in online scams.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE
Police received twice as many reports of such ruses last year amid a Covid-19 fuelled rise in online scams. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - More people here have been targeted by scammers claiming to help them with technical support issues, with the police receiving twice as many reports of such ruses last year amid a Covid-19-fuelled rise in online scams.

This is according to findings from a new study released on Friday (Sept 17) by American software giant Microsoft.

The study showed that 62 per cent of people here had an encounter with a tech support scam, up from 58 per cent when a similar study was last done in 2018.

This year's finding is also slightly higher than the global average of 59 per cent.

Of the people here who encountered a tech support scam, nearly half - or 49 per cent -  ignored it this year, up from 44 per cent in 2018.

In such scams, crooks often pretend to be from reputable companies and lie to victims that their electronic devices have been infected by a virus or have security or network problems that the scammer can fix.

The scammers communicate the lies by making cold phone calls, sending unsolicited e-mails, inserting pop-up online advertisements in websites, and redirecting people to other websites with fake information.

They also use tricks to scare victims into thinking there is something wrong with their devices, such as playing loud siren sounds in pop up messages or running commands that show a string of data and claiming that they found many viruses on the victim’s computer.

“It’s about using psychological tactics to put people in a mode where they don’t think rationally,” said Ms Mary Jo Schrade, the assistant general counsel and regional lead for Microsoft’s digital crimes unit in Asia.

Microsoft had commissioned market research firm YouGov to poll about 1,000 people - 18 and above - here in May on such scams. People in fifteen other countries were also polled, including in the United States, Britain, India and Japan.

The survey found that 34 per cent of respondents here got an unsolicited tech support scam call in the 12 months to May, almost double the figure from 2018.

However, respondents were also found to be guarded against the scams.

For instance, 91 per cent said that it was very or somewhat unlikely a company would contact them through an unsolicited call, pop-up window, text message, ad or e-mail. This is higher than 2018's 84 per cent.

The study also showed that the proportion of those who continued to interact with scammers this year was 14 per cent, similar to 2018's 15 per cent.

The proportion of people who lost money from tech support scams was 5 per cent this year, also similar to 2018's 4 per cent. The average amount lost this year was $114. 

Those aged 24 to 53 – the millennials and Gen X – were also found to be more likely to continue interacting with scammers, such as by  contacting the crooks, than people from other age groups.

Microsoft believes this could be  partly due  to their being more engaged in online activities, including risky ones such as  visiting torrent sites that are often used for downloading pirated content.

People in this age range were also found to be not as confident in their computer literacy skills as the younger people polled, the company added.

The Microsoft findings coincide to an extent with police data.

Last year, 506 cases involving tech support scams were reported to the police, more than double of 2019's 249 cases.

The amount cheated from victims last year was about $22.3 million, up 59 per cent from $14 million in 2019.

The largest amount cheated in a reported tech support scam last year was $1.1 million.

The police had said in February that there was a significant increase in online scams as Singaporeans carried out more online transactions due to Covid-19.

Microsoft said on Friday that scammers likely took advantage of people’s fears and insecurities during the pandemic, such as concerns over jobs, food supplies and immunisation matters.

Some scammers created fake documents leveraging  these fears, such as updates on job issues, and sent them to victims in e-mails or through links.

Once victims opened such documents, malware hidden in them would also be downloaded and could, among other things, make pop-ups appear to trick victims into contacting scammers to “fix” fake tech issues, or even steal victims’ personal information.

Microsoft added that it is crucial for people to do checks on their devices after encountering a tech support scam.

This is because some scammers install malware on computers that allows them to maintain remote access to people's devices long after victims believe their scam encounter is over.

Consumers can protect themselves by taking steps such as being wary of any pop-up messages on their devices and not call any listed numbers or click on any links in the pop-ups they get.

They should download software only from official sources, and beware of downloading software from third-party sites.

And if a company asks for payment in cryptocurrencies or gift cards to resolve a presumed tech issue, it might just be a scam since legitimate companies do not do this.