When something goes wrong with your computer or devices, it can cause a panic. After all, most of us depend on technology not only to work and connect with others, but also to stay on top of our daily lives. That’s why tech support scams are often successful. They appear to offer help when we need it the most. But falling for these scams can put your devices, data, and money at even greater risk.

Growing number of support scams

Although support scams have been around almost as long as the internet, these threats have increased dramatically over the last couple of years, proving to be a reliable way for scammers to make a quick buck.

In fact, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) said that it received nearly 11,000 tech support-related complaints in 2017, leading to losses of $15 million, 90% higher than the losses reported in 2016. Microsoft alone saw a 24% increase in tech scams reported by customers in 2017 over the previous year, with 15% of victims saying they lost money.

How do support scams operate?

Often, scammers convince users that there is a problem with their computer or device by delivering pop-up error messages. These messages encourage the user to “click” to troubleshoot the problem, which can download a piece of malware onto their machine, or prompt them to buy fake security software to fix the issue. In some cases, users wind up downloading ransomware, or paying $200 to $400 for fake software to fix problems they didn’t actually have.

And, in a growing number of instances, scammers pose as legitimate technology companies, offering phony support for real tech issues. Some even promote software installation and activation for a fee, when the service is actually provided for free from the software provider. They do this by posting webpages or paid search results using the names of well-known tech companies. When a user searches for tech help, these phony services can appear at the top of the search results, tricking people into thinking they are the real deal.

Some cybercriminals have even gone so far as to advertise fake services on legitimate online forums, pretending to be real tech companies such as Apple, McAfee, and Amazon. Since forum pages are treated as quality content by search engines, these phony listings rank high in search results, confusing users who are looking for help.

Pay attention to phone calls too

The deception isn’t just online. More and more computer users report phone calls from cybercrooks pretending to be technology providers, warning them about problems with their accounts, and offering to help resolve the issue for a fee. Or worse, the scammer requests access to the victim’s computer to “fix the problem”, with the hopes of grabbing valuable data, such as passwords and identity information. All of these scams leave users vulnerable.

How to avoid support scams?

1. If you need help, go straight to the source

Type the address of the company you want to reach directly into the address bar of your browser—not the search bar, which can pull up phony results. If you have recently purchased software and need help, check the packaging the software came in for the correct web address or customer support line. If you are a McAfee customer, you can always reach us at https://service.mcafee.com.

2. Be suspicious

Before you pay for tech support, do your homework. Research the company by looking for other customer’s reviews. Also, check to see if your technology provider already offers the support you need for free.

3. Be wary of callers asking for personal information, especially if they reach out to you first

Situations like this happen all the time, even to institutions like the IRS. McAfee’s own policy is to answer support questions via our website only, and if users need assistance, they should reach out here directly. Never respond to unsolicited phone calls or pop-up messages, warning you about a technical issue, and never let anyone take over your computer or device remotely.

4. Surf Safe

Sometimes it can be hard to determine if search results are safe to click on, or not. Consider using a browser extension that can warn you about suspicious sites right in your search results, and help protect you even if you click on a dangerous link.

5. Keep informed

Stay up-to-date on the latest tech support scams so you know what to watch out for.