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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

Scammers Increasingly Impersonate Tech Support, Online Retailers

Don’t trust unsolicited tech support. According to a new data spotlight from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumers reported 52,000 instances of scammers impersonating Best Buy or its Geek Squad tech support brand in 2023, far more than the second most-impersonated brand, Amazon (34,000 reports).

In 2023, the FTC tallied more than 330,000 reports of business impersonation scams and nearly 160,000 reports of government impersonation scams—nearly half of the fraud reported directly to the FTC by consumers last year—with combined reported losses of $1.1 billion.

Consumers didn’t lose the most money to Geek Squad impersonators, though. That honor went to scammers pretending to be Microsoft, with $60 million lost (7,000 reported scam attempts), followed by Publishers Clearing House at $49 million (also 7,000 reported scam attempts).

“The scammers impersonating these businesses work in very different ways,” the FTC spotlight explained. “For example, phony Geek Squad emails tell you that a computer service you never signed up for is about to renew—to the tune of several hundred dollars. Microsoft impersonation scams start with a fake security pop-up warning on your computer with a number to call for ‘help.’ And calls from the fake Publishers Clearing House say you’ll have to pay fees to collect your (fake) sweepstakes winnings.”

The top five impersonation fraud scams identified by the FTC are:

  1. Copycat account security alerts send victims messages about alleged suspicious activity or unauthorized charges and get directions on how to fix the fake problem, often by transferring funds.

  2. Phone subscription renewal scams alert the victim that an account they never opened is about to auto-renew. “If you call to sort it out, they’ll say they have to connect to your computer to process your ‘refund,’” the FTC explained. “Once in, they make it look like too much money was refunded. They demand that you return the difference, often by buying gift cards and giving them the numbers on the back.”

  3. Fake giveaways, discounts, or money to claim all serve as set-ups, grabbing the victim’s attention before convincing them to send money or gift cards to claim the deal or gift.

  4. Bogus problems with the law—especially money laundering or drug smuggling claims—enable scammers to offer to help victims fix the problem by telling you to move money or put it on gift cards to protect it during the fake investigation.

  5. Made-up package delivery problems, such as texts from the U.S. Postal Service, claim there is a problem with delivery and provide a link to a website that looks real to help resolve it. Some ask for bank account details or ask you to pay a small “redelivery fee,” which gives the scammer the victim’s credit card information, which they quickly use to rack up fraudulent charges.

“All these scams have tactics that scammers hope give them an advantage,” the FTC said. “First, their messages look a lot like the messages real companies send: emails or texts about special deals and security alerts on your accounts. Second, they play on your emotions: if you’re worried about a problem or excited about a free gift, it can be harder to spot signs of a scam. Finally, they reframe their demands for money to avoid setting off alarm bells: people who’d never send money to a stranger have emptied their accounts, believing they were ‘protecting’ their funds.”

Scammers are also blurring the lines between fraud types, often impersonating more than one organization in a single scam attempt, like a fake Amazon employee transferring a victim to a fake bank or fake FBI employee, the FTC said.

Fraudsters reached out most often by email and phone calls, but people lost the most money on scams that originated on social media—especially online shopping scams that started with ads on Facebook and Instagram. Investment scams—like pig butchering schemes—on social media led to the largest reported losses.

Scammers requested a variety of payment methods, especially cryptocurrency and bank transfers. Gift cards were also frequently used, especially for romance scams, tech support scams, government impersonation scams, and scams that impersonate people you know, like a boss or relative. Scammers will often specify which gift card brand to buy, preferring Apple gift cards (30 percent), followed by Target (14 percent) and eBay (9 percent).

The report comes shortly after a new FTC rule became effective, giving the agency stronger tools to address and deter scammers who impersonate government agencies and businesses. This includes enabling the FTC to file federal court cases to try and get money back to victims and seek civil penalties against rule violators.