Tech support scams adapt and persist in 2021, per new Microsoft research

a man using a touchscreen

Tech support scams are a global problem, impacting people of all ages. It started with cold calls, with scammers pretending to be Microsoft employees fraudulently notifying people that they were victims of malware infections or other harmful attacks. This evolved into fake “pop-ups” displayed on people’s computers, again trying to convince them that something was wrong with their computers so the scammers could extract payment for “fixing” fake issues. Today, fraudsters have adapted to evolving technology by using more sophisticated tactics or ploys to victimize users online.

Each month, Microsoft receives about 6,500 complaints from people who’ve been victims of tech support scams, which is down from 13,000 reports in an average month in prior years. But it’s not just Microsoft’s brand that the scammers leverage; fraudsters have pretended to be from a number of other reputable tech companies and service providers. To measure the scope of this problem globally, Microsoft commissioned YouGov for a new 2021 survey across 16 countries[1] to look at tech support scams and their impact on consumers. This is a follow-up to similar surveys Microsoft fielded in 2018 and in 2016.

Results from the 2021 survey reveal that, globally, fewer consumers have been exposed to tech support scams as compared to the 2018 survey. The survey results also show that people are generally more skeptical about tech support calls or pop-up messages, which helps them avoid falling victim to these scams. However, those people who continued with the interaction were more likely to have lost money to the scammers than we saw in our previous survey.

The most interesting results of the survey concern the number of consumers who have experienced tech support scams and the demographics of the consumers who continued with the fraudulent interactions.

A few highlights include:

  • Three out of five consumers have encountered a tech support scam in the last 12 months.
  • One out of six consumers was tricked into continuing with the scam, often leading to victims losing hundreds of dollars to the fraudsters.
  • Millennials (aged 24-37) and Gen Zers (aged 18-23) have the highest exposure to tech support scams.
  • One out of 10 millennials and one out of 10 Gen Zers that encountered a scam fell for it and lost money.
  • Among those who continued with a scam, the most common issue experienced during the interaction was computer problems (30%), followed by compromised passwords (23%) and fraudulent use of credit/debit/store cards (18%).

Globally, those who lost money reported higher engagement in risky online activities and overestimated their abilities with respect to using computers and the internet. Similar to the 2018 results, we’re seeing younger people fall prey to tech support scams more often, in particular Gen Zers and millennials, as well as males. This also correlated to higher engagement than older generations in riskier online activities, such as using torrent sites and sharing email addresses in exchange for content.

Sensitive financial information continues to be at risk: While scammers most commonly asked consumers to download software or go to a website (with 30% of victims who did so reporting subsequent computer problems), the proportion of consumers asked for their government-issued identification number (e.g. Social Security number) increased since 2018, and 16% were asked to go to their banking website during the session. Not surprisingly, there was an increase in the number of consumers reporting fraudulent use of credit/debit cards, accounting for the increase in money lost. ​

Tech support fraud has evolved from pure cold calling to a more sophisticated infrastructure that leverages affiliate marketers to deliver professional-looking pop-ups to consumers, prompting them to contact fraudulent call centers. We also see scammers using email, search engine optimization (SEO) and social engineering tactics to lure victims. These tactics have served to expand an enterprise model that is easily replicable, with perpetrators sharing resources, including referrals to call centers, leads and payment processors.

Once they engage with potential victims, the scammers steal personal and financial information as well. Those who fell victim paid at least $200 on average, and many victims faced repeat scam interactions. Quite a few unlucky victims even lost thousands of dollars for fake tech support to fix nonexistent computer issues.[2]  Some scammers even installed malware on their “customers’” computers, allowing them to maintain access to the computers even after these victims believed their remote access sessions had ended.

Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit (DCU) is working to help combat the problem by partnering with law enforcement, strengthening our technology and educating consumers. Microsoft has been fighting against tech support scams since 2014, when we took our first major strike against online fraudsters with a civil lawsuit in U.S. federal court. Since then, Microsoft has filed its own civil actions and has supported law enforcement officials to take legal action against scammers in the U.S., Asia and Europe.

The DCU works to combat tech support scams by: 1) investigating tech support fraud networks and referring cases to law enforcement as appropriate; 2) strengthening our products and services to better protect consumers from various fraudulent tactics; and 3) educating consumers about this type of fraud by providing guidance and resources on how to identify, avoid and report them.

We hope releasing these findings will help raise awareness and educate consumers about how to protect themselves from tech support scams. Learn more about how to protect yourself from tech support scams here.


[1] Microsoft commissioned YouGov PLC to conduct the survey in 2021. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov PLC. Total sample size is 16,254 adults across 16 countries (just over 1,000 per country). Fieldwork was undertaken between April 12, 2021 through May 7, 2021. The survey was executed via YouGov’s online panels and the figures have been weighted and are representative within each country for adults aged 18+. The countries include Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States – countries in bold are new in 2021. YouGov was not commissioned for the 2016 and 2018 studies, so all year-over-year comparisons are based on provided data.

[2] As provided in customer reports to Microsoft.

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