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Mac fans: You don't need Windows to get ripped off in tech support scams

Ah, I see you have the machine that goes 'ping!'

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"I'll just [tap, tap, runs a ping command] see if you have any antivirus protection. See, all the requests timed out. That is why your computer is working so slow."

These were the words of "technician" caught on video trying to convince a Mac user to hand over some cash for his "help".

Convincing PC users that they have a non-existent problem with their computers in order to coax them into handing over their hard-earned cash for useless remote diagnostic and cleanup services has been a popular scam for years.

Victims are often encouraged to sign up to multi-year support contract costing hundreds of dollars for worthless services. But despite enforcement actions taken by consumer groups such as the Federal Trade Commission, there's no sign that these scams are slowing down.

If anything they seem to be growing and diversifying.

According to Malwarebytes post, a company called Speak Support, which offers “Mac® Techical Support” (sic) is one of the culprits. The researchers say the firm is misusing the ping command to convince a victim that he or she has no protective software installed.

It achieves this by going to a site called protection.com that doesn’t respond to the ping utility. The site's owners have no connection at all with the attempted scam, and were merely chosen by the fraudsters because they had disabled its response to ping, security researchers at Malwarebytes discovered.

However the resulting error message is used to persuade marks that they have a serious problem with their Apple Macs.

Although Speak Support claims it is based in New Jersey, US, the registrant records for both speaksupport.com and an associated site (121usa.com) show that the firm is based in India, says Malwarebytes.

Jerome Segura of Malwarebytes has put together a blog post explaining how the Mac support scam works in greater depth here.

Malwarebytes' interaction with Speak Support is recorded (for quality-assurance purposes, as they say) in a video posted on YouTube (below). Isolated cases of tech support scams have been noted before, such as this example from 2011, but Malwarebytes has come up with the most detailed explanation of such a scheme in action we've seen recorded to date.

We wanted to get Speak Support's response to these accusations but the firm has thus far failed to reply to our request to speak sent via its web form, despite promises to respond to queries within seven hours. We've had no joy in our attempt to reach its marketing team via a request through its official Twitter account either.

A research paper - My PC has 32,539 errors: how telephone support scams really work - by David Harley of Eset, Martijn Grooten of Virus Bulletin, Steve Burn of Malwarebytes, and independent researcher Craig Johnston gives a comprehensive lowdown on how Windows users have been targeted by similar scams over the last five years or so.

Over time, cold-calling support scams have evolved from "Microsoft told us you have a virus" gambits to more technically sophisticated hooks such as deliberate misinterpretation of output from system utilities such as Event Viewer as explained in the whitepaper (PDF, DNS hijack attack).

A top-notch help and resource page from Malwarebytes on how to deal with technical support scams, the various tricks used in the short con and how victims can best extricate themselves from any mess can be found here).

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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