Remote access: Opening the door to your personal information

What it is, why it is used and how to minimize risk

Before opening your door to a contractor to repair a broken window or door, you likely looked into things to ensure they could be trusted to enter your home and get the job done. You certainly don’t want someone in your house who may rob you later.

The same goes for technicians asking for remote access to your tablet, smartphone, PC or laptop.

In some cases, consenting to have a bona fide computer technician remotely access your personal device can help you when you are struggling with glitches or other technical issues. It is the same approach that many are familiar with when they run into trouble on their work devices and they call IT for a quick rescue.

However, it is important to understand how remote access technologies work and what steps you can take to protect yourself from criminals who use it to gain access to your device to import viruses and ransomware, or steal your identity to commit fraud.

How it works:

Remote access software is the key that unlocks your device to outsiders. You get a message on your screen that requests that you agree to connect with a technical support agent who can then remotely control your device, diagnose issues and fix them without ever stepping foot in the user’s home.

Typically a person experiencing technical issues with their device would reach out to a software company, manufacturer or other trusted vendor and explain their issue to a technical support agent. This can be over a phone call or through a secure online chat. The agent may then verify the user’s identity and ask that the user download or activate the remote access software (which in some cases may already be installed).

Once the software is active, the user will be asked if they consent to giving the technical support agent access to their personal device. Sometimes a one time PIN or passcode will be provided by the user to allow the support agent to connect to the device.

Once the technical support worker has access to a machine, they can operate the computer as if they were sitting in front of it. They have direct access, allowing them to address most technical issues.

As a complainant to our office noticed in one case, a computer services company pre-installed remote access software on a computer he bought from them.  One of its support agents was then able, during a service call, to access and delete software from his computer without his consent. While our office found no indication that the remote access software had been used maliciously, the example highlights how important it is to monitor your computer for signs that remote access technologies are being employed without your knowledge. 

Remote access scams: Why are they calling me?

Fraudsters can pose as tech support employees of computer companies or cyber security firms and falsely claim that there is a problem with the victim’s computer or device, which they have diagnosed over the Internet. They offer to help fix the purported issue and ask the victim to enable remote access to the computer.

Receiving a cold call offering help for a problem you did not know you had is the first warning sign that there may be something suspicious going on.

The tech support scam, or the “remote access” scam, involves tricking victims into giving fraudsters remote access to a personal device.

It typically starts with the unsuspecting victim receiving an email, phone call, or pop-up window advising them that an issue or virus has been detected on their computer or device and asking them to call a toll-free number. In most cases, the user is approached by a fraudster in an unprompted fashion.

These scammers often manipulate their victims by using technical terms and language and can often sound convincing, especially to someone who is less tech-savvy.

In many cases, after they have obtained access to a person’s computer or device, the fraudsters will claim to have “fixed” the problem on the victim’s computer and then ask for payment for their efforts.

Outside of paying for services that were neither received nor required, there is also a risk that the fraudster could install malware or viruses, download or upload files, make purchases, or even steal sensitive or private data, including the victim’s banking information.

Tips to help minimize your risk:

  • Be aware that consenting to remote access can also give a third party access to potentially sensitive information stored on your device, like passwords, photos or financial data.
  • Never provide remote access to someone who has contacted you unexpectedly. Major software providers do not email or phone customers directly in order to ask for remote access to their computer.
  • Only provide remote access to a trusted individual or organization.
  • Be aware of your right to withdraw consent (i.e., to end the remote access session).

What to do if you suspect your computer is compromised:

If your device is behaving strangely and you suspect that an unauthorized third party may have taken control of your device, it is important to act quickly to protect your data.

  • Immediately disconnect from the Internet.
  • Restart your computer in “safe mode”, which is an alternate way of starting up your computer so it is only using the essential programs needed to run.
  • Run a full system scan; and take appropriate follow-up action. 
  • You may also want to consider updating your anti-malware software and changing your passwords. 
  • If needed, seek help from a trusted person with technical expertise.
  • The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has also published a helpful guide for people who believe they have fallen victim to fraud.

Finally, we note that it can be helpful to share information about this kind of technology and the risks it creates with family members and friends who may be less technically inclined, so they are aware of the matter and know what to do to protect themselves.