While messing around on Twitter late Tuesday night, I noticed people discussing iCloud Keychain, Apple's password management system. I clicked on a hashtag associated with the tool, #iCloudKeychain, to check out more tweets about it.
Instead of finding people chattering about their iPhones, I stumbled upon over a dozen accounts that could easily be confused for official Apple tech support:
Each account listed the same number, which is not the real one for Apple's customer care team, though, judging by the logos and Twitter names, it'd be easy to mistake them for the real deal.
By searching the phone number on Twitter, I was able to find 16 different accounts suggesting people call them for a myriad of problems, not all of them related to Apple: Some said they would help with YouTube and Adobe Flash Player, for instance. Each had posted the same number, and were masquerading as help accounts for legitimate Apple products and services, including everything from Apple Mail to iPads.
Some of the accounts dated back to February of this year. Others, like an account posing as the support line for Best Buy, (though it had the Apple logo as its profile picture) joined Twitter last month. Overall, none of the accounts I found appeared to have originated earlier than this year.
A representative from Twitter declined to comment on the record. But soon after I contacted them, 16 accounts associated with the number I found had been suspended.
I tried calling the line listed on the accounts myself five times. During the first call, on Tuesday night, a man with a South Asian-sounding accent picked up and said "Hello Apple support." I hung up, wanting to try again when I could record the call. I tried a second time Wednesday, and a woman with a similar accent answered the phone.
"Hi, is this Apple Support?" I asked. "We are Geek America, night support for Apple," she explained. It was hard to hear her—it was obvious she was in a room with other people answering similar calls. I asked her where she was talking to me from, and she said California, where Apple's headquarters are. She also told me that Apple has a second headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, which it does not (though there is an Apple retail store there).
I asked her what "Geek America," was, and she said it was an "independent online support for Apple, that's the name of the company." The line soon disconnected.
When you search for Geek America on Google, the first result that comes up is someone on Scammer.info asking if the company is a sham. I couldn't find an official website associated with Geek America, but another company, "America Geeks," does show up (though it has a different phone number and doesn't appear to try to make itself seem like official tech support).
I decided to call again and pose as someone experiencing a legitimate tech problem: That my computer was running slow. When I tried the number two more times Wednesday, the people on the line quickly hung up on me after I explained my issue.
Finally, when I tried a third time, another person with a South-Asian accent who went by the name "Justin" began asking me a bizarre series of questions. Like in previous conversations, I explained that my computer was lagging. He then asked me if this was the only computer I have (I said it was). Next, he needed to know whether it was a desktop or laptop, and whether it was "made of metal."
Finally, he told me he could definitely solve the problem I was experiencing, but would need me to share my screen first—the hallmark of a tech scam. On Wednesday, the Better Business Bureau issued a warning about Apple tech support scams. It urges users to never give a stranger remote access to their device.
If you search solely for the phone number on Google, the results appear legitimate. The people behind the scam appear to have gone to great lengths to make sure their number looks real on Google. When I searched for it, a "Featured Snippet" appeared at the top of the page informing me it's the "Apple Customer Care Number." Google uses artificial intelligence to automatically create snippets, but the system has been abused to aid scammers. Google did not immediately comment, though a representative asked me to clarify what my search query was. I'll update this post when I hear back.
If you didn't research beyond Google's answer, you might be led to believe the number is in fact Apple's actual customer service line. But if you click on the link where the search engine scraped that information, you're led to a website that's not associated with Apple.
None of Google's search results (at least on the first few pages) indicate that the number might be associated with a scam. What the search engine does bring up are dozens of websites, YouTube and Vimeo videos, and Reddit threads associating the number not only with Apple support, but with Netflix, Mozilla Firefox, Acer, Microsoft Word, and Dropbox support as well. The number also comes up several times as being associated with Avira, a German security software company.
To be clear, third-party technical support isn't always a scam. But the social media accounts associated with this number are designed to be deceitful, as are its Google results. Answering the phone as "Apple Support" and requesting a screen share pushes this beyond "sketchy" territory and into do-not-call under any circumstances territory.
This isn't the first time scammers have gamed Google and posed as Apple customer support. Earlier this month, Will Strafach, an iOS-focused security researcher, spotted a similar scheme. The scammers behind it had also gotten their number to be associated with Apple in a Google snippet. It's unclear if the two scams are related.
The scam Strafach spotted was removed from Google within less than two hours.
In July, the tech podcast Reply All recorded several episodes about a group of Indian people who also posed as tech support technicians. I reached out to Alex Goldman, one of the hosts of Reply All, who said the scam he reported and the one I found appear to be different.
"I tried calling the number, and just going on what I know about Accostings, the company I was looking at, this company appears to have a different phone system," he told me in a Twitter DM.
Indian and American authorities have been playing whack-a-mole with call centers that target Americans for years. Many pose as officials from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in an attempt to collect what they allege are unpaid taxes. An IRS report from this year states that since 2013, over 10,000 victims collectively have unwittingly paid $54 million to these scammers.
Scam callers posing as support technicians aren't new either. In 2012, technology news site Ars Technica ran a guide to spotting a tech scammer. They often make cold calls, and eventually try to convince users to provide remote access to their device. Then, the scammer frequently tries to steal personal information, install malware (which it then later removes for a fee), or otherwise dupe users.
A representative from Apple said in an email that the company investigates scammers that pose as being from the company as they learn of them, and refer cases to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). They also attempt to take down fraudulent numbers when they can.
If you really need help with your Apple device, you can contact the company's actual customer support team here.
Update 9/27/17 8:53 AM: This post has been updated to indicate Twitter declined to comment on the record.