Feds Shut Down Phony Apple, Microsoft, Google Tech Support Scammers

Image courtesy of (Paul)

While consumers are much more tech-savvy today than we were during the days of Windows 3.1 and baud modems, there are still a lot of people whose tech-insecurity makes them potential prey for bogus tech support businesses that make money by convincing victims their computers are infected with viruses.

Today, the Federal Trade Commission — along with the attorneys general for Pennsylvania and Connecticut — announced it had shut down several tech support scammers that bilked consumers for more than $17 million.

According to the complaint [PDF] filed in a federal court in Philadelphia, a number of operations — all using the name Click4Support in some capacity — have been scamming victims since at least 2013.

The scammers would place ads on websites that appeared as popup warnings that a virus or malware had been detected on the computer. The popups instructed users to call the phone number listed to resolve the issue.

The scammers’ boiler room “tech support” staff would field those calls, misleading callers into believing they were employed by or affiliated with companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Dell.

Callers were asked to give the tech support scammers remote access to their computers so they could investigate. Invariably, the telemarketer would then find all sorts of errors and failures that they said was evidence of a problem.

The FTC performed an undercover investigation, calling up this supposed tech support team and granting them remote access to a computer that the investigators knew was free of viruses and malware. But, lo and behold, the support scammer still found — and circled in bright red — all sorts of things that might look alarming to some:


But as the FTC notes in its complaint, nothing in the above images is any indication of a viral infection. Investigators explain that it is normal for a Windows system to collect “hundreds or thousands” of “error” messages in the course of normal operations. Likewise, even though seeing labels like “Untrusted” and “Fraudulent” might raise a red flag in your mind, the FTC says these labels are “designed to help protect consumers from giving their information to an untrusted web server and are incorporated into any properly configured, up-to-date Windows system.”

However, in an age where big data breaches are a daily occurrence, it’s inevitable that some consumers will be convinced that their devices are in peril and they need to pay to get them fixed.

Of course, since these computers likely weren’t infected to begin with, the tech support people went bout doing things that looked helpful but were not, like deleting innocuous files that had no impact on performance.

In some cases, the fake tech support folks actually did more damage to victims’ computers, like when they would remove existing antivirus and security software, or stopped web browsers from automatically updating their security protections, or disabled Windows’ built-in notification systems designed to send security and maintenance messages to users.

For all of their non-helpful work, the scammers charged upwards of thousands of dollars to victims.

The complaint alleges violations of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, and the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.

“We’re pleased the court shut down these scammers, who defrauded consumers out of millions of dollars by preying on their lack of technical expertise,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Our goal is now to get money back for the victims in this case, and keep the defendants out of the scam tech support business.”

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