Does the thought of losing everything on your computer leave you queasy? That’s the anxiety fraudsters attempt to exploit with tech support scams – and it’s conduct the FTC and law enforcement partners are challenging through 16 civil and criminal (yes, criminal) actions announced as part of Operation Tech Trap.
Tech support scammers’ modus operandi is to run ads that resemble pop-up security alerts from Microsoft, Apple, or other companies. Consumers are warned that their computers are infected with viruses or are under hack attack. Some pop-ups even feature a countdown clock, supposedly showing the time remaining before the hard drive will be fried – unless the consumer calls a toll-free number supposedly affiliated with one of those big-name companies.
Once operators have consumers on the phone, the real theatrics begin. Operators claim to need remote access to consumers’ computers so they can run “diagnostic tests.” Those tests purport to reveal grave problems that can only be solved by one of their “certified technicians” – for a hefty fee, of course. Companies use high-pressure tactics to strong-arm consumers into paying hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs, anti-virus protection or software, and other products and services. (Here’s an example of a pitch in action.)
In four of the just-announced Operation Tech Trap cases, the FTC and the State AGs of Florida, Alabama, and Ohio allege that the defendants used methods like that to take consumers for millions. (The defendants in those actions include Repair All PC, Troth Solutions, Vylah Tec, Universal Network Solutions, and a cast of individuals and other companies the FTC and AGs allege were in on the action.) In three of those cases, federal judges have entered temporary restraining orders to halt the practices, freeze assets, and appoint temporary receivers to take control of the businesses.
In addition, settlements were announced in two pending cases. Following up on a complaint filed last year against Help Desk National and a host of others, the FTC and the Florida AG have shut down an operation that ran a tech support boiler room in Boynton Beach, Florida. The defendants in that matter are banned for life from providing tech support products or services and will turn over $700,000 in assets.
Settling another case filed in 2016 against Click4Support LLC and others, the FTC and AGs from Connecticut and Pennsylvania announced that the defendants are banned from marketing technical support services, will pay a total of more than $554,000, and will forfeit an additional $1.3 million held by the court-appointed receiver. A federal judge in Philadelphia also entered a $27 million default judgment against a related party.
But that’s not all. As part of Operation Tech Trap, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois announced five indictments and one guilty plea in connection with its investigation of First Choice Tech Support, LLC and Client Care Experts. (The Florida AG had obtained an order halting the outfits in June 2016.)
How does this boil down for businesses?
- Consumers get caught in tech support scammers’ web, but so do small businesses and people who work from home. The FTC has updated its advice on what you can do to protect yourself. Also, we’ll be hosting a roundtable this summer for law enforcement agencies leading the charge against this kind of fraud and for businesses affected by tech support scams, including companies whose names have been misused by con artists. Looking for tips on spotting other B2B scams? Our new Protecting Small Businesses site is designed with you in mind.
- Tech support scammers inflict injury in two ways. First, they use deceptive tactics to whack consumers in the wallet. Second, they undermine genuine efforts to encourage people to protect their computers from viruses and malware. There are legitimate products out there that can help people safeguard their systems – often at a much lower cost than what tech support scammers charge for their ineffective services. Reputable businesses shouldn’t have to compete against outfits that use phony-baloney pitches to fix what ain’t broke.
- Operation Tech Trap illustrates the close relationship among federal, state, and local law enforcers. We’ve also been working with authorities in India to crack down on tech support scams operating in that country. That’s good news for consumers and bad news for companies that think they can profit from “divide and conquer” strategies.
- People who participate in tech support scams aren’t just risking their assets and future livelihoods. They could face criminal prosecution. Enough said? We hope so.