FTC announces international crack down on bogus support call scam

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Malware, Microsoft

Call centre workers, courtesy of ShutterstockThe US Federal Trade Commission announced on Wednesday a crackdown on a widespread phone-based scam that tricked tens of thousands of computer owners, worldwide, into purchasing bogus computer cleanup services.

A US District Court Judge has ordered a halt to six alleged tech support scams and frozen the assets of the firms, which operated under names like Technogennie, Virtual PC Solutions and Connexions InfoTech Services.

The companies used boiler-room sales techniques, many based in India, to cold call consumers in English speaking companies and convince computer owners that their system was infected and needed to be cleaned.

The scams targeted English-speaking consumers in the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK. In the calls, India-based operators posed as tech support specialists from legitimate firms like McAfee, Symantec and Dell and claimed to be calling to inform the customer of an infection on their computer.

Victims were charged anywhere from $49 to $450 to have the remote tech “clean” their system, according to the FTC.

The FTC said that it had received around 2,400 complaints about the bogus calls in the US, though the it believes that number of calls was probably much higher. The FTC said it has frozen US assets belonging to the companies totaling $180,000 and shut down phone numbers used to call consumers in the US.

Damages, worldwide, could reach into the tens of millions of dollars, Leibowitz said in a press conference.

After getting the consumers on the phone, the telemarketers allegedly claimed they were affiliated with legitimate companies, and told consumers they had detected malware that posed an imminent threat to their computers.

Operators would often direct their targets to the Windows Event Viewer which displays standard Windows error messages. They would then use the innocuous error messages as proof of a malware infection.

Sample event viewer

Consumers were then pushed to agree to pay a fee for fixing the so-called problems. Scammers were granted remote access to the consumers’ computers to install the scareware software and remove the 'malware', the FTC said.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said he hoped the crackdown was a “wakeup call” to consumers about phony support scams.

Here's some audio advice from Sophos experts that you can share with friends and family to help them stick up for themselves if they're targeted by these crooks. They're often persistent, aggressive, and by all accounts both persistent - they'll call many times - and threatening.

(Duration 6:15 minutes, size 4.5MBytes)

The FTC worked with sister agencies including the Australian Communications and Media Authority and Canada’s Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission to investigate the scam. Indian authorities were not involved, though Liebowitz said the FTC would send a delegation to India to work with consumer protection agencies and law enforcement there to help prosecute these scams.

Chris Chapman, the Chairman of the Australian Communications and Media Authority said his office had received around 10,000 complaints from consumers in that country.

Make sure that you're clued-up about the bogus support calls, by reading our further tips on how to avoid support call scams.

Call center workers, courtesy of Shutterstock

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13 Responses to FTC announces international crack down on bogus support call scam

  1. steve · 1094 days ago

    how can people buy this, nobody can just find a virus on your computer and phone you and tell you how to fix it

    • sophisticat · 1094 days ago

      I had pre-warned an elderly gentleman acquaintance that these sorts of calls were being made and he still nearly fell for one; fortunately realising his mistake before he gave any access or money. He's not especially gullible, but it's far too easy to blind people with a bit of tech-speak if they know nothing about computers; particularly if the caller claims to be from either the manufacturer of their computer, Microsoft, or "your ISP".

  2. Robert Gracie · 1094 days ago

    Finally something is being done about these bogus calls at least for a while before they start back up again!

  3. MikeP_UK · 1093 days ago

    These sorts of calls have been going on, at least in the UK, for more than 5 years and most claim to be from Microsoft Technical Support. I know they, MS, don't generally call users unless you have requested specific assistance. These scam calls from India, or wherever, have been discussed at length in the computer press in the UK and warnings given to avoid getting caught out, yet some still are sadly. One problem is that the general news media, newspapers and broadcaster, are not able to communicate the risks properly, I'm not sure they understand the issue themselves! And the most vulnerable don't read the specialist computer media.
    I'm glad that a US authority is trying to do something but I would hope they woden their are of remit enough to stop these scum scammers.

  4. Johann · 1093 days ago

    Our helpdesk gets these calls from time to time and we love nothing more than to mess with the idiots.

  5. Eaton · 1093 days ago

    My 80- year old father was phoned by woman with an African accent offering to fix his computer - he doesn't have one. She phined back 3 times. Very persistent and would not take no for an answer.

  6. Marie · 1093 days ago

    My situation was slightly different. I initiated the call believing I was contacting a legitimate company. It claimed to be a Microsoft partner, and the BBB even had a positive rating for them! But after several red flags, I realized what was going on and took steps. It was 4 weeks before I felt I had covered all the possible bases that they might have compromised. Frustrating and frightening.

  7. gregory · 1093 days ago

    How sssslllllllloooooowwwww they work. This scam was rife at least 2 years ago in Oz. I alerted both Microsoft and authorities when I was receiving the calls. Both replies were that they could do nothing. Is this how vigilant Microsoft and the legal people are? No wonder the baddies are winning.

  8. faithful India · 1093 days ago

    Just Crack down all the sites straight away ,,most of the call centers are situated in the New Delhi (INDIA)

  9. Brandt · 1093 days ago

    Her in Denmark, they called me several times. Every time I told them taht they vere lyers,becourse they can't relate my IP address to my phone number. I tried to contact my ISP, but they couldent help me, insted they asked me to go to the polise

  10. Graham · 1090 days ago

    A couple of years back, Microsoft dropped a Gold Partner for pioneering exactly this scam. People complained for almost a year before it got in the hands of a real security researcher, who eventually discovered the name of the company and outed them as con artists.

    It seems this has gotten popular with a number of different firms in that area of the world, and I'd be very interested to know if any of the offenders are also linked with Microsoft. Another irritating factor is that GotoMyPC and similar sites are totally complicit with this scam, because they continue to allow use of it by companies (or, at least, IP addresses) that are known to be scammers.

    If you're interested in a nice live session with these crooks, check out Troy Hunt's piece on them: http://www.troyhunt.com/2011/10/anatomy-of-virus-...

  11. Matt'll Fix IT · 1090 days ago

    I think this is a hell of a lot worse and widespread then people realise, so much so that warnings should be given in the national press and on the TV to educate the people.

    I am a computer repair guy in the UK, for the past 4-5 years I have been constantly getting asked by my customers who have received such calls if they are legit or not.

    I have taken it upon myself to warn every customer I go to about this scam and to warn everyone they know. Its so prolific that on a couple of times whilst attending a customer's home and discussing such calls that they indeed receive a call whilst I'm there talking about it!

    I think its disgusting that the Indian Authorities have done nothing about this, I wouldn't be surprised if they know the people involved and well, say no more...

    This is the problem putting all the call centres in these sort of countires.

    I find the best thing to do if you receive a call about your computer is to tell them you don't own one, they soon stop there bullshit and hang-up!

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About the author

Paul is a Boston-based reporter and industry analyst with more than a decade of experience covering the IT industry, cyber security and hacking. His work has appeared on threatpost.com, The Boston Globe, salon.com, NPR's Marketplace, Fortune Small Business, as well as industry publications including ZDNet, Computerworld, InfoWorld, eWeek, CIO , CSO and ITWorld.com. Paul got his 15 minutes as an expert guest on The Oprah Show - but that's a long story.