We’ve done plenty of reporting on tech support scams, be they online or by phone, but how about the sort where you walk into a huge, supposedly legit gizmo box store and they try to sell you the same load?
Seattle station KIRO-TV, tipped off by a whistleblower and bolstered by confirming employees, is accusing Office Depot staffers of doing just that: diagnosing brand-new, just out of the box computers with malware infections that some stores suggested would cost up to $200 to clean up.
According to Shane Barnett, an ex-Office Depot employee turned whistleblower, staffers need to sell fixes to keep their jobs.
It’s not an option to run the program. You have to run it on all machines that come in the building.
Sales targets for support services – including the so-called PC Health Check that found “malware” on four out of six computers reporters brought to Office Depot stores in Washington and Oregon – are posted in the employees’ break room.
Staffers are also handed orange cards with the goals to stick in their pockets at the beginning of shifts, Barnett said.
That all sounds like a standard-issue retail environment. But Barnett and other Office Depot employees told the station that the stores are grooming aggressive associates who push hard to sell unnecessary protection plans.
KIRO 7 took the same new computers that had been inspected by Office Depot to an independent security company, IOActive, which found the “infected” computers to be clean as a whistle.
IOActive’s Will Longman:
We found no symptoms of malware when we operated them. Nor did we find any actual malware.
Longman said it looks like PC Health Check appears designed to sell products to unsuspecting customers, “so there is that potential for a consumer to be misled and want to or need to fix things that aren’t actually broken.”
Office Depot on Tuesday put out a statement saying that it doesn’t condone selling needless services and that it’s launched an investigation into the allegations.
Office Depot in no way condones any of the conduct that is alleged in this report. We intend to fully review the assertions and take appropriate action.
But Barnett and other employees who confirm his account say that they told management about the problems with PC Health Check – two years ago – and they “did nothing to stop it.”
In a followup report, KIRO-TV reporter Jesse Jones said that the station’s reporters had told the stores that the computers were running too slow.
So employees ran the free PC Health Scan, which requires Office Depot techs to ask customers four questions: about pop-up problems, slow speeds, virus warnings and random shut downs.
If a tech checks a box, the software automatically signals a malware problem: a “predetermined result followed by a sales pitch,” Jones reports.
How to fend off brick-and-mortar tech support scams?
We tell people to just hang up when they get an unsolicited tech support call. Sometimes you’re the one who makes the call – say, when a “warning” arrives in an SMS or a pop-up, urging you to call a “support line,” typically a free number that seems harmless enough to dial.
Whatever the route, you end up talking to an earnest-sounding person who typically poses as a Microsoft or Windows “support tech” or some other official-sounding title that gives him or her purported credentials to back up whatever they’re feeding you.
But it always winds up the same meal: a plate full of bogus.
But how do you protect yourself against a rip-off packaged in a reputed box store?
One of the tips we use for other tech support rip-offs applies here, as well: If you need help with your computer, ask someone you know and trust. That means “someone you’ve actually met in person,” as opposed to just online, where nobody can tell who’s a dog or who’s a fraud.
And as Consumerist advised in a report on Best Buy’s $40 “optimization” services tacked on to PC sales (a “big stupid annoying waste of money,” in other words), you can optimize your own damn PC. Ditto for installing your own damn security software!
17 comments on “Office Depot allegedly running in-store tech support scams”
Wow. I wouldn’t have expected this from Office Depot.
Are there any hints whether the problem is nationwide?
This investigation focused on Office Depot. I’ve seen various news reports about Best Buy’s Geek Squad over the years, as well. Here’s one from Fox TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZq4UnkgZQI
By the way, US Senator Cantwell from Washington is asking the FTC to investigate Office Depot over these allegations.
This is why I recommend people to only buy their computer from a Microsoft store. They don’t include bloatware as well.
“Bloatware” comes from directly from the factory my friend.
Sorry, I wasn’t clear: I meant to ask whether Office Depot nationwide is the culprit, or being looked at. The article just covers them in the NW states, but it seems a problem like this could easily be from HQ.
Yes, it’s nationwide. It’s one of those things where the company decides to focus on one area of the business to impact sales, and put pressure on the stores to meet the goals they’ve set.
It’s is actually wider then that. You have IT shops who do the same thing. Run a free malware scanner. Find usually a PUP (Potentually Unwanted Program) and charge $$ to “fix” or when actual malware is detected and removed they charge $$ and send them on their way without further investigation. So the next time they get repeat business. IT is not Security. You don’t ask your GP to perform heart surgery.
Whilst that’s true, as an IT Tech myself that’s a practice I do not condone and never would. Had the ‘pleasure’ of fixing up the messes other ‘so called’ IT Techs have created – and that’s including from the Big Box stores!
Thank you for helping to educate the public-at-large. This is really the only way to stop this.
I posted this on reddit but I’ll try to keep it short over here (spoiler alert, looking at this message now, I failed. Sorry). This is being pushed in all stores, they do want it pushed aggressively. I’m not going to go into working conditions, expectations, crappy pay, etc… But, not all employees working for office depot are scummy.
Here’s what I mean. The free PC scan is complete nonsense, that is only a way to get customers in the door. Chances are if they think they have a problem, they probably do, else why bring it? If ANY of the checkboxes are checked, it will give you a result of fail/poor in the security section which will cite “potential malware symptoms found” as the reason, no other details, regardless of the computer actually being infected or not.
And here’s my point, some people (perhaps many) will absolutely take advantage of this JUST to get sales and the minuscule commission (5%) which in my opinion is not worth being a scumbag. Or because they are being pushed to do it by higher management else get fired for not performing up to what they need (the numbers they want for repairs and sales is insane by the way, almost impossible unless you’re located in rich neighborhoods or very high volume stores).
So about not everyone being scumbags. Where I work we almost never do the free pc check and they do not like it, however, we take a more hands on approach and personally take a look at the computer and make a recommendation based on what we can see, including sending them somewhere else if it’s something we can’t fix or whatever. They DEFINITELY do not like that. (I think it’s tolerated because we still mostly make sales numbers, when we don’t though, they get pretty annoyed. We run the pc check after we’re done actually fixing it just so they can track that we did run the software, and yes it’s tracked, but very rarely do we do it with customers and say hey look you got malware you should buy this 200 dollar repair). We’re lucky that we have people working in our technology department who DO know what they’re doing, but I don’t doubt that other stores just tell their less knowledgeable associates to run the thing, check the boxes and sell the repairs.
Usually it’s very obvious if it has viruses since as soon as you login you get pop ups, or if you open the browser you will get them then, or redirected, or audio messages, etc… Those are easy. Sometimes when the pc is slow it’s harder to initially diagnose what’s up so we do recommend the diagnostic and repair ($149) or a complete restore ($169). It could be the hard drive failing, it could be too many startup programs or running processes, it takes more time to figure out what’s going on than they want us to spend. And by the way, they want us to spend very little time. Get the sale, connect the pc remotely to someone who does the work and get back on the sales floor to get more sales.
I’m glad this got exposed, but honestly very shocked it took so long. Would I recommend coming to us to get your computer fixed? How can I? I don’t know what experience you will have, I only know that some people working at office depot do their best and do have the customer’s best interest in mind. Always get second opinions, third opinions, or however many you want. I think the program was designed to help people who don’t know about computers get sales for the company, that’s the only thing that makes sense to me. Hopefully it was not designed with the goal of being used as a scare tactic or a tool for deception. All I can do is apologize for the people who do use it in those ways even though that wont mean a whole lot to most people.
I live in a town that office depot is the closet thing to a tech store, along with a failing radioshack.
Everything I go in there, they offer me a free diagnostics and cleaning. Free? All for free? WOW! How do you ever make money giving this away for free?
Oh, because I am going to need a new hard drive, more memory, and whatever else inane part you can throw in. For the low-low fee of several hundred dollars.
I’ll pass. Free always has strings attached with any big box business.
Shameful but not really surprising. Charging for unnecessary services is nothing new. Anyone who owns a car knows this very well 🙂
it seems Desperate times call for desperate Measures……
So a customer comes to a store saying they want there computer checked out, and people are surprised that the store wants to charge for the service?
Not my experience from Office Depot in the Bay Area
Thank you for posting this. I purchased a computer from Office Depot and had to use the tech support over and over and over to get the thing to run.
An unauthorized charge of $15 a month was put on my credit card by Office Depot’s Geary branch in San Francisco. Office Depot’s headquarters would not say what it was for so I called VISA and they credited my account for something I neither used or asked for.