Office Depot allegedly running in-store tech support scams

Office Depot

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!