Agencies from three countries target tech support scams

Bogus tech support operations in India and elsewhere told PC owners their computers were infected with malware

Consumer protection agencies from the U.S., Canada and Australia have filed complaints against a group of companies allegedly calling computer owners, telling them their PCs were riddled with malware and selling them bogus fixes for up to US$450.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the Australia Communication and Media Authority and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission announced Tuesday they have taken action against the fake tech support operations, many of them based in India.

Officials from the three agencies said they've received thousands of complaints related to suspicious tech-support calls, with a potential loss to customers in the tens of millions of dollars.

At the request of the FTC, a judge in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has ordered a halt to six alleged tech support scams, pending further hearings. The court also has frozen the assets of the operations and ordered their websites shut down, said Jon Leibowitz, the FTC's chairman.

When consumers get unsolicited tech support calls, they should hang up and report the call to consumer protection agencies and legitimate tech vendors, Leibowitz said. There has been a "recent rash" of tech support scams, he said at a press conference.

The scams are "outrageous and disturbing," Leibowitz said. "Today, we take a major step forward in standing up for consumers around the world."

The operations cold called PC users, often saying they were from a major tech vendor such as Microsoft, Dell or McAfee, officials said. The telemarketers told the consumers that their PCs had sent malware alerts to the vendor.

"Microsoft will never cold call a customer and ask for their credit card information to change them for a service they don't need," said Frank Torres, Microsoft's director of consumer affairs.

The operations target English-speaking consumers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the U.K, the FTC said. Five of the six operations used telemarketing boiler rooms to call consumers, and the sixth lured consumers by placing ads with Google appearing when consumers searched for their computer company's tech support telephone number, the FTC said.

In some cases, the telemarketers directed the PC owner to common warnings in the computer's system log, incorrectly telling them those warnings indicated the presence of malware.

The telemarketers told consumers their PCs were in imminent threat of damage, and in one case, a telemarketer told a consumer the computer would blow up, officials said.

The scammers then offered to rid the computer of malware for fees ranging from $49 to $450, the FTC said. When consumers agreed to pay the fee, the telemarketers directed them to a website to download a software program that allowed the scammers remote access to the consumers' computers. Once the telemarketers took control of the consumers' computers, they supposedly removed the non-existent malware and downloaded otherwise free programs.

The FTC cases targeted 14 corporate defendants and 17 individual defendants in six legal filings. The Canadian agency has served two Indian companies with a notice of violations and fined the two more than $500,000.

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