Court shuts down tech support 'scams' targeted by FTC

Companies' free trial software identified nonexistant computer errors and charged customers to fix them, the agency says

A Florida court has temporarily shut down two "massive" telemarketing operations that allegedly conned tens of thousands of consumers out of millions of dollars by tricking them into fixing nonexistent computer errors, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission said.

The tech support operations generated more than US$120 million since 2012 by using software designed to trick computer users into thinking their PCs had performance or security problems, the FTC alleged. Computer users typically downloaded a free trial version of software that supposedly scanned their systems, then identified numerous errors, even when the computers didn't have performance problems, the FTC and Florida authorities alleged.

The tech support operations then used "high-pressure deceptive sales pitches" to convince computer owners to fix the nonexistent problems, the FTC said Wednesday.

"These operations prey on consumers' lack of technical knowledge with deceptive pitches and high-pressure tactics to sell useless software and services to the tune of millions of dollars," Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "There's no excuse for it."

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida issued temporary restraining orders in the two cases earlier this month, the FTC said in a press release.

After consumers downloaded the free trial software from the two tech support operations, the software tells them they need to purchase the paid version of the software to fix the errors it has identified, the FTC said. The agency accused the companies of using "highly deceptive scans" to identify hundreds or thousands of supposed errors that had nothing to do with a computer's performance or security.

In one of the cases, the software scan flagged "innocuous and beneficial files found on nearly every computer, such as the computers temporary files and cookies," the FTC said in a complaint filed with the court. In some cases, the software targeted Windows dynamic link libraries [DLLs] as errors, when removing them "could potentially cause problems for the computer," the FTC wrote.

After consumers paid $29 to $49 for a full version of the tech support software, they were directed to call a toll-free number to activate it. When they called the number, telemarketers tried to sell them additional computer repair services and software, costing up to $500, using "deceptive scare tactics," the FTC alleged.

The FTC lawsuits in these two cases are the third in a sections of actions the agency has taken against operators of computer repair scams. The agency conducted a sweep of computer repair scams in 2011, and the FTC took action against a New York computer support company in recent weeks.

In one case, defendants selling software included PC Cleaner and Netcom3 Global. The companies didn't respond to email seeking comment on the FTC action.

In the second case, the company selling software was Boost Software. It also didn't return an email seeking comment.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags governmentregulationinternetlegale-commerceU.S. Federal Trade CommissionCivil lawsuitsU.S. District Court for the Southern District of FloridaJessica RichNetcom3 GlobalPC CleanerBoost Software

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Grant Gross

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