The Federal Trade Commission recently announced the creation of Operation Tech Trap, a new joint effort among national and international partners to combat tech support scams that dupe consumers into believing their computers contain harmful computer viruses and malware and then trick these consumers into paying hundreds of dollars for unnecessary repairs to “fix” their machines.
The FTC and its partners, including Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, the Department of Justice, and India, announced sixteen new enforcement actions, ranging from civil complaints and settlements to criminal indictments and guilty pleas, against dozens of fraudulent and deceptive tech support operators. Over the past year, Operation Tech Trap partners have brought 29 actions, both civil and criminal, to disrupt this growing problem. A summary of Operation Tech Trap’s law enforcement actions is available here. Importantly, recent investigations into tech support scams resulted in criminal charges against seven individuals, two of whom have already pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and will face possible sentence enhancements for having ten or more victims over the age of 55. According to the indictments filed in the Southern District of Illinois, this scam victimized over 40,000 people and defrauded them out of more than $25 million. The victims were located in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, several U.S. territories, all ten Canadian provinces, the United Kingdom, and several other foreign countries.
Partners in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Australia, and Canada also announced initiatives to educate consumers and businesses in ways to avoid these scams. The FTC has updated consumer guidance and tips for businesses, including posting an educational video.
“Tech support scams prey on consumers’ legitimate concerns about malware, viruses and other cyber threats,” said Tom Pahl, Acting Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC is proud to work with federal, state and international partners to take down these scams, and help consumers learn how they can safeguard their computers against real cybersecurity threats.”
Most of the scammers targeted in Operation Tech Trap adhere to the same general pattern of misconduct. First, they cause computers to display advertisements designed to resemble pop-up security alerts from Microsoft, Apple, or other familiar technology companies. These ads claim that consumers’ computers are infected with viruses, are being hacked, or are otherwise compromised, and direct consumers to immediately call a toll-free number for assistance. Some of the pop-up ads even include a countdown clock, allegedly representing the time remaining before the computer hard drive would be deleted. If the consumer calls the toll-free number, he or she is connected to a call center where telemarketers falsely claim to be affiliated with well-known technology companies and tell consumers that in order to diagnose the problem with the computer, the consumer must provide the telemarketers with remote access to the computer. After gaining access, the telemarketers run a series of “diagnostic tests” that, unsurprisingly, reveal the existence of grave, but non-existent, problems that require immediate repair by a “certified technician.” Through these high-pressure tactics, the scammers persuade consumers to pay hundreds of dollars for unnecessary computer repair services, service plans, anti-virus protection or software, and other products and services.
Tech support scammers have been a particular focus of the FTC in the past, including an April 2016 consumer alert. Operation Tech Support continues the trend of litigation and enforcement actions, which began in 2011, targeting companies and individuals that allegedly operate scams to sell tech support services. The initiative demonstrates the FTC’s commitment to working with national and international partners to combat scams intended to defraud consumers and take advantage of consumers’ insecurities regarding their technology needs and uses.