Here at komando.com, we try our best to provide you with computer tips and how-to’s so you can troubleshoot and resolve your computer issues on your own.
However, if you’re not particularly tech-inclined, you will most likely take a problematic PC to a reputable store or a repair center to get it diagnosed.
You’ve probably heard of the infamous online tech support scams. This is when fraudsters try to convince you that your computer is infected with serious issues and to resolve them, you will have to purchase expensive tech support software and services from them.
Well, you may think there’s no way a reputable retail store will ever pull something similar, right? Hmm, better rethink your life decisions now.
The FTC just brought the hammer down on a major office supply chain and its tech support partner for deceiving its customers.
Read on and find out if these companies actually owe you money due to the settlement.
Office Depot’s ‘PC Health Check’ was a fraud
Office Depot and its California-based support software partner Support.com has agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) a total of $35 million to settle claims that they tricked customers into buying unneeded tech support and repair services through in-house PC scans that gave fake results.
Office Depot will shoulder $25 million while Support.com will pay the remaining $10 million.
If you ever had your PC serviced by Office Depot (or OfficeMax) between 2009 and 2016, you may be eligible for a payout. Why? Well, the FTC said that it intends to use the funds to provide refunds to affected customers. Note: Office Depot merged with OfficeMax in 2013.
How the bogus malware scans worked
In the official complaint, the FTC claims that Office Depot and Support.com worked together for about a decade to sell computer support services at its retail stores. To boost sales, the two companies allegedly rigged software called PC Health Check to deceptively convince customers to buy unneeded tech services.
PC Health Check was advertised as a PC checkup and tune-up tool that helps improve a computer’s performance by scanning for malware, misconfigurations and other security threats.
To get their foot in the door, so to speak, the stores claimed that PC Health Check scans were actually between $20 and $60 but offered them for free to entice customers.
However, the FTC alleges that the PC Health Check tool was rigged to show that the computers were infected with malware even though the actual scans did not find any issues.
The results were apparently solely based on whether a customer checked at least one of the four boxes in the questionnaire that was presented at the start of the scan. These included questions about frequent pop-ups, problems accessing the internet, computer slowdowns, virus warnings and frequent crashes.
‘Health Check’ gave fake results
As you can see, these questions cast very wide nets and every PC user may have likely experienced any of these symptoms at one point or another. Aside from that, customers who bring their computers to the stores for a scan already suspect that there are issues so it’s almost a given that they’ll check at least one of the boxes.
Now, if at least one of these boxes was checked, the PC Health Check tool will automatically tell the customers that it found “malware symptoms” or “infections” even though the PCs weren’t actually infected, the FTC said.
In fact, in an undercover investigation by Seattle station KIRO 7 back in 2016, even brand new, fresh-off-the-box computers that have never been connected to the internet were claimed to be showing “symptoms of malware” by Office Depot’s PC Health Check tool.
After the “scan” is completed, the results will be presented (rigged to always show “poor” if you checked at least one of the initial boxes) and will proceed to display detailed recommendations on how to diagnose and repair the issues with — you guessed it — costly in-store tech services, some of which could cost hundreds of dollars.
It’s the modern-day, computer equivalent of snake oil if you ask me!
Office Depot ran support scam for years
Since Office Depot and Support.com have been running this ploy for nearly seven years, it was most likely an effective and very profitable scheme. The FTC also claims that both companies were aware of the complaints and concerns about the PC Health Check program since 2012.
“Many consumers who got false scan results bought computer diagnostic and repair services from Office Depot and OfficeMax that cost up to $300,” the FTC wrote in a blog post. “Support.com completed the services and got a cut of each purchase.”
According to the FTC’s official complaint, despite the warnings, Office Depot continued these practices until late 2016 to promote the PC Health Check program and even trained and forced store employees and managers to drive revenue from the program.
It took the aforementioned investigative reports from KIRO 7 to widely expose the scheme and put it under public scrutiny. However, the FTC said that Office Depot still offered that same PC Health Check program even after the KIRO 7 reports.
Although the company ended its relationship with Support.com in 2017, it purchased another similar tech-support company and continued to offer computer diagnostic and repair services.
Office Depot hit with more than fines
With these allegations, the FTC said that both Office Depot and Support.com violated the Commission’s prohibition against deceptive practices.
And aside from the $30 million fine, the settlement also bans Office Depot from “making misrepresentations about the security or performance of a consumer’s electronic device.” The company must also ensure that its existing and future software partners do not engage in similar deceptive practices.
For its part, Support.com is also prohibited from providing others with “the means to make, misrepresentations about the performance or detection of security issues on consumer electronic devices.”
Now the question is this — will these companies even comply fully? Judging by the profitability of tech support services, scams or otherwise, I’m sure they will still find a way to make extra coin from their not-so-tech-savvy customers.