Regulators smash global phone tech support scam operation

Regulators smash global phone tech support scam operation

Summary: The FTC announced a crackdown on a massive international computer tech support scam that allegedly swindled tens of thousands of consumers in six countries.

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Regulators from five countries joined together in an operation to crack down on a series of companies orchestrating one of the most widespread Internet scams of the decade.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other international regulatory authorities today said they shut down a global criminal network that bilked tens of thousands of consumers by pretending to be tech support providers.

FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, speaking during a press conference with a Microsoft executive and regulators from Australia and Canada, said 14 companies and 17 individuals were targeted in the investigation. In the course of the crackdown, U.S. authorities already have frozen $188,000 in assets, but Leibowitz said that would increase over time thanks to international efforts.

Global phone support scam

Scammers would use remote desktop tools to access the victim's computer.

Read more: Phone scammers target PC users with phony virus reports

"These so-called tech support scams are the latest variation of scareware," Leibowitz said. 

English-speaking consumers in the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the U.K. were targeted in the global scam. Most of the scammers were based in India, but some also came from the U.S. and U.K.

The scam involved cold callers who claimed to work for major technology companies, such as Microsoft or Google, and who told consumers they had viruses on their PCs. The callers would attempt to dupe users into giving them remote access to their computers, locking the user out while attempting to "fix" the malware that the scammer claimed was on the machine.

In some cases, ads were placed on Google to lure in unwitting consumers when they searched for their PC's tech support phone number. And many of the people called were on do-not-call registries.

Windows PC users were targeted seemingly indiscriminately and charged between $49 to $450 to remove the non-existent malware that the supposed tech company representative claimed was on the PC.

Leibowitz said the frozen assets could be distributed to victims once they are identified, but he warned it's rare to "get 100 percent back in restitution." The FTC said that more importantly, it should be able to stop the scams going forward.

It is thought there could be upwards of tens of thousands of victims worldwide in total across six countries, and the FTC warned that the figure could be "significantly higher."

The scammers attempted to avoid detection by using virtual offices, including more than 80 different domain names and 130 different phone numbers. Officials said many of the scammers from India were using U.S. carriers, and the carriers agreed to block the numbers. 

A U.S. District Court for judge, at the request of the FTC, ordered a stop to six alleged tech-support scams pending further hearings. A further 17 individual defendants were also targeted by the FTC in six legal filings with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The FTC charged the suspects with the Federal Trade Commission Act, which bars unfair and deceptive commercial practices, and were also charged with illegally calling numbers on the Do Not Call Registry.

More than 10,000 complaints were drawn from Australian citizens to the country's regulator as early as 2009. Once the scam began to spread around the world, the Australia Communication and Media Authority contacted U.S. authorities with intelligence on the scammers, which had by then received 2,400 complaints. The FTC said "hundreds of thousands of U.S. consumers" could have been affected.

Canada had also received "thousands and thousands" of complaints, but Andrea Rosen, chief compliance and enforcement officer at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, said it was difficult to identify exactly how many. In Australia, it was estimated that the scammers made about $85 from each successful scam.

The FTC is working with the Indian authorities, but did not disclose confidential details due to the ongoing investigations.

Leibowitz thanked U.K.'s Serious Organised Crime Agency and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for their "invaluable assistance" to the FTC.

Canada's Rosen said "we make a difference by working together," highlighting how the agencies and regulators collaborated across borders to investigate the scams.

The FTC also acknowledged investigative assistance it received from Microsoft, as well as from other technology companies.

Frank Torres, Microsoft's director of consumer affairs and senior policy counsel, said at the press conference that Microsoft will continue to work with the agencies as other scams emerge. He noted that Microsoft will never cold call customers and ask for their credit cards to charge them for services they don't need.

"It's like playing a game of whack-a-mole, really, for cyber criminals to find ways to deceive people," Torres said.

This article, co-authored by Shara Tibken, was originally published on CNET.  

Topics: Windows, Malware, Security, PCs

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32 comments
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  • This is GREAT!

    An elderly relative of mine got caught by these very scammers! Thankfully, my years of nagging and warning my parents meant that they were able to help the affected family member limit and recover from this abuse, only losing around $60. It could have been A LOT worse!

    This demonstrates two things: the biggest threat BY FAR is human/social engineering attacks and that educating your family WORKS!
    bitcrazed
    • Demonstrates *three* things

      monocultures are dangerous.
      RonScratch
      • Indeed. And when my elderly parents received one of these calls...

        ... they were able to respond that they used Linux, not Windows. And then hang up :-).
        Zogg
        • Really?

          Did the caller respond "That's nice. I'm calling from Google moron."?
          mrefuman
      • Okay

        so when the article says "The scam involved cold callers who claimed to work for major technology companies, such as Microsoft or Google"...

        How is that a monoculture?
        mrefuman
  • Oh ... and one more thing ...

    Credit where credit is due:

    Congrats to all the parties involved in coordinating the response to these immoral fraudsters. Just goes to show that with patience and cooperation, online thugs can be found and dealt with.
    bitcrazed
  • Fantastic News !

    It's great news that these fraudsters have finally been brought to book.

    I've been warning my clients about this scam for some considerable time and am aware of many cases where people have received these calls and where some have been caught out by them. I've even had them call me at home!
    Peter Gray
  • Here's one that caught some customers in my area

    https://www.ceylon-tech.com/ca/

    They're using cold-call techniques as well as ad placement from some disreputable ad companies to lure customers into installing TrustPort AV and then charging them $150/yr for "tech support".

    Also, they have several spelling mistakes on their website, have numerous phone numbers (depending on which page you're on), never use TM symbols for companies, and also abbreviate Microsoft as "MS" or "M.S.". When you see signs like this, you can tell that it's not a reputable company.
    Joe_Raby
  • Great Start!!

    Yes!! I get so many calls from them and was really getting ticked off about it! 2 weeks ago i got a call and they used MY home number. Weird to see your own name and number pop up when you go to answer it. I yelled at them and told them to quit scamming people. Then last week I got another call.. this time I played dumb and during the conversation he said he worked at Microsoft.. their technical department. I said, so that means I can call Microsoft and they will know who you are? No he said.. he gave me a number to call. funny.. it is one they really DO use!! I called them.. the lady said thank you for calling the technical department.. etc etc. Waiting to see if they dare to call back again!
    Photokats
  • Another way to check to see if the company is reputable

    If the company says "We're a Microsoft (Gold) Certified Partner", but they don't have a link to their profile in the partner directory, look them up yourself and see if they are who they say they are.
    Joe_Raby
  • I've *wanted* these guys to call!

    I have a Windows XP Virtual Machine within which I fully intend to let them do whatever they want. I'll minimize it, let them do their thing, and when they're done messing it up and ask me to reboot, I'll just revert to the snapshot. From there, I'll let them do the same thing again, and see exactly how long it takes for them to realize that I'm wasting their time.

    Joey
    voyager529
    • gireat idea!!!

      Get em'.
      BigJohnLg
    • I love this!

      This would be great, after all, you don't pay until they fix it, right?
      cmwade1977
      • no, you do not pay them

        till you give them your credit card number :-) after that all bets are off.
        ForeverSPb
    • Those scammers from India

      I was contacted twice as I recall (I live in eastern Canada and I am on the Do Not Call list here). The phone number that showed up on my CallerID was, I believe, in Texas. The spiel he used the last time was that my computer was infected with malware and sending out all sorts of bad stuff into the Internet. He emphasized how dangerous that was. It turns out I _was_ using my Windows 7 computer at the time (although I work more on Macs or even linux) and he told me that I was using Windows 7 (and I didn't challenge him although I knew he was only guessing). I kept pressing the guy about what my IP address was because he clearly must know that because that was what prompted him to call me. He danced around then finally told me that he couldn't release that information to me without my written consent. I was never fooled by this clown and finally I got bored I started to say some rather impolite things to him, like I knew he was trying to scam me. He was quite defensive when I claimed that. Then I started to work through my fairly extensive knowledge of profanities and vulgarities. Then I hung up. In about 20 seconds the phone rang again and this dude was chiding me for using such language with him. He reminded me that the phone call was recorded and it would be very embarrassing for me if it became public. So although I knew I was risking really hurting his feelings {Ha Ha} I went on another verbal tirade and hung up. Never heard from them again.
      DSpencer
      • What you should have done....

        After telling you the call was recorded you should have said in that case you want a copy of the recording under the freedom of Information Act.
        TankBob2
    • Re: I've wanted them to call

      I played their game just up to allowing them access to my machines. I've berated them verbally, insulted their religion and beliefs, I've gotten very, very nasty with them to the point of them hanging up on me.

      But guess what???? A couple of days later, "hello this is Frank from tech. support and you have a virus or trojan on your computer". I didn't know Frank was a popular name in India!!

      I too thought if I wasted their time that they would give up. NOPE!! Several days later they call YET again!

      I was the person that posted a questioned on Lee Koo's CNET Forum page. See link:

      http://forums.cnet.com/7723-6132_102-563986/scam-alert-are-you-getting-phone-calls-by-people-claiming-to-be-tech-support/?messageId=5417725&tag=nl.rCOMBINED&s_cid=rCOMBINED#message5417725

      I can't and won't take credit for getting all the different agencies involved but if you check out the link you will see I just wanted to forewarn people about this scam. It was quite widespread, even more wide spread then I could ever have imagined!!

      So wasting their time is also a waste of your time and I can money back guarantee you that you will get another call!
      Disgruntled_MS_User
  • Here's the Canadian report:

    http://news.ca.msn.com/top-stories/crtc-fines-telemarketers-for-do-not-call-violations-1

    The CRTC charged these 2 companies:

    Pecon Software Limited - $495,000
    Avaneesh Software Private Limited - $12,000

    The CRTC completely got this wrong though. They only filed this as unsolicited calls to phone numbers on the Do-Not-Call Registry. Why didn't they file this as a consumer protection scam and charge them with fraud??
    Joe_Raby
  • This can be prevented

    These guys tell the victim to download remote desktop software from well-known sites, e.g. logmein rescue and Ammyy. The download page of these two sites should have very plain and bold warnings on them and before allowing you to download, a pop-up should appear warning of the MS scam.
    These legitimate sites are being used for illegal purposes, yet these sites do not appear to do much about it. Maybe they should be prosecuted for aiding these fraudsters and perhaps that would sharpen their perspective!
    s2926
  • These guys called me a few weeks ago.

    I trolled them for about 45 minutes and recorded the call.
    CableZL