The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other international regulatory authorities shut down a global criminal network they said bilked tens of thousands of consumers by pretending to be tech support providers.
Fourteen companies and 17 individuals ended up targeted in the investigation, said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, during a press conference with a Microsoft executive and regulators from Australia and Canada.
In the course of the crackdown, U.S. authorities already have frozen $188,000 in assets, but Leibowitz said the number will go up over time because of the efforts made on the international front.
“These so-called tech support scams are the latest variation of scareware,” Leibowitz said.
People in the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK were the targets in the global scam, regulators said. Most of the scammers were 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, according to regulators. 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 on Google to lure 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 ended up targeted and charged between $49 to $450 to remove the non-existent malware the “tech company” representative claimed was on the PC.
Leibowitz said the frozen assets could go back to victims once officials identify them, 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.
There could be upwards of tens of thousands of victims worldwide across six countries, and the FTC warned the figure could be “significantly higher,” officials said.
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 judge, at the request of the FTC, ordered a stop to six tech-support scams pending further hearings. The FTC also targeted 17 individuals in six legal filings with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The FTC charged the suspects under the Federal Trade Commission Act, which bars unfair and deceptive commercial practices, and they also face charges of illegally calling numbers on the Do Not Call Registry.
Frank Torres, Microsoft’s director of consumer affairs and senior policy counsel, said 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.