WASHINGTON Consumer frauds often make claims that are too good to be true. But a recent one, cited by regulators around the world Wednesday, depended on a pitch that many people found completely believable that Microsoft or another computer company knows what is on your personal computer.
The Federal Trade Commission announced a multinational crackdown on so-called tech support scams, in which a caller fools a consumer into believing Microsoft or a computer security company has discovered that a PC is infected with harmful software.
The caller then offers to fix the computer on the spot for a price. The target would sometimes let the ostensible tech support company gain remote access to his computer, allowing the company to download software to it.
In six cases filed in federal district court in Manhattan, the commission named 17 individuals and 14 companies, most in India, as participants in the operations, including many with legitimate-sounding names like Virtual PC Solutions and Zeal IT Solutions.
At the commission's request, a federal district judge in Manhattan froze the U.S. assets of the suspects. The commission also said it had shut down 80 Internet domain names and 130 phone numbers in the United States used in the scheme. Efforts to reach several of the companies and individuals were unsuccessful.
Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the trade commission, said at a news conference that the scheme involved getting a computer user to look at a program that is standard in the Windows operating system.
That program, known as "Event Viewer," displays logs of operating-system events, which can sometimes carry the benign label "Warning" or "Error." The caller would then warn that those files indicated viruses that could crash the computer or, in at least one case studied by the FTC, that the computer could explode.
"Clearly the defendant's M.O. was to exploit these fears about malware hiding in the machine," Leibowitz said. Officials said they were unable to pinpoint the number or dollar-amount of violations because many victims might not yet be aware they had been taken.
But Microsoft later provided data on its contacts with 1,045 people who had reported a fake tech support caller. More than 400 of those either fell victim to such operations, with losses averaging $875, or had to pay an average of $1,700 to repair damage to their computer.