Office Depot And Partner Ordered To Pay $35 Million For Tricking Consumers Into Thinking They Had Malware

from the gotcha! dept

I have worked in the B2B IT services industry for well over a decade. Much of that time was spent on the sales side of the business. As such, I have become very familiar with the tools and tactics used to convince someone that they are in need of the type of IT support you can provide. One common tactic is to use software to do an assessment of a machine to determine whether it's being properly maintained and secured. If it is not, a simple report showing the risks tends to be quite persuasive in convincing a prospective client to sign up for additional support.

Done the right way, these reports are factual and convincing. Done the Office Depot way, it seems only the latter is a requirement. The FTC announced on its site that Office Depot and its support partner, Support.com, Inc., has agreed to pay $35 million to settle a complaint in which the FTC alleged that consumers were tricked using a computer health application into thinking their machines were infected with malware when they often times were not.

Office Depot has agreed to pay $25 million while its software supplier, Support.com, Inc., has agreed to pay $10 million as part of their settlements with the FTC. The FTC intends to use these funds to provide refunds to consumers.

“Consumers have a hard enough time protecting their computers from malware, viruses, and other threats,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “This case should send a strong message to companies that they will face stiff consequences if they use deception to trick consumers into buying costly services they may not need.”

The complaint itself, embedded below, is quite the read. Office Depot's scheme went like this. For a decade, Office Depot would take in customers' computers for diagnostics. Through it's partnership with Support.com, PC Health Check would be run on these machines and the owners of them would be given a short questionnaire to fill out. While that application can in fact be useful in detecting malware on machines, the FTC alleges that the "report" delivered to consumers was based entirely off of the short questionnaire instead. And what kind of questions were consumers asked to answer to indicate whether their machines were infected with malware or not?

Well...

These included questions about whether the computer ran slow, received virus warnings, crashed often, or displayed pop-up ads or other problems that prevented the user from browsing the Internet.

The complaint alleges that Office Depot and Support.com configured the PC Health Check Program to report that the scan found malware symptoms or infections whenever consumers answered yes to at least one of these four questions, despite the fact that the scan had no connection to the “malware symptoms” results. After displaying the results of the scan, the program also displayed a “view recommendation” button with a detailed description of the tech services consumers were encouraged to purchase—services that could cost hundreds of dollars—to fix the problems.

Members of the IT industry are already laughing at this. There is a universal understanding in our industry that if you ask a user if his or her machine is running slow, he or she will say yes. Full stop. To base a recommendation off of this answer, never mind to configure software to report malware symptoms based on it, is ludicrous in the extreme. Unless, of course, you're building a tech support business on the strategy of tricking consumers into thinking they have malware infections when they do not. In that case, all of this makes perfect sense.

Except that it's also a violation of laws against deceptive practices. It's also dumb in the extreme, as it's the kind of trick you can only get caught at once to torpedo your reputation and cause the public to never seek out your help for tech support again. Put another way, there is zero reason for anyone to ever seek out Office Depot's help for their computers ever again.

That's no way to run a business.

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Filed Under: ftc
Companies: office depot, support.com


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Apr 2019 @ 6:01pm

    Re: I remember when Symantec got caught.

    thank god they merged with a more reputable company


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