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'Your PC may be infected!' Inside the shady world of antivirus telemarketing

Jeremy Kirk | June 11, 2015
Scotty Zifka was looking for a sales job. He started one in late May at a company called EZ Tech Support, a small inbound call center in an older building in northeast Portland, Oregon.

Some adware programs display messages to people suggesting their computer is at risk, even though the adware programs aren't designed to detect security problems.

Lawrence Abrams, who runs the popular Bleeping Computer security forum, said people have complained about pop-up windows in their browsers that they can't close. In some recent cases, a man or a woman's voice tells them their computer has become infected.

"You just cannot shut the program down," said Abrams, who deliberately downloads harmful programs for his research. "So people panic, and they call the number."

Those most vulnerable are people who know little about computers and find the warnings intimidating, he said.

The FTC has started to go after some of the biggest U.S.-based tech support companies that take this type of inbound call. In November, it filed two complaints alleging tens of thousands of consumers had been conned out of more than $120 million by companies using high-pressure, deceptive sales tactics to sell software and support services.

Wells, of EZ Tech Support, used to work for one of the companies targeted by the FTC, Inbound Call Experts, before moving to Portland last year.

Although a federal judge shut down Inbound Call Experts shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the company was allowed to resume business after it agreed to changes in how it markets its services. The case, however, continues, and court records show that Inbound Call Experts and the FTC have agreed on a mediator to discuss a settlement.

The poor perception of companies offering remote support services has made it harder for legitimate ones to operate, said Dan Steiner, CEO of Online Virus Repair, based in San Luis Obispo, California.

"It's definitely not a positive image," said Steiner, who added that not many companies offered remote computer support when he started his business back in 2008.

But the industry exploded, with many companies opening call centers outside the U.S. For legitimate companies, marketing their services online proved near impossible amid the high volume of unethical businesses.

Steiner now focuses on word-of-mouth advertising, and partnerships with those he trusts in the antimalware industry.

Worth the money?

Several years ago, it wasn't uncommon for adware-promoted security products to be classified as malicious software. But tactics have changed, and unscrupulous companies now sometimes sell functional products but greatly overcharge for them.

It's a tough situation for regulators: the FTC can't protect people from companies that stay within the law while marketing what may not be the world's greatest product.

The product EZ Tech Support sells, Defender Pro, appears to be legitimate antivirus software, said Andreas Marx, CEO of AV-Test, an independent organization in Germany that tests consumer antivirus suites.

 

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