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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.

The product uses a well-known antivirus engine licensed by a reputable company called Cyren. Marx said his analysts tested a trial version downloaded from Defender's Pro website. It was effective at detecting malware but also "really buggy," he said via email.

"After an update, for example, it repeatedly crashed," he said.

The retailer Target at one time sold Defender Pro in its stores. A spokesman declined to say why it is no longer stocked. Target's website still has an old product page for Defender Pro 2012, which sold for $19.99.

Marx said $300 is too much for Defender Pro, given that there are similar, basic antivirus scanners available for free from companies such as Avira, Avast and AVG. Products with Defender Pro's feature set should cost no more than $30 per year, he said.

By that measure, a user would need to keep the same computer for 10 years to justify EZ Tech Support's pricing for Defender Pro.

Closing the sale

Zifka, who quickly left the company, said EZ Tech Support agents install a remote control tool called LogMeIn Rescue to get access to callers' computers with their permission. They then install Webroot's Analyzer program, a legitimate tool that flags issues on a computer.

But Zifka said agents call out anything flagged by the software, even if it's not a security risk for the user.

"We used whatever it states as a selling point," Zifka said.

In lawsuits, the FTC has accused telemarketing companies of installing a remote tool and then using other programs, such as the Windows Event Viewer, to illustrate errors and warnings that actually have no material effect on a computer.

Wells disputes Zifka's characterization and maintained that callers aren't informed of problems that don't exist. If a caller says he is already using AVG's free antivirus product, Wells said agents will say they have good protection against viruses "but they could benefit from having something that protects them against malware."

When it was pointed out that AVG's product does protect against malware, Wells said: "Well, I was just using that as an example."

Although EZ Tech Support is registered in Wells' name with Oregon's Secretary of State, he said the business is owned by an investment company which he declined to name.

Wells said he's also not involved in the adware campaigns that distribute the phone numbers that ring to EZ Tech Support. But he said the company will remove the adware for people who call.

"We really pride ourselves in doing a good job for our customers," he said.

 

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