Microsoft on Thursday sued two technical support companies, alleging that they infringed numerous Microsoft trademarks and practiced false advertising as they tricked consumers into paying for bogus help.
The lawsuit was the first time Microsoft turned to the courts to try to stem the flood of tech support scams that swamp Windows users.
"Defendants have utilized the Microsoft trademarks and service marks to enhance their credentials and confuse customers about their affiliation with Microsoft," the complaint stated. "Defendants then use their enhanced credibility to convince consumers that their personal computers are infected with malware in order to sell them unnecessary technical support and security services to clean their computers."
The lawsuit accused Customer Focus Services, a California company, and its subsidiaries with trademark infringement, and alleged that a web of its sites -- including omnitechsupport.com, fixnow.us and techsupportpro.com -- shilled phony Windows support. Microsoft also named Anytime Techies, a Florida firm, and its vtechsupports.com, mytechsupports.com, anytimetechies.com and windowssetgetsolution.org websites.
Microsoft's description of phony support practices was similar to scores of accounts received by Computerworld from both scammed victims and people who didn't bite on the help offer.
Scams are based on a combination of pushy sales tactics, a load of lies and a few half-truths. Callers pose as computer support technicians, frequently from Microsoft itself, and try to convince victims that their computer is infected, often by having them look at a Windows log that shows scores of harmless errors. At that point, the sale pitch starts, with the caller trying to convince the consumer to download software or let the "technician" remotely access the PC.
The con artists charge for their "help" and often get people to pay for worthless software. Frequently, the software is not only useless, but also includes malware that steals online account information and passwords.
In Microsoft's own probe, it had investigators call the phone numbers listed on websites. But the results were the same as when people answered their telephones and heard a fast-talking fake support representative yammering about PC doom and gloom.
"The technician claimed to have found 75 issues of concern, which the technician claimed were caused by 'polymorphic viruses.' The alleged issues involved benign junk files and folders, none of which contained viruses or malware," Microsoft recounted of one such call. To "clean" the computer, the investigator paid $250, then another $610 to "fine tune" the PC.
During several test calls, the technicians claimed that they were "from Microsoft."
"Microsoft investigators have witnessed the defendants use these practices, including defendants' fraudulent sale of unnecessary technical support, installation of malware on the investigators' clean personal computer, and an attempt to steal an investigator's passwords," Microsoft's complaint read.
That complaint's accounting of investigators' calls read like many of the emails Computerworld has received from Windows PC users.
"I have been scammed ... I am ashamed to say not once, but twice," admitted Linda Reynolds in an October email.
"Just received a call from a man with such a strong East Indian accent that he had to transfer me to a [female] associate," reported another reader just this week. "They claimed to be from 'Windows,' and wanted me to go to my computer so they could show me how to 'fix' the horrible problems I have with it."
"I have been called repeatedly from an anonymous phone number, claiming to be Windows tech support and wanting me to log on for them to rid my computer of viruses that threaten my software," added Jack True last month.
While the best advice seems to be to simply hang up on such calls, even that hasn't worked for some.
In a long email, Dan Evans of the U.K. described a persistent and abusive scam that involved seven calls over a three-hour period. The final call was the most bizarre. After Evans told that caller to take his name off their list and "go away," the stream of invective reached new levels.
"Then followed a tirade of verbal abuse that really shocked me," Evans said. "It included 'f*** you, f*** your mother and f*** your daughters, you f***.' I hung up then. I thought they were trying to wind me up so much that I would call back."
The scammers are persistent because there is big money at stake. Microsoft estimated that the loss in the U.S. alone amounted to $1.5 billion annually, and that a third of those contacted by scammers fall for the ploy. "This significant conversion rate is a testament to the great lengths to which the companies offering fraudulent services go to appear legitimate and to confuse consumers about purported problems with their software and PCs," Microsoft said.
It's unlikely that Microsoft's lawsuit will do much to stymie scammers.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed similar lawsuits against other scammers -- in 2012 against a half-dozen Indian firms, and most recently ones aimed at two in Florida -- but while those actions may have put some fraudsters out of business, others have taken their place.
As an indication of the extent of the problem, Microsoft said that it had received 65,000 customer complaints since May, when the company last blogged about the plague.
Microsoft has asked the court for unspecified damages and injunctions to stop the scammers from using its trademarks.
Neither defendant, Customer Focus Services nor Anytime Techies, responded to Computerworld's request for comment. The firms' various websites remain online, although none now displayed Microsoft trademarks or logos.