SUNNYVALE — Sunnyvale-based tech support firm Support.com Inc. and Office Depot Inc. have agreed to pay $35 million to settle allegations they tricked customers into buying computer repair and technical services by deceptively claiming their software had detected malware on customers’ computers, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
“Consumers have a hard enough time protecting their computers from malware, viruses and other threats,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons in a news release. “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 FTC alleged in a complaint that the two companies used PC Health Check, a software program, as a sales tool to convince customers to purchase tech repair services. Office Depot marketed the program as a free PC checkup or tune up service to help improve a computer’s performance and scan for viruses and other security threats. Support.com remotely performed the services once customers made the purchase.
While Office Depot claimed PC Health Check detected malware symptoms on customers’ computers, the actual results presented to customers were entirely based on whether they answered “yes” to at least one of four questions they were asked at the beginning of the program, according to the complaint. The FTC said the questions were 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.
Customers were encouraged to purchase services, some of which cost hundreds of dollars, to fix the problems.
In its complaint, the FTC alleged that Office Depot and Support.com have been aware of concerns and complaints about PC Health Check since at least 2012. That year, an employee complained to corporate management, saying “I cannot justify lying to a customer or being TRICKED into lying to them for our store to make a few extra dollars.”
Office Depot, however continued until late 2016 to advertise and use PC Health Check and pushed its managers and employees to generate sales from the program, according to the complaint.
The FTC said Office Depot and Support.com violated its prohibition against deceptive practices.
In addition to the monetary payment, the proposed settlement prohibits Office Deport from misrepresenting the security or performance of a customer’s electronic device and requires the company to ensure its software providers do not engage in such conduct, according to the FTC. Support.com also cannot make or provide others with the means to misrepresent the performance or detection of security issues.
Office Depot has agreed to pay $25 million and Support.com has agreed to pay $10 million, according to the FTC. The FTC said it will use the funds to provide refunds to customers.
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