FTC shuts down massive “PC cleaner” scam

Every year, tens of thousands of consumers spend millions of dollars on services that purport to “clean” their computers and protect them from spyware and malware. In reality, many of these services  — with names like PC Cleaner, PC Vitalware or OMG Tech Help — are elaborate scams involving fake tech support and sleazy tele-marketers.

On Wednesday, the FTC and the State of Florida announced court complaints against dozens of individuals and companies that reportedly swindled over $120 million from consumers, many of them seniors.

While these type of scams have been around for years, the court documents provide an especially clear picture of how the scams work.

According to the FTC, the crooks typically try to hook the victims with an internet ad that promises a free scan for virus or malware. That scan inevitably detects a “problem”:

PC Cleaner Pro appears to run a system scan” that invariably detects a host of malicious or otherwise dangerous files and programs, including malware and system errors. In many instances, PC Cleaner Pro’s initial scan identifies thousands of purported problem s on a single computer. Indeed, the scan is designed to falsely identify problems on consumers’ computers, exaggerate minor issues and otherwise deceive consumers into thinking that their computers are significantly compromised […] In addition, the free scan falsely claims that many innocuous files such as temporary files, web browser cookies, and Windows default settings are problems.

Needless to say, the scammers then offer to solve the problem with a relatively inexpensive piece of software, which might be purchased for $29 or $49.

Unfortunately, that initial purchase leads the victims down a rabbit hole of further scams. Specifically, the consumer is invited to call a number for what appears to be a software company, but which instead connects them to a high-pressure telemarketer.

As the FTC explains, the telemarketer will tell consumers they have an expensive problem on their hands that can be fixed by sending a technician — or by allowing the person on the phone to have remote access to their computer in order to “fix” it. The salesperson then, of course, finds a host of other problems and badgers the victim to buy a support package for hundreds of dollars or, in some cases, a $500 “lifetime” subscription.

As I noted, these scams are hardly new but the scale and pervasiveness of these operations — involving dozens of websites, phone numbers and elaborate ad operations — are notable. One other interesting aspect is the extent to which the scammers allegedly use Google Ads to bait their initial hooks; if this is true, it’s surprising that Google didn’t take some action to put a stop to this.

Finally, it remains to be seen if this set of scammers, led by people like Inbound Call Experts CEO Robert Deignan, will be shut down, or if they will they just re-emerge with a new set of companies. Although the FTC obtained an injunction on their operations and an order for asset seizures, today’s announcement did not describe any criminal charges.