Office Depot agreed yesterday to pay $25 million in a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission as part of a lawsuit accusing the company of tricking customers into buying unneeded tech support services –akin to a real-world version of online tech support scam sites.
The “PC Health Check” fake scanner
At the heart of the FTC investigation was Office Depot’s PC Health Check, a PC diagnostics service that Office Depot was offering to run on computers brought into stores by customers for routine checks and repairs.
The PC Health Check service required employees to ask customers four questions about strange popups, slow operating speeds, virus and malware warnings, and PC crashes or freezes.
The FTC says that checking any of the four options as part of Office Depot’s PC Health Check questionnaire would automatically trigger a positive malware scan result.
Office Depot employees would then step in to offer PC clean-up services for $180 or higher.
“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,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons, commenting on the lawsuit’s conclusion.
Former employee goes to the press
Office Depot’s practices came to light in November 2016 when a former Office Depot employee, named Shane Barnett, contacted KIRO 7, a Seattle-based television station, and revealed the company’s deceiving practice.
Reporters confirmed Barnett’s revelation by buying new computers and visiting an Office Depot shop where following a PC Health Check scan, were told that the brand new laptops were infected with malware. Separate scans by IOActive, a local cyber-security firm, did not find any traces of malware on the test laptops.
Barnett also revealed that Office Depot employees had monthly quotas on the number of PC Health Check scans they sold each month.
Following KIRO 7’s report, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) sent a letter to the FTC asking the agency to investigate Office Depot’s PC Health Check service.
Support.com’s role in the scheme was as the maker of the PC Health Check scanner, which it had been selling to Office Depot and OfficeMax (acquired by Office Depot in 2013) since at least 2012.
The FTC also pointed out in its investigation and adjacent legal complaint that Office Depot and Support.com had been aware of complaints about the PC Health Check program’s accuracy and fake results since at least 2012, but they continued to deploy it in stores until late 2016 when the KIRO 7 report exposed the scheme and Office Depot shut it down.