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Office Depot and Support.com agree to pay $35 million to settle charges of rigging computer scans

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- Naturally, given the rising flood of adware, spyware and sophisticated phishing attempts to access our personal data, people are scared and increasingly willing to pay for protection.

But this fear of being hacked was allegedly the hook used by Office Depot, its subsidiary OfficeMax and a California-based tech-support vendor to dupe customers into paying for computer repair and technical services they didn't need, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Although not admitting any wrongdoing, Office Depot and California-based Support.com Inc. have agreed to pay $35 million to settle the claim that they deceived customers into believing their computers were infected with malicious malware and vulnerable to other security threats.

The FTC alleged that, from at least 2009 to late 2016, the companies would offer customers a free "PC Health Check Program" to determine if their computers had any performance problems.

But the real purpose of the checkup was to aggressively sell diagnostic and repair services to customers that, in many cases, they didn't need, according to Claire Wack, an attorney in the FTC's division of marketing practices and the lead attorney on the case.

Support.com -- which remotely provided the technical support services for Office Depot and OfficeMax -- allegedly drove sales by programming the PC checkup to report that a repair was necessary whenever a customer answered yes to any one of four questions asked, including whether the person's computer was experiencing frequent pop-up ads, according to the FTC complaint. Consumers were then encouraged to purchase repair services that could cost more than $300.

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To their credit, it appears that some Office Depot employees complained about the ruse, the FTC lawsuit said.

"I cannot justify lying to a customer or being TRICKED into lying to them for our store to make a few extra dollars," one employee wrote to OfficeMax's corporate management.

In 2013, one Office Depot employee told the Florida attorney general's office that the company was using a software program that "will make consumers believe their computer has a virus," according to the FTC.

A year later, yet another employee told management that the PC checkup program "finds malware symptoms but independent scans reveal no issues."

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