Sometimes we are rebuilding a RAID array or replacing a BIOS chip and we wonder how ordinary people keep their computes running. Then we realize that most of them come to someone like us for help. But what if you don’t have a family member or friend who is computer savvy? No problem! Plenty of stores — including big box office stores such as Office Depot and OfficeMax — will be glad to help you. Why most of them will be willing to test your computer for free. Sounds nice until you find out that at least in some cases these tests were showing problems that didn’t need fixing so users would pay for services they didn’t need. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has fined Office Depot (who owns OfficeMax) $25 million and plans to use the funds to issue refunds. In addition, a vendor, Support.com, will pay $10 million to support the refunds.
The free check used software to detect problems on a PC. However, during the scan the user is asked if their computer has any of the following symptoms. For example, if their PC has become slow or frequently reboots. If you said yes to any of these questions, the software would produce a report claiming to have found evidence of malware and offering fixes that could cost significant amounts of money even if there was no other evidence.
You might think this was just bad software provided by the vendor and that the office store employees didn’t know. According to the FTC, this isn’t the case. From their report:
The FTC alleges that both Office Depot and Support.com have been aware of concerns and complaints about the PC Health Check program since at least 2012. For example, one OfficeMax employee complained to corporate management in 2012, saying “I cannot justify lying to a customer or being TRICKED into lying to them for our store to make a few extra dollars.” Despite this and other internal warnings, Office Depot continued until late 2016 to advertise and use the PC Health Check program and pushed its store managers and employees to generate sales from the program, according to the complaint.
This sort of thing concerns us for several reasons. If a cyber hacker (black-hat, not our kind of hacker) perpetrates a scam, it is deplorable. Why shouldn’t it be just as deplorable for a big company to take advantage of people’s ignorance about their computers? In addition, things like this are eventually going to lead to increased regulation over working with technology.
Think it can’t happen? It wasn’t that long ago that all you had to do to be a medical doctor was to claim to be one. We can imagine that back then a “doctor” could say, “Do you have back pain? You do? Clearly, then, you require expensive electric shock therapy to repair your herniated disc.” The government would eventually license doctors and medical devices to protect the public.
Granted, it could be worse. It doesn’t appear that the software made malicious changes which then required fixing — the equivalent of a shady mechanic cutting your brake lines while checking your oil. But it still disingenuous to offer to clean a virus you can’t find just based on someone’s say so — especially someone who need to go to a big box store for computer help.