How Shady Tech Support Schemes Are Scamming Old People
"Thank you for calling technical support," I say. "My name is Jay. Go ahead with your first and last name so I may pull you up in my system and activate your tech support on my end."
"My name is Gertrude Anderson," says the old woman at the other end. She's a customer of the Home Shopping Network, she bought a computer, and she's called the help number that came with it.
"OK," I say. "Let's get remotely connected. What I want you to do first is look down at your keyboard and locate the space bar. Two keys to the left of that, you should see a windows key. It looks like a flag or four squares. Do you see that?"
I walk her through the next steps 'til we've established the connection. "Do you see me moving the mouse?"
"Great! I have control now, so you can let go of your mouse and I'll take over from here. The first thing we want to do is verify your order from HSN."
If she were a little more savvy, she might question why I'm now opening her browser and going to the HSN website instead of inquiring about her problem. She gives me her login and password so I can open her order and she can review the product. Any good review gives me a $5 bonus. On a product worth more than $350, I get $10. On a product over $700, I get $40.
I open the task manager and switch to the processes list.
"This gives us a good understanding of how hard the computer is working," I say. "The higher the number of processes, the harder the computer is working. Think of a car's engine. If you overwork the engine for an extended amount of time, I'm sure you know what will happen, right?"
"The car will break down?"
"Yes, exactly, it's going to start having problems! That's what we don't want! That being said, let's take a look and see. Hmm ... you have 80 processes running. This is not a good sign."
That's not necessarily true. My own laptop has 115 processes running and is working fine.
"We want to make sure that there are no unwanted malicious programs, or even threats on the system without your permission. A lot of the time, users are allowing them access without even knowing it!"
"Oh no!" says Gertrude.
"Also, I see you're running McAfee. THIS IS NOT THE SECURITY PROGRAM YOU WANT TO RUN. As you can see, it's a very heavy program. McAfee is only a trial and expires after 15-30 days. You want to use a security software that will lock the front door, back door, and the side doors of your computer. Just like having locks on all the doors of a house. That way, your computer is a secured fortress! You want to stick with quality security software. This is something you're going to want to purchase ASAP!"
She then asks what they all ask: "Which one should I get?"
"I don't know how you feel about your security online," I say. "But I get extremely paranoid when I'm doing anything that shows my personal info. Especially banking!"
Old people are very worried about online banking. It's right up there with "Obama" and "teenagers."
"I recommend having a security system that acts in real time. The sense of knowing you have security software protecting you while online is priceless. We actually have a special running on the one I recommend. Let me show you."
On her computer, I bring up Complete Necessity Suite.
"The Security Software included is not one-year, two-year, or even for three years; it's a LIFETIME KEY. This means you avoid yearly renewals of $80-$130. In just five or six years, that's well over $600 in savings!"
An expensive security package like this is totally unnecessary for any normal user. On my own computer, I run free versions of AVG antivirus, Malwarebytes, and SpyBot Search&Destroy. That's all you need.
"This Complete Necessity Suite is custom made specifically for your computer," I lie. "It constantly updates itself to be aware of the 500,000 new infections being released daily! Professional installation is waived, which saves you $150."
"Oh!" says Gertrude. "That's very nice of you."
"So let's get this all set up. It's only going to be $99.99 today. That will recur for the next three months. On the card were going to be using, does your middle initial appear?"
With luck, the customer doesn't fully appreciate that I'm about to bill her for $400. Unfortunately, this one is reluctant:
"That sounds like it works out to be very costly," she says. "And I've already bought this very expensive computer, so I don't see how I-"
"I understand the Necessity Suite is an unexpected charge, and I know you truly understand the importance of protecting your PC and personal info. But this is something your PC needs. I would not be stressing this if it wasn't this important. But it is. So let's go ahead and get protected now so we won't have to deal with future problems or unexpected expenses down the road. It's only going to be $99.99 today. Sound fair enough?"
That should seal the deal. But Gertrude still won't say yes.
"If I could have this installed for free," I say, "I would. Let me check to see if there is another option, or maybe even an alternate route we can take. We bend over backwards for our customers. Especially when it comes to making sure they're protected. I'm going to place you on hold for a few minutes. I appreciate your patience."
I put her on hold and browse Facebook for a bit. Then I switch back to her.
"OK, so I have some good news. We're able to approve you for our month-to-month plan! This is designed for our customers who cannot afford large out-of-pocket expenses. It's only $24.99 per month. This will cover your security software and the optimizer."
"Thank you so much!" says Gertrude.
The month-to-month plan will cost her $598.80 over two years. Assuming she lives that long, which isn't exactly guaranteed.
"I will have you off the phone in just a few minutes," I say, "And moving forward, there will be nothing else you're ever going to need in regards to security software! Will you be using a Visa or MasterCard today?"
If Gertrude regrets her choice and calls to cancel, her request will be handled by one of two reps in the entire company delegated to this. She will be told that billing will call her, and they will -- 10 days later, all while the 30-day refund clock ticks away.
This company, Vtec, contracts out to the Home Shopping Network, as well as Evine and QVC UK. Generally speaking, most of these customers are seniors, and not very tech-savvy. One of the main selling points is that they are going to have 24/7 U.S.-based tech support. They trust the people they are calling. If someone tells them their identity could be stolen or their banking info could be compromised, they'll buy the software. Many are on a fixed income and can't afford it. Once, with my supervisor looking over me, I got approval to offer another old lady a "deal" of $799 for all three laptops her family owned. She took it. Afterward, I wasn't sure which I needed to do more -- vomit or take a shower. I suppose you could do both. Got a drain built right in there.
Exploiting that ancient and most trusted medium, the Home Shopping Network, to shake down the elderly is pretty evil. But we didn't invent the idea of shady upselling in place of customer service. Call up McAfee, that competitor I badmouthed earlier, and they too might shove their security package down your throat instead of actually fixing your problem. Call Linksys, call Dell -- you'll find the same thing just about everywhere. Last year, the FTC fined a series of tech support companies $37 million for using the exact same tactics as my company. The companies got off by surrendering corporate assets and only ended up paying $236,000.
When I get home, my dad gives me a call. "You won't believe it, it's the craziest thing," he says. "Your mother's got Microsoft on the other line. You know the computer we just bought? They phoned us and said it has a virus. But they're going to fix it for us! They're going to control the computer from all the way in Microsoft headquarters, see. And-"
"Unplug the computer."
"Tell her to unplug the computer," I say. "And hang up the phone."
Ryan Menezes is an editor and interviewer here at Cracked. Follow him on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.
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