A headset hangs on a cubical wall after the last telemarketing shift at Spectrum Marketing Services, Inc. September 26, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.Photo: Getty
The US Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement this week with a notorious scammer who worked with telemarketers to pose as large technology firms and offer fake tech support services to the elderly.
Parmjit Singh Brar — the operator of Genius Technologies, LLC and Avangatee Services, LLC — agreed to a $US7.5 ($10) million fine, though he will only pay $US136,000 ($182,648) due to an inability to pay the full amount. The scammer will also be banned from offering any tech support services in the future, effectively stomping out his two businesses.
Per the FTC, here's how Brar's scam worked: he set up agreements with telemarketers in India who would contact consumers via cold calls and pop-up ads disguised to look like security alerts. They are the kinds of ads that say things like "Critical update required" or "Your computer is at risk" and look believable to a person who doesn't know any better.
When the telemarketers got a person on the phone, they would claim to be from well-known tech companies and would attempt to convince the consumer that there was something wrong with their computer. If the person went along with the call, the scammer would try to convince them to provide remote access to their computer. Once connected to the computer, they would claim to discover malware or some other threat, at which point the tech support scammer would try to sell the victim on some expensive, "high-quality" computer software to solve the problem.
Of course, there was no high-quality software. According to the FTC, the scammers would instead install out-of-date software on the device and use the installation process to steal personal information from the consumer's computer without their permission. For their troubles, the victims were charged between several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars for the phony service.
The FTC's original case against Brar noted that several people paid more than $US50,000 ($67,150) and one person paid $US400,000 ($537,201) over several years to the scammers. The complaint notes that "millions of dollars" have been wired to accounts associated with Brar's businesses.
Brar was the mastermind behind the scam, and by all accounts seems to have been pretty good at ripping people off. One of his business fronts, Genius Technologies, maintained a pretty clean image. The company has a CrunchBase page that describes Genius Technologies as an "IT firm delivering high quality, cost effective, reliable web software solutions."
His other operation, Avangatee Services, have a far less positive public-facing profile. The company has an F rating from the Better Business Bureau and a lot of bad reviews on the consumer watchdog site Ripoff Report. A number of user-submitted complaints on the site lay out a similar scheme carried out by callers: a telemarketer warns that hackers are trying to steal personal information and gain access to their bank account. The caller offers protection, then charges the victim thousands of dollars for the service. Inevitably, the victim's device eventually gets infected by actual malware despite promises that it would be safe.
Brar is just the latest tech support scammer to get hit with scrutiny from the FTC. The agency has made an effort to crack down the schemes in recent months, taking down call center operators in Florida that scammed people out of $US25 ($34) million last month. The podcast Reply All documented tech support calls like the ones Brar and other scammers have made, if you'd like to hear the scams in action.