Authorities called it a large-scale international ring of “ruthless scammers” preying mostly on older Americans. Bad actors pretended to be from tech companies such as Microsoft. They warned consumers of security threats to their computer devices. To fix what were bogus problems, consumers coughed up hundreds of dollars — or thousands — for unneeded technical-support services.
The allegations arise in an anti-fraud case filed Thursday by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) against a California man characterized as a key player in an international ring that includes call centers in India. At DOJ's request, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order to forbid the man, Michael B. Cotter, 59, of Glendale, California, and the other defendants from committing wire fraud, impersonating tech companies and taking money for purported tech support.
Indian authorities, meantime, took parallel actions against businesses and individuals suspected of being involved in the fraudulent activity, DOJ said.
'Hundreds of elderly and vulnerable victims'
The scheme “defrauded hundreds of elderly and vulnerable victims” across the U.S., according to DOJ officials, who said the case was brought to its attention by Microsoft, which “often is impersonated by those engaged in technical-support fraud schemes."
Attorneys at DOJ said in court filings that the defendants were to blame for a “fraud scheme that preys primarily on senior citizens of the United States."
According to the court documents, it worked like this: Pop-up messages falsely styled to appear from well-known tech companies, such as Microsoft or Apple, induced consumers to pay for unneeded tech support. Victims were given a toll-free phone number to reach a live agent so to remedy the bogus problem; that person would be in an Indian call center and ask for permission to access the computer device remotely to “diagnose” the purported issue.
Here's fraud prevention advice from Ariana Fajardo Orshan, the U.S. attorney in Miami, where the case is being heard:
• Do not click on pop-up messages on a computer device that claim the device is infected by a virus and at risk of irreversible damage.
• Likewise, do not click on links in messages purporting a computer problem.
• Instead, delete such pop-ups and contact your software provider or local computer consultant.
Authorities said Cotter and his ring operated under many business names, including Tech Live Connect and Premium Techie Support, and the defendants used 19 websites, including helpformysoftware.com. That site is no longer accessible.
Cotter’s attorney, Brian McEvoy of the Polsinelli law firm in Atlanta, said Friday that he and his client learned of the government’s allegations within the last 24 hours. “We are in the process of investigating the allegations, and Mr. Cotter denies any wrongdoing,” he added. “We refute these allegations.”
The case is being investigated by the FBI and local, state, federal and international partners. DOJ's Transnational Elder Fraud Strike Force is involved.
The court action “marks a strong step forward towards stopping these ruthless scammers,” said one federal partner, Delany De Leon-Colon, inspector-in-charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's Criminal Investigations Group.
The parallel actions taken by India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) mark an unprecedented collaboration, DOJ officials said. The CBI conducted searches at company offices and private homes in India, seized “incriminating digital evidence related to the scheme” and registered a criminal case against five companies there, the DOJ said.