The Federal Trade Commission and Florida attorney general have shut down a major computer tech scam that they said bilked computer users out of millions of dollars by making them believe that their machines were compromised by malware or other problems.

But the FTC also warned that this will not mark the end of tech support scams and warned users to remain vigilant.

The agencies announced Friday that a federal court has issued a temporary restraining order, shutting down the operation, which they said worked out of a call center in Boynton Beach, Fla. The companies that participated in the operation were based in Florida, Iowa, Nevada, and Canada, and went by several names, including Help Desk National, PC Help Desk US, and Inbound Call Specialist.

The operation used online pop-up ads to mislead computer users into thinking that their machines had been infected with malware, instructing them to call a toll-free number to obtain repairs and antivirus software, according to the agencies. The pop-up ads were designed to resemble security alerts from Microsoft or Apple, the complaint says. In many cases, it says, when a user attempted to close the ad, another opened up, making the computer browser unusable.

Those who called in response to the pop-ups were given a high-pressure sales pitch designed to frighten them into spending $200 to $300 to repair the problem and another $200 to $500 for replacement antivirus software. Some victims, many of them elderly, also were sold ongoing tech support plans ranging in price from $9.99 to $19.99 a month, the agencies said.

“I think it can be pretty significant when you talk about the pop-up ads that cause a consumer’s computer to malfunction,” said James Davis, an attorney in the FTC’s Midwest region who worked on the case. 

According to the complaint, would-be victims who called the toll-free number also were asked to give the bogus tech support workers remote access to their computers.

“Once in control of consumers' computers, defendants run a series of purported diagnostic tests, which, in reality, are nothing more than a high-pressured sales pitch designed to scare consumers into believing that their computers are corrupted, hacked, otherwise compromised, or generally performing badly,” the complaints say.

Saying that the FTC and Florida attorney general are “likely to prevail” in their complaint against the companies, the U.S. District Court in Illinois issued the temporary restraining order on June 28 barring the companies and individual defendants from engaging in such practices, freezing their assets and placing control of the business with a court-appointed receiver.

This is the latest of several cases the FTC has brought in connection with tech support scams since 2010, including a major international crackdown in 2012. But similar scams are likely to continue, operating in the U.S. and abroad, says Davis.

“People still need to watch out for these scams,” he says.

Instead of using pop-up ads, some tech support schemes employ telemarketers who call would-be victims claiming to be a tech support specialists, says the Better Business Bureau, which issued an alert in May about the ongoing problem, which it says not only can cost victims money but also can result in the theft of sensitive data stored on their machines.

Bogus virus warning pop-ups also can come from unsafe software downloaded from an unfamiliar website or that installed when the user clicked on a dangerous email attachment. 

What to Do

The FTC has devoted a Web page to tech support scams, with advice on how to spot them and what to do if you’ve been victimized. You’ll also find tips from Malwarebytes Labs.

Among the advice:

  • If you see a pop-up or receive a phone call warning about a virus or other malware on your computer, don’t respond. It doesn’t matter how legitimate the notice looks or that your phone’s caller ID says the call is from Microsoft or any other well-known company.
  • Make sure your computer security software is up to date.
  • Don’t install software from unknown third parties unless you’re sure it’s safe. (Try a web search with the name of the software and the word “reviews.” Download programs only from websites you know and trust).
  • If you think your computer may be infected, run a virus scan and remove or quarantine any problem. If that doesn’t work, try a web search for tips on how to remove it or contact the manufacturer of your antivirus program.
  • Never give a stranger remote access to your machine.
  • If a tech support scams tries to victimize you (or you’ve already been victimized), file a complaint with the FTC.