Scotty Zifka was looking for a sales job. He started one in late May at a company called EZ Tech Support, a small inbound call center in an older building in northeast Portland, Oregon.
The first day of Zifka's unpaid training involved listening in on sales calls. But within three hours, Zifka felt something wasn't quite right.
"Everything about it was so weird," he recalled.
The company's 15 agents answer calls from people who've seen a pop-up message saying their computer may be having problems, and advising them to call a number, which rings at the offices of EZ Tech Support.
The agents are instructed to stick to a 13-page script. They ask callers whether they have an antivirus program installed. If they do, Zifka said, callers are usually told that whatever they're using isn't a "full-time real spectrum virus protection program."
But the agents have a solution: callers can purchase an antivirus program called Defender Pro Antivirus, from Bling Software.
EZ Tech Support sells a perpetual license for the program for $300. Agents also tell callers they can perform a one-time fix on their computers for them, which starts at $250. Callers can haggle for lower prices.
Those dialling in are typically in their late 30s or older. "A lot of mothers would call in and say, 'I'm sure it's something my son did on my computer. This has happened before'," Zifka said. "Older gentlemen — seniors specifically — that was the most unfortunate part."
Within 20 minutes, some callers spent up to $600 to "fix" their computers. "I was blown away by this," he said.
EZ Tech Support's general manager, Gavynn Wells, said the company abides by U.S. Federal Trade Commission regulations.
"We don't tell customers that they have issues they don't have," Wells said in phone interview. "We are not pushing them into a corner and telling them if they don't do business with us, their computer is going to blow up."
A $4.9 billion industry
Consumer antivirus software has become a highly competitive business, in part because data breaches are in the news almost every week, and people feel a need to protect themselves. It's also a huge market, with an estimated $4.9 billion in annual sales, according to Gartner.
That's drawn all types of players, some of whom specialize more in affiliate marketing than in security.
Tech support services abound on the Internet, and phone numbers for some of those businesses are often found in bundles of questionable software known as adware. People willingly download adware, often to get a free program, but it can also be foisted on them through vulnerabilities in their software.
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