WASHINGTON — Consumer frauds often make claims that are too good to be true. But a recent one, cited by regulators around the world Wednesday, depended on a pitch that many people found completely believable — that Microsoft or another computer company knows what is on your personal computer.
The Federal Trade Commission announced a multinational crackdown on so-called tech support scams, in which a caller fools a consumer into believing Microsoft or a computer security company has discovered that a PC is infected with harmful software. The caller then offers to fix the computer on the spot for a price. The target would sometimes let the ostensible tech support company gain remote access to his computer, allowing the company to download software to it.
In six cases filed in federal district court in Manhattan, the commission named 17 individuals and 14 companies, most in India, as participants in the operations, including many with legitimate-sounding names like Virtual PC Solutions and Zeal IT Solutions.
At the commission’s request, a federal district judge in Manhattan froze the United States assets of the suspects. The commission also said it had shut down 80 Internet domain names and 130 phone numbers in the United States used in the scheme. Efforts to reach several of the companies and individuals were unsuccessful.
Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the trade commission, said at a news conference that the scheme involved getting a computer user to look at a program that is a standard part of the Windows operating system.
That program, known as “Event Viewer,” displays logs of operating-system events, which can sometimes carry the benign label “Warning” or “Error.”
The caller would then warn that those files indicated viruses that could crash the computer or, in at least one case studied by the F.T.C., that the computer could explode.
“Clearly the defendant’s M.O. was to exploit these fears about malware hiding in the machine,” Mr. Leibowitz said. “These scams fleeced English-speaking consumers worldwide likely to the tune of tens of millions of dollars and resulted in innumerable Do Not Call violations in the United States.”
Officials said they were unable to pinpoint the number or dollar-amount of violations because many of the victims might not yet be aware they were taken.
But Microsoft later provided data on its contacts with 1,045 people who had told the company they believed they had been contacted by a fake tech support caller. More than 400 of those either fell victim to such operations, with losses averaging $875, or had to pay an average of $1,700 to repair damage to their computer.
The suspected fraud occurred in several English-speaking countries. Joining the F.T.C. in the enforcement action were the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission and Britain’s Serious Organized Crime Agency.
David Vladeck, director of the F.T.C.’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the commission was working with law enforcement officials in India to catch the perpetrators. The commission has also referred the cases to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution.
The scheme relied on boiler-room cold calls or ads connected to Google searches that offered the phone numbers for phony tech support services for a specific computer brand.
The callers, who usually asserted that they represented technology companies like Microsoft and Dell and security companies like Symantec and McAfee, would try either to sell virus-protection software or to get the consumer to allow remote access to his computer so that the caller could then “fix” it, for fees of $45 to $450.
Frank Torres, director of consumer affairs at Microsoft, who also spoke at the news conference, said the company “will never cold call a consumer and ask for their credit card information to charge them for a service that they don’t need.”
A consumer who gets a call like this, he added, should go to the site of a trusted computer-security resource to determine whether any threat is present.
In an interview, Mr. Torres said it was understandable that a consumer might believe that Microsoft could monitor the computers of Windows users.
Microsoft does have a lot of information about what is on many consumers’ computers. Most Windows users have probably seen a message asking if they want to send information about a program error to Microsoft.
And depending on a user’s security setting, Microsoft often sends patches and updates to its programs for consumers to download and install.
Microsoft collects that information because “part of our role is to do everything we can to protect consumers,” Mr. Torres said. Several units at Microsoft, including a digital crimes division, monitor messages from consumers about potentially illicit software or events.
The latest scheme is not entirely new; this week the commission ended a four-year investigation and enforcement action against a similar operation in which more than one million consumers were conned into buying software that supposedly remove malicious files. Last month, a federal district court in Maryland imposed a $163 million judgment against one of the defendants.
“Commerce is global, which is great for consumers, but it’s a double-edged sword,” Mr. Leibowitz said. “It allows scammers to go where the money is, where it’s made most easily and to engage in global scams.”