OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced recently that national office supply retailer Office Depot will pay $900,000 to resolve the attorney general’s investigation into its deceptive computer repair sales practices.
Until late 2016, Office Depot used variations of “PC Health Check,” a software program that led consumers to purchase diagnosis and repair services costing up to $200 regardless of whether their computer was actually infected with viruses or malware.
As part of the legally binding agreement with Washington, which the Attorney General’s Office filed in King County Superior Court, Office Depot is prohibited from using deceptive programs to sell repair services and must conduct reviews of its software providers to ensure the software is not engaging in deceptive conduct.
“There are plenty of scammers online trying to trick Washingtonians or sell them bogus software,” Ferguson said. “They should be able to trust that an established national retail chain is not deceiving them. This resolution ensures that Office Depot will live up to the faith consumers place in them.”
Washington is the only state to garner an agreement in addition to a $35 million national settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for similar conduct. That FTC settlement will provide restitution for impacted consumers. More information on the FTC settlement and the agency’s pending plans to return money to impacted customers is available here.
Deceptive Screening Practice
The FTC and Attorney General’s Office were alerted to Office Depot’s deceptive computer repair sales practices by news reports from KIRO TV consumer advocate Jesse Jones.
At the beginning of the PC Health Check service, an Office Depot employee asked the customer four questions about whether the customer’s computer had slowed down, experienced frequent pop-ups, received virus warnings or frequently crashed. They then entered the responses into the PC Health Check program. Once the questions were answered, the software conducted a simple scan of the computer.
However, regardless of whether a virus or malware existed on the computer, PC Health Check always reported “malware symptoms found” or the “scan has identified potential malware related symptoms” if the consumer answered “yes” to any of the four pre-scan questions.
When the PC Health Check software “uncovered” malware or a virus, the employee would recommend a diagnosis and repair service to remove it, typically costing between $150 and $200.
In 2012, an Office Depot employee notified management that the software reported malware symptoms on a computer that “didn’t have anything wrong with it.”
Despite this knowledge, from 2012 to 2016, Office Depot sold these repair services to an estimated 14,000 Washington customers.
Attorney General Ferguson will set aside the $900,000 until the FTC concludes its process for providing restitution to individuals harmed by Office Depot’s unfair and deceptive conduct. If the number of consumers filing claims results in less than full restitution for Washington consumers, the Attorney General’s Office will use its payment to provide additional funds to Washingtonians with the goal of making them whole. Otherwise, today’s resolution with Washington will be used to recoup the costs of bringing the investigation and lawsuit, and fund the ongoing consumer protection work of the Attorney General’s Office.