Tech Support or Extortion?

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As someone who's been in this business since mammals were still the new quadrupeds on the block, I've probably logged 3,000-plus hours on the phone with tech support for various companies. The pain threshold for those experiences has always been somewhere between having oral surgery without anesthetic and attending a Justin Bieber concert without earplugs.

Over the last few years, though, getting gear fixed has become much less painful, and the reason is simple: remote support. Letting the geeks take control of my PC over the Net and fix it while I watch has finally made tech calls bearable, if not exactly pleasant.

It's also a scenario that's ripe for abuse, which brings me to today's topic: iYogi, a remote tech support company based in Gurgaon, India.

iYogi provides white label end-user support for major tech companies like Dell and Microsoft. It also sells its services directly to individual users for $170 a year. How it goes about selling support, however, is not unlike how the Mob markets protection: through fear and intimidation.

One of the companies iYogi provided support for was Avast, the maker of "freemium" antivirus software. Recently, Avast's customers began reporting that iYogi was using support calls to aggressively sell annual subscriptions by telling them their computers were corrupted when, in fact, they weren't.

[Related story: Remote control tech support services, tested]

Brian Krebs of the KrebsOnSecurity blog decided to investigate. He created a Windows virtual XP machine on his Mac, installed Avast, and called iYogi for support. Sure enough, the support tech found serious issues with Krebs' machine, some of which could not possibly exist.

[The technician] proceeded to install an iYogi "tune up" tool called PCDiagnostics, which took about 60 seconds to complete a scan of my system. The results showed that my brand new installation of Windows had earned a 73% score, and that it had to detected 17 registry errors and a problem with Windows Update (this was unlikely, as I had already enabled Windows Update and Automatic Updates before I made the support call, and had installed all available security patches).

Krebs is hardly alone. ITworld Thank You for Not Sharing blogger Dan Tynan reports that an iYogi tech tried to convince him his computer was riddled with rogue programs that were damaging his computer, when they were merely standard Windows processes and other programs running in the background.

Things really started to get funky when he launched Windows Task Manager, showed me the applications I had running (5), then the processes currently active (52), and tried to convince me that I had somehow "picked up" the extra processes by going out onto the Internet unprotected.

Are you trying to tell me I've got 47 pieces of malware running on my system at the moment? I asked, trying to restrain my incredulity. No, he said, not malware. But he continued to insist I had picked them up somewhere on the Internet, despite my attempts to point out that Windows would stop running if I halted most of these services.

After Krebs' article appeared, Avast "suspended" its use of iYogi's services, pending improvements. Having been exposed to the harsh light of the Webbernets, iYogi is now using the rogue salesperson defense, claiming this was the work of a few "overzealous" sales/techs who succumbed to the lure of sales commissions.

The problem with that argument is iYogi has been "overzealous" for years, but a fair amount of time and energy went into trying to cover it up. Google "iYogi," and once you get past the dozens of links that drive you directly to iYogi (or one of its sister sites and/or astroturf blogs), you'll find similar complaints stretching back at least two years.

iYogi is now claiming it is mending its ways. Exactly how remains to be seen, but I have some advice for the company:

  1. If you're serious about changing aggressive sales tactics, separate your tech support staff and your sales staff. A techie should never be paid a commission for finding things wrong.
  2. Be upfront about what you charge at the beginning of the call and not the end. Convince us you're worth the money by providing real service and not just a sales pitch.
  3. Most important: Stop lying to people about what's wrong with their computers. In my experience, it's the rare computer that doesn't have some kind of problem. If your service is really that good and that necessary, there's no need to make stuff up.

Have you had an experience -- good, bad, or indifferent -- with iYogi or other remote support companies? Share your tales below or email me:

This article, "Tech support or extortion? You be the judge," was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

This story, "Tech Support or Extortion?" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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