Microsoft settles £200,000+ claims against tech support scammers who ran global ripoff from cottage in Surrey

Bare-faced cheek of Barewire using our trademarks, say Redmond legal eagles

A multinational tech support scam was operated out of a rural Surrey cottage for years before its Indian call centre was rumbled and gave the game away to Microsoft, the High Court has heard.

Redmond has settled a £200,000+ claim against Barewire Ltd and its directors, Neil Purnell and Toni Whittingham, after accusing them of offering "sham technical support services" that abused Microsoft's trademarked logos to pass as a genuine, legitimate enterprise.

The amount of the actual settlement is not known , although Microsoft described it as "significant."

"Members of the public have contacted Microsoft on hundreds of occasions making allegations that Barewire has engaged in deceptive business practices in connection with the supply of sham technical support services," said Microsoft in particulars of claim [PDF] filed with the High Court in December 2020, following a scam that it alleged had been running for most of the 2010s.

While tech support scam takedowns are relatively common in the US, often with the help of law enforcement agencies, it is unusual to see a case filed privately in the UK – and even more unusual to see the claim that an alleged multinational scam operation was allegedly headquartered in a rural Surrey cottage near sleepy Dorking.

A Microsoft spokeswoman told The Register: "Following court action against Barewire Ltd and its directors, the company has admitted liability for trademark infringement and passing-off arising from its involvement with third parties, is injuncted from any further infringement and shall pay a significant sum in damages and costs."

The claims against Purnell and Whittingham personally were also settled, the Microsoft added.

Barewire, so the US tech titan said, was at the heart of a worldwide scam operation that employed a call centre in India to handle "tech support" queries generated from pop-up ads. Those ads urged users to contact "Microsoft" tech support to fix some imaginary fault with their devices. In reality they were speaking to scammers. Once reeled in, the victims were then persuaded to pay sums of money between $199 and $2,000 to Barewire.

Some victims who later complained to Microsoft said they had received an "authorisation agreement" with Barewire's residential Surrey address on its letterhead (the firm has since moved its registered address to business premises in the town.)

The US company told the High Court:

Instrumental to the success of Barewire's technical support scam is the deceptive impression created by Barewire or its authorised agents in banner advertising and orally, the effect of which is to lead consumers into believing that their sham technical support services are provided, authorised or licensed by, or connected in the course of trade with, Microsoft.

The Indian call centre, operated by Czone Solutions Inc in that country, was spotted by Microsoft after "hundreds" of people complained. Somebody linked to Czone called Rajat Matta gave a document to an Indian court stating Czone was Barewire's "outsourced partner providing the following services: Sales … Customer technical support … Customer services." This document was said to have been signed by "Neil Purnell – Director, Barewire Ltd".

In the course of drumming up business Barewire unlawfully used copyrighted Microsoft logos without permission, thundered Redmond's UK legal eagles, who said that Barewire's actions were "committed flagrantly and/or with contumelious* disregard for Microsoft's rights and in circumstances where they knew or had reason to believe that such acts were infringements."

Solicitors for Barewire, Purnell, and Whittingham did not respond to The Register's request for comment. A mobile phone number which Microsoft alleged in its pleadings belonged to Purnell went to voicemail when El Reg called; no response has yet been received.

Microsoft claimed that in a letter sent to its lawyers in June 2020, Barewire and its directors had blamed "our competitors [for] misrepresenting themselves as Barewire Ltd in an attempt to extract further payment and discredit us."

Barewire's UK website displayed an "under maintenance" graphic earlier today, along with the cheery message "coming back soon". Its dot-US domain failed to load when The Register attempted to visit it. ®


* "archaic; (of behaviour) scornful and insulting; insolent." So says the Lexico online dictionary, which boasts of being "powered by Oxford."

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