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Roku setup, activation scam doesn't include cold calls, bogus links: What to know

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 3/31/2021 Susan Tompor, Detroit Free Press
graphical user interface, website: Roku + streaming devices are among the most popular selling items this holiday season. © Kevin Lynch Roku + streaming devices are among the most popular selling items this holiday season.

All she wanted to do was replace her old Roku device to stream movies and TV shows onto her new TV during the pandemic. If things worked out, she even hoped to use the setup to teach remote classes at a local community college.

Instead, Maureen McDonald ended up dishing out $189.99 to scam operators.

The Roku scam is as nasty as they come and one that many consumers, including me, never heard about or paid much attention to in the past. Yet as streaming services grew in popularity during the pandemic, scammers upped their game. 

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Nobody called or texted McDonald out of the blue to threaten or sell anything.

We know better than to be scared by those who claim that they're from the Internal Revenue Service or demand gift cards now to help a friend or grandchild in trouble.

We know to hang up when someone says we need to call Amazon customer support, for example, about a $350 phone that we never ordered. 

Instead, McDonald was trying to set up her new Roku device and all of a sudden a message flashed on the television screen to tell her to call this 800 number for help activating the device. 

"For help, call this number — and that's what I called," said the Southfield resident. "It looked normal; it did." 

"I call up and then there's this guy David." 

David built some level of trust by being pleasant and guiding her on what to do next to set things up.

"The guy was actually kind of helpful," McDonald said. 

So when he offered a lifetime full service plan for about $190 she signed up, paid him with a debit card and didn't think much of it. She thought she was buying a lifetime of software support and digital services. 

Sure, the so-called service was more than twice the price of the device, which she bought for $80. (Her Roku device had an Ethernet port, which connects to a home network and the Internet via wired cable.)

And she didn't check the service out. She just thought it might help her in the long run.  

"In the pandemic, streaming was my favorite companion," she said.

McDonald, a freelance journalist, kind of sneered at TV most of her life. But she says things changed during the isolation that many felt as part of the social distancing measures during the fight against COVID-19.

She's been watching the last season of "Madam Secretary" on Netflix and "Father Brown" on BritBox. 

a person standing next to a tree: Maureen McDonald ended up dishing out $189.99 to scam operators who pretended to offer a lifetime service that include a fee for activation of her new Roku device and technical support. © Maureen McDonald Maureen McDonald ended up dishing out $189.99 to scam operators who pretended to offer a lifetime service that include a fee for activation of her new Roku device and technical support.

"In the midst of the pandemic in the winter, you get a lot more dependent on TV than you used to be," said McDonald, 71. 

She might not have even realized that she was scammed but then David soon called again.

This time he told McDonald that if she didn't pay up again he would cut off her service. A lifetime plan turned into something more like just a couple of months. How could that be real? 

And then she started to rethink the whole thing from the start.

"It wasn't until the guy called again and threatened me," McDonald said. "He didn't even wait a year." 

McDonald did not hand over any more money. Instead, she told the caller: "But I paid for the policy that will be good for life."

She exchanged a few words, hung up and then began to wonder if the first deal was a scam.

Turns out it was. 

The Better Business Bureau told me that it has received a couple reports of Roku tech support scams, one where a customer reported losing $200. 

"It sounds very similar to a tech support scam to me," warned Laura Blankenship, chief of staff and director of marketing for the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan & the Upper Peninsula.

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A few years back, the Better Business Bureau issued a warning about what it called a Roku activation fee scheme and cautioned that "even smart televisions can be compromised by tech savvy schemes."

Last May, the BBB reported that consumers in 25 states alleged that a tech company charged unnecessary fees to activate Roku devices. 

"Customers stated that they were subsequently charged an unnecessary activation fee ranging from $79.99 to $249.99 and were led to believe that this fee was required to enable their Roku device," according to the BBB. It wasn't. 

The alert said that consumers attempting to activate their Roku streaming devices and Roku-enabled smart televisions saw an error message and then were directed to call a company called CaliGeeks Inc.

Elsewhere, consumers reported that they were scammed after they went online to register their Roku device. 

Instead of clicking on the legit Roku website, they clicked on a website not affiliated with Roku that offered to help set up the device. When they put the activation code in, they got a notice of an error with a number to call. Then the consumer was asked to pay an activation fee, even though Roku doesn't charge any such fee. 

A Roku spokeswoman did not answer specific questions about the scam, but offered this statement via email: "At Roku we work hard to make device setup simple and easy. We recently transitioned to email activation enabling consumers to talk to us directly and to get their device connected and streaming in just minutes." 

Roku does not charge for account activation and device setup, the company said, and only Roku is authorized to help Roku customers.

"We’ve taken several efforts to combat customer support imposters, including messaging more to our customers across packaging, the Quick Start Guide in the box, on-device screens and on our website — and we are working with government authorities to put these fraud operations out of business," according to the Roku spokeswoman. 

“We’re incredibly sorry to hear about our customers having experiences with customer support imposters and we’ve reached out to this customer to better understand their experience and see how we can help.”

The Roku website lists very specific information about such scams and this warning: "Roku does not require an activation fee, registration fee, or charge for support of any kind." 

Some tips from the Roku site:

  • If a website reports that your activation code failed, do not call their "support phone number" for help. They are only looking to charge your credit card for activation which is not necessary.
  • Do not pay for a monthly or annual subscription with the promise of help with wireless network issues, remote control problems, or other technical issues. You will likely never get to use your subscription as most scammers pack up and close shop before you get the assistance you need.
  • Watch out for scammers who try to take control of your Roku device. Beware of scammers who try and activate your Roku device using their own Roku account. If successful, they can disable your Roku device at any time and demand credit card payment for reactivation. Always activate your Roku device yourself using your own valid email address and a strong, secure password.

If you end up getting caught by one of these scams, the BBB recommends:

  • File a complaint with your credit card company and ask to have any associated charges reversed. 
  • Check your bank and credit card statements for any signs of fraudulent activity. 
  • Remove any software that this company may have installed on your computer, and change any passwords for programs used on your computer that was accessed by this company.
  • Change the password on your Roku.com account.
  • Visit the Federal Trade Commission website and file a complaint about the experience. See FTC.gov. 
  • If you believe that you have interacted with a fraudulent site, email the Roku Customer Advocate at customer.advocate@roku.com to detail what happened.

Contact Susan Tompor via stompor@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @tompor. To subscribe, please go to freep.com/specialoffer. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Roku setup, activation scam doesn't include cold calls, bogus links: What to know

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