THE BLOG
01/06/2015 10:41 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2015

'Hack' Avoidance: A Cautionary Computer Tale

I once wrote a book entitled, How to Buy (& Survive) Your First Computer, which actually had a chapter called "Computer Disasters Are Not for You!". In other words, back in the computer dark ages I was something of a techie, a Systems Engineer with IBM. Of course in that bygone era of punched cards and tabulating machines, a computer disaster might have been a dropped box of cards. We couldn't do anything very exotic with these simple machines; the Internet and home computers were in no one's crystal ball, but neither was the worry of getting hacked. Computer disasters today are actually disastrous!

My son, who can text, surf and code with his eyes closed, has frequently scolded me about opening emails and clicking links. But the day after Christmas, I was lulled into a spirit of good will and unsuspiciousness when along came an email from a good friend. Watch this cute video of a cheerleader it said. "You won't believe what she can do!" I clicked. And with that one small movement I unleashed a torrent of terror (yes, terror). My very quiet computer erupted with sirens, honking horns, and a very stern woman's voice shouting that I had serious malware, viruses and malignancies on my computer! If I did not call the number flashing on my screen immediately, a disaster beyond my imagining would occur. And of course the computer was locked down and the screeching persisted. I called.

My first clue should have been that I got right into the "help desk" -- no waiting, no complicated phone tree such as every other computer service has. My second clue was that there were loud voices in the background, and in hindsight this could not have been a professional operation. I overlooked these clues, and pounced gratefully on the woman who was going to make the screeching and malignancies go away. My third clue should have been that she did not suggest hitting my mute button, something that would have occurred to anyone with a modicum of good sense, except her. (And me. )

But I wasn't completely trusting. I inquired about their company, and she replied that they were licensed by Microsoft to address security issues. She gave me their website name (CBRtechsolutions) and my husband looked it up on his computer. It appeared to be a working website which offered virus removal for any computer. Later we learned that the physical address listed belongs to another company. They also claimed to be a U.S.-based company with a "back office" in India, but when I actually read the content later, the marketing blurbs on their website did not appear to be written by a U.S. resident . Example: "Our Tech Support Reps have an experience with." And we found out that their phone number was registered in China.

My fourth clue should have been that she asked for remote access to my computer. I stalled; I asked my husband to call our son, and for the first time in a decade his phone was turned off. I was uneasy in the extreme, but desperation, panic, and a cursory look at their website made me believe they were legit. And to my everlasting shame, I let her on my computer. (This was the most humiliating thing I later had to confess to our son.) She shut off the sirens, she poked around and then showed me three possible viruses circled in red. "It's worse than I thought!" she said.

Then she asked me to give her my credit card number so I could pay for her tech guru to cure my computer. I broke out in a cold sweat and told her I had to leave town but would call her back. She was not happy. (Neither was I.)

Later that day, computer in hand we met our son and his family at a vacation home in the mountains. I told him the story and he shook his head in disbelief, muttering a very distressed (and disgusted) "Mom! Next time you are panicked and terrified, get a grip! Just hit mute and reboot the computer!"

He laid out the possibilities. In the space of the ten minutes they were on the computer, they could have stolen credit card info, bank account info, passwords and user names for everything I do online -- and they could have installed the very malware and viruses they were supposed to remove. My computer could now be part of a Zombie network, whatever that is. Truly chastened, I wrote down everything he said to do.

The cure ate our entire Christmas vacation. We have now pledged to never again let an "unknown" have remote access to our computer. We now know that when something intrusive arrives on your computer and demands that you call a certain number, this is the last place you should trust. Why wasn't all this obvious to me a few hours earlier?

Finally, we learned that all of this is known as a "Tech Support" scam. Evidently, these scams are on the rise, and normally involve a phone call from someone claiming to be a computer security specialist who has "reason to believe" you have malware on your computer. They ask for money and access to your computer. Don't do it!

The sound effects we experienced seem to be a new twist. I was a pioneer!

Next, Reversing Disaster, or How to Waste a Week. . .