My husband and I are vying for the Doofus of the Year award. We both got caught up in computer scams. In my case, I was trying to load the newest edition of Microsoft Office, and it just wasn’t working. I searched for a Microsoft help site, and there it was – TA-DA – glowing like a heavenly beacon on my screen: Help for Loading Microsoft Office. I called the number (bad choice – red flag #1) and was connected to a pleasant-sounding man with a heavy foreign accent (possibly a foreign sweat shop? – red flag #2) who said he would take care of loading it for me (red flag #3). First, he would remotely control my computer (giant red flag #4), and as soon as he did, he said there was a multitude of viruses on my computer that needed to be fixed (red flag #5). Fortunately, something went off in my head, the bulls started charging the red flags, and I hung up and turned off my computer. I immediately unplugged and rushed to my trusted computer doctor. Yes, I did indeed now have a bevy of viral beauties.
My husband’s shining example started with two emails suggesting that he had problems with Microsoft Office 365. He asked for help from a friend who told him to change his passwords and not to click on any links in those emails but to go to another site. He had trouble finding what he needed, so he clicked on a link that told him to enter his name and phone number. He immediately received “the phone call” (ominous music playing in the background), and the caller wanted to access his computer remotely. (NEVER EVER LET THAT HAPPEN, folks!) Same scenario: all of a sudden the caller “realizes” that my husband’s computer is infected, and that not only can he repair it, but he has a service that will protect up to three computers for three years for a mere $500. “Too much!” my husband protests. Okay, he then has a special deal that covers one computer for $300. Hesitance, then acceptance. All he has to do is leave his computer on for 90 minutes, and he will be completely protected. He comes down to tell me what has happened, and I give a very polite gasp. TURN OFF AND UNPLUG IMMEDIATELY. So, we cancel the credit card number, dispute the charge and rush again to our trusted computer guru, who gives a chuckle every time we walk in the door and suggests we put him on retainer.
So, you vote – who wins the Doofus of the Year? I hope we will not be in the running in the next year, but the truth is that there are so many scammers out there, and it is hard to keep your guard up 24/7. Hurricane Harvey has just pummeled Texas, and already the warnings are out for the scammers who purportedly want to do repair work and for the dishonest charities soliciting funds to help. Every day we get several robo phone calls all popping up with city names for caller ID; they are easy to ignore. But lately, they have gotten more sophisticated in that they use our area code and local prefixes for the number. I don’t know all my friends’ phone numbers, so I feel I have to answer. Our local paper has headlined articles the past few days about a group of young people aged 19 to 37 who have been charged with hundreds of counts of wire fraud targeting the elderly.
The FBI has lists of common schemes that may have affected people we know or that have been proposed to us. Fraudulent reverse mortgage schemes steal equity that people have built up in their homes. There are counterfeit prescription drugs on the market that are not only illegal, but may be harmful. Ponzi and pyramid schemes abound to bilk investors out of their hard-earned dollars. We all would like to think that we are immune or too savvy to have that happen to us, so there are habits we can develop that will prevent such attacks.
- If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Nothing is free. Free trial offers or free vacations almost always have expensive strings attached to them.
- Take a time out. Ask for the name of the company that is offering you services and then tell them that you want to do some research on them. If they’re legitimate, they won’t balk. Then get online and do some reading or talk to an expert.
- Caller ID can fool you. If it looks like a local call, it might not be. Hang up on robo calls.
- Be wary of pop-ups on your computer screen and phone calls that tell you your computer is infected. Find a computer expert that you can trust so that you have someone to ask about oddities regarding your computer. Keep security and virus programs up to date.
- The Federal Trade Commission at consumer.ftc.gov/scam-alerts runs an updated list of scam alerts that are worth checking occasionally. You can also sign up to have tips and advice sent directly to your email address.
It is embarrassing to get scammed. You feel foolish and violated. In these times, scams are abundant, so be aware, educate yourself, and ask for help and advice before making monetary expenditures. Good luck!
Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.