Technology: Tricks of the trade

Photo Credit: Illustration by Dave Cutler

Awhile back, I got a call on my landline phone from a pleasant-sounding fellow who claimed to be from Microsoft. He said that a problem with my computer had been detected over the internet and it was urgent that I let him fix it.

“Thanks, that is so nice of you,” I said. “What should I do? ”

He told me to go to my computer and click on my Google icon.

“Click on my what?”

“Your Google symbol. Do you see the Google symbol?”

“Uh, no, I don’t.”

“What do you see?”

“I see a picture of my wife and my kids and my dog and my cat,” I said.

“I need you to click on your Google symbol.”

 “I don’t see it,” I said. “Where is it?”

“It’s near the bottom of your screen.”

“Do you think it would be closer to my dog or my cat?”

Call me perverse, but I take great pleasure in painting a con artist into a corner. Especially when I know I have tricked one into believing that he (it’s almost always a he) has found an easy mark. In this case, I was stealing a page from my friend Tony, a fundraising whiz who delights in thwarting telemarketers by coaching them on their sales delivery. He’ll ask them to go through their pitch again, but this time do it slowly and with feeling.

The object of this game is to occupy a caller’s time until he gets so exasperated that he hangs up. Every minute a scammer spends being played is one less minute that he could be playing someone else.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy to avoid being scammed, and there are plenty of scammers at work. The Federal Trade Commission received more than 1.2 million fraud complaints on its Consumer Sentinel Network in 2015, and a comprehensive review of consumer financial fraud research since 1990 conducted at the Stanford University Center on Longevity found that consumer fraud is significantly underreported.

About three-quarters of those FTC complaints identified the telephone as the initial method of contact. If you haven’t yet received a call from someone saying you’re being sued by the IRS, you may want to make sure your phone is working properly.

My mother-in-law, who is 84, recently found an IRS warning message on her answering machine from a Mr. Gray, who left a phone number with a Washington, D.C., area code. A widow living alone on a farm in Wisconsin, she sleeps with one eye open, can spot a $3 bill a mile away, and does not hesitate to use her rifle to scare off any varmint who gets close to her tomatoes. But this message worried her enough that she thought it necessary to check in with my wife right away.

According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center – a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center – the tech-support scam is one of the most popular cyber frauds going. Typically the caller will identify a nonexistent problem and offer to repair it for a fee. A variation on that scheme involves the scammer calling to offer a refund for services rendered and getting the victim to log on to his bank account to process the transaction, possibly providing future access for electronic theft.

Phones are pretty much a level playing field – we all know how to hang up – but not so the internet. As the web enables us to see the other side of the world without leaving our homes, it also makes us visible to strangers at far greater distances and from many more angles than we once would have thought possible.

“Technology has definitely allowed con artists and scammers to get more sophisticated and therefore harder to spot,” says Kristin Keckeisen, a senior adviser for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. And she points out that some are able to hijack names, email addresses, and social media profiles of people you know or do business with.

Bob Becker, a member of the Rotary Club of Paw Paw Lake (Coloma Hartford Watervliet), Mich., says his Facebook activity is pretty much limited to keeping up with his family. So when one of his daughters received a request to become his friend, he knew something was amiss. “It was a pretty easy fix,” says Becker. “We solved it by changing my password. I think if you have half a noodle, you can tell what’s legitimate and what is not.”

Yes, but some of us may feel our noodles are getting a little past al dente.

Becker recently received an email with a link that appeared to be from a friend, but he sensed that something was not right with it. He emailed the friend asking if he had sent it and promptly received a reply saying that he had. But Becker was still wary, so he phoned him and learned that the email was bogus.

“I’m 75; if I were 76, I might have fallen for that,” he jokes, acknowledging the widely accepted notion that we older folks are more at risk of being scammed. But he also finds it plausible that younger people who take technology for granted may also be at risk, and research on the topic bears that out.

A 2014 AARP study concluded that behavior, personality, and state of mind are more determinative than age in predicting victims of online fraud. The study identified nine internet behaviors – among them clicking on pop-ups, opening email from unknown sources, and signing up for free offers – that make people more susceptible to fraud, especially when linked with four “life experiences”: loneliness, job loss, worry about debt, and negative change in financial status. Two other factors relate to lack of knowledge about the internet: mistakenly believing that a company or website’s privacy policy guarantees one’s privacy and not knowing that financial institutions do not send emails asking for personal information.

AARP fraud expert Keckeisen warns: “Never engage a stranger in a dialogue about your personal life, always ask more questions than you answer, and never make a decision about an investment or payment when you are overly excited. Wait at least a day after hearing a particularly enticing pitch before making a decision, and recognize that anything that seems too good to be true usually is. Any legitimate offer will not threaten you with a short time frame to act on it.”

I’ll go that advice one better. Even if it is a legitimate solicitation, do you really want to do business with someone who called you out of the blue? If a guy tells you there’s never been a better time to buy gold, you may want to ask why he’s selling it.

Avoiding scams all comes down to common sense and paying attention – following the kind of advice that you received from your parents and passed on to your own kids: e.g., never accept rides from strangers or invite people you don’t know into your house. Of course in our topsy-turvy technology-dependent modern way of life, those no-nos have become bedrock components of the sharing economy.

Says Becker: “Whether you’re 25 or 75, it behooves everyone to be very cautious.” Indeed.

The Rotarian