I make regular forays into the countryside where I am relearning to ride horses after a 30-year sabbatical. There’s a sign I regularly see set out by the side of a rural road. Whoever owns the sign changes the message often, and when 2016 rang in several weeks ago, it said, “KEEP CALM ITS A NEW YEAR.”
If only “its” had an apostrophe.
Better yet, if only I had followed that advice when, while recently working away on my computer, a fearsome message came up on my screen. Now when I say it “came up” on the screen, what I really mean is that it covered the entire screen, hiding my work from view.
Along with the message was an urgent female voice coming through the speaker of my computer. The voice fairly shrieked at me to pay attention to the message on my screen which insisted that my computer was about to go up in a ball of technological smoke if I didn’t call the telephone number at the bottom of the message.
Yep, I know what you’re thinking. Uh oh.
So let’s just say I wasn’t thinking, much less being calm.
Sure, it occurred to me that the message might be bogus, but the woman’s grating voice was working on me and then, when I clicked my arrow on the tiny X box in the top right-hand corner of the message – thinking I could make this all go away (much like hoping the car’s ENGINE MAINTENANCE light might simply go away) - nothing happened.
I tried again. Nothing. And again. Nada.
So I did the worst thing I could do - I fell for something in the computer world called “scareware” – and I called the number at the bottom of the message.
A man introduced himself as “Mr. Daughtery;” he said he was working in Florida with such-and-such a company, which was somehow associated with Microsoft. I asked him how I could know he was legit and he responded by saying that his accent was not a foreign one. Then he said he could figure out what was wrong with my computer and fix it if I would let him “into” it, which I did, and if I would whip out my credit card and pay a significant amount of money, which I did.
Now normally I’m not such a pushover, but I do tend to trust people. I’m also not a computer expert; I have no idea how they work, just that they do. So, given those two things, “Mr. Daughtery” was, as I later found out, literally able to scare me into doing something because he made me feel like I was clueless, up against a wall, without a way to get my work done, and close to a computer meltdown.
An hour later, and with the help of a much younger neighbor who knows about these things, I was able to cancel my payment, protect my computer from further intrusions, and get on with my work.
I remained, however, shaken by the event; angry for having been taken advantage of and for having allowed myself to be taken advantage of.
So being curious as to what had happened, I talked with Csilla Farkas, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of South Carolina. She said that I had likely been a “victim” of something called “scareware.”
Look the word up on the Internet and you’ll find a lot of information about it. One article said this: “As its name implies, scareware is a form of malware that thrives on frightening people into using it. Usually backed by extremely shady and highly unethical marketing practices, scareware attempts to convince consumers that something terrible will happen unless they begin to use the product the person behind the software is peddling.”
So, what to look out for?
Farkas said “anything” that pops up on a computer and demands “immediate action” is a red flag. As are “non-clickable icons,” like the useless X box I clicked on.
Use “common sense,” she said, noting that if you were in a department store, admiring a scarf, and a salesperson came up to you and said if you didn’t buy it today it would be gone tomorrow, would you buy it?
Of course not.
Rather, I would do as the countryside sign says. I would KEEP CALM.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.