One would think that an economist who teaches math, including one math class that teaches the statistical program SPSS, would be very knowledgeable about how computers work. Alas, that is not actually the case. While I use computer programs to do my research, and write SAS and Fortran programs to do so, the actual workings of the computers that I depend on are still quite a mystery to me. My father was an electrical engineer, and therefore had more of a sense of how these mysterious boxes turned what are basically “on” and “off” switches into the tools that make my life possible. I, however, went to college in the final years before the personal computer became a fixture in our homes, and had very little education as to how they work. Much of my early research was done on mainframes (either locally or remotely), and I still find myself with a sense of ignorance about personal computers.
It is this ignorance that allowed me to feel threatened this past week when I received a call telling me that my computer had been infected by a virus and that I was therefore being offered an opportunity to have it scanned for that virus for free. This opportunity was only applicable if I said yes during the initial phone call. I said no and hung up, but I wanted to make others aware of the call. I have a neighbor who has received similar calls, and she also hangs up.
I became suspicious immediately, although I continued to talk to the caller for a moment, thinking that perhaps this was somewhat legitimate since they had used my own name, a name that was not accessible by any phone records that would link me to the phone number they were calling on, which is in my husband’s name alone. However, it quickly became clear that this was not a legitimate call, and I even laughed when I asked to speak to the caller’s supervisor and was re-connected to the initial caller himself. When I asked him which computer was infected, he said “the Windows computer.” Now how did he know I had a computer with Windows on it, I chuckled!
However, the more I protested, the more he pressured me, telling me that they suspected my computer of being used to commit cyber crime. I hung up, but only after spending a few minutes worrying about what was happening to the tool on which so much of my livelihood depends. Disturbed by the call, I called a local electronics store for the phone numbers to Microsoft, so I could contact them directly using a number I trusted. They assured me that the phone calls were not from Microsoft, and that the only way Microsoft would know if my computer was sending error messages was if I myself had requested those messages be sent. Further, the caller was from a number that was not an 800 number, and one person I spoke to said that the number did not actually exist. I could not, then, call the initial caller back, even if I had decided to do so.
I am glad that I was able to avoid granting access to my computer to some unknown person who called me out of the blue. However, I am wondering if anyone else has received such calls, and if so, what problems they might have lead to. I have already decided that if I should receive such a call again, I will simply tell them that I don’t own a computer. I teach my daughter not to lie- would I be forgiven for doing that?