Tag Archives: technical support

A Call from Windows

I got a call from “Windows” the other day. My computer, you see, had reported errors to Windows, and they wanted to help me get rid of them.

First of all, let me point out a couple of essential problems with this scam. For one, “Windows” is not a legitimate company; Windows is a piece of software. Windows calling me to tell about a problem with my computer is like “Beetle” calling me to tell me about a problem with my Volkswagen. They didn’t say that their call was about Windows (which would have been correct, to a point), they said that they were Windows. Secondly, should I have accepted that Windows was a legitimate company, why would Windows have known that my computer had errors? They addressed this by saying that my computer was “reporting” errors to them. But why? Even if Windows (or anyone else) had indeed set up a massive surveillance system to know how well my computer was working at any given time, why would they bother calling me to help me get rid of the errors? They would have no motivation to do so. I did not pay Windows to repair my computer or to protect it from viruses. If I’m like most people, I didn’t even choose to buy a copy of Windows, much less enter into an agreement with Windows to maintain the well-being of my computer – my computer just came with it installed. It costs a lot of money to call people and help them fix their computers when they not only didn’t do anything to deserve it but didn’t even ask for help.

No, to anyone who pauses to think about it – even someone who is unfamiliar with computers, unfamiliar with this particular scam, and does not know that Windows is not a company – the premise simply makes no sense. Why would one of the world’s largest software companies make an unsolicited telephone call to help you? No, of course this is fraud on a massive scale. Evidently there are a number of operations like this, but, no matter what, their goal is to cheat you out of your money.

So the call was handed off to me by another member of the household. (I’d stated previously that if we ever got one of these, I wanted to take it. This had been forgotten, but the call was passed on to me anyway because it was technical in nature.) The person, who had a strong Indian accent and told me he was “calling from Windows,” explained that my computer was reporting many errors that were somehow related to a problem with viruses, then asked me if I could turn my computer on. He didn’t explain that he was going to help me solve the issue, provide further confirmation of who they were, or anything else; he just asked, as if it was completely normal for strangers to call out of the blue and ask people to turn their computers on and start following instructions. Being an apparently agreeable person, I stepped over to the desk and pretended to punch the power button, complete with leaning-over-under-the-desk sounds, then quickly went over to my actual computer, googled the Windows 7 startup sound, and played it loudly. (The computer was booted into Linux at the time.)

The guy then proceeded to have me open the Windows Event Viewer and filter the display to show me all the errors. (Of course it’s quite common to get some type of “error” logged in the event logs, which store practically everything that happens on the computer, even errors that aren’t important enough to indicate to the user. One common “warning” indicates that Windows hasn’t been able to synchronize the clock for one day, perhaps because the computer was switched off at the time.) I wasn’t actually displaying the errors, though, because I wasn’t even running Windows on the computer. In order to sound believable, I just played dumb and repeated the guy’s instructions and said “okay” a lot. And, of course, I delayed things on purpose, since my goal was to waste some time.

After I said that I saw all the errors, he told me, “It’s eating your computer, sir, day by day.” He then immediately told me to “open Internet Explorer” and browse to a website; apparently I had been compliant enough that he didn’t try to convince me further that there was something wrong. I chose to pretend I didn’t suspect anything and follow the next set of instructions. He had me go to the website of a legitimate remote-access software product, then told me to click on a link that wasn’t there. I told him it wasn’t there (and it legitimately wasn’t – I wasn’t even making it up). We spent the next five minutes repeatedly spelling and retyping the URL, even though I said the page matched the descriptions he was giving. When that didn’t work, he transferred me to another guy who had me try the same thing again, then transferred me again to someone who had me try a different piece of software.

The attempt to use this second piece of software gave rise to a farce where my computer displayed a thirteen-digit passcode and I was supposed to read it to him. (Before doing so, I unchecked the box that read “Grant Full Control” and put my finger near the power switch in case they connected and could actually do something on the computer.) I read it wrong, several times, then read it right. But it didn’t end there: I had to read it loudly and clearly at least ten more times (correctly) before the guy heard it right. At this point I pulled up several terminal windows full-screen and typed “cat /dev/urandom” in each, causing the screens to fill with random scrolling characters, which I suspected would confuse whoever connected. He never actually managed to get the software to work, though, even after he finally read the passcode back to me correctly.

I was transferred again and told we would try “one more thing.” “We” went to yet another website and tried yet another software package. This time it downloaded correctly, but it was a Windows executable and wouldn’t have run on my machine. I said something like, “Uh, weird things are happening,” then power cycled the machine and said, “Oh, my computer rebooted by itself.” He sounded somewhat flustered, but bought it and sat waiting for my system to reboot.

Throughout all the people I was transferred to, I was asked several times how old my computer was. I responded “a couple of years,” and was met with “okay”s and “huh”s every time. I don’t know what the point was; if I had been thinking faster, I might have given several different responses to try to find out (assuming they wouldn’t be recording the response).

I’m not sure what I was planning to do next, but I think I probably would have “caught on” and tried a bunch of objections to see how much it would take to get them off the phone, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to do that, because the machine legitimately wouldn’t boot: my punching of the power switch had, by some fluke of improbability, corrupted the hard disk to the point where it wouldn’t start. After it became clear that retrying wasn’t going to do the trick, I hung up on him, somewhat disappointed but still amazed that I had managed to keep them on the phone for 32 minutes while not even having a Windows computer in front of me. After about thirty seconds, they called back four times consecutively: I would let the phone ring for a moment, press “talk,” then immediately press “end” and hang up the phone to terminate the call, and seconds later the phone would ring again. Finally I said, “Listen, I can’t talk right now, okay?” and hung up again as I heard someone saying, “Hello?” (Evidently the computer was dialing and then trying to connect me.) They haven’t called back since; I don’t know if they figured out I wasn’t going to talk to them anymore or just decided there was a problem with the phone.

The hard drive was fine; I just had to boot off a diagnostic CD and run a disk check. I don’t know what they would have done if they’d managed to connect, but I suspect they would have tried to install some malware or some sort of backdoor, or perhaps purposefully broken the computer so that I would have had to pay them to fix it.

This was a big operation. You could hear the call center noise in the background, and there were managers they went and talked to when something didn’t work correctly. The fact that such a relatively illogical scam can work is attributable to only one thing: people are scared about having their computers not work, and they’re scared of “viruses,” even though viruses as such are practically extinct in modern times. While the premise of the scam is ridiculous if you pause to consider, or at least odd enough to make you wonder what’s going on, the idea that your computer is going to stop working if you don’t let “Windows” (or “your IT department” or whatever) work with you is scary enough that enough people evidently play along and pay these guys enough money to make it a profitable scam.

So, if you get a call from “Windows,” or an unsolicited call from anyone who claims they want to help you, think twice about what’s going on. If it sounds legitimate, hang up, look up the number on the actual company or organization’s website, and call them back and ask (while you’re on the Internet, you could also google it and see if it’s a known scam). Callbacks aren’t foolproof (really determined people can forward the legitimate phone line to theirs, for instance, or the number can be changed on the reference page where it’s listed), but if the scammers are just pulling a dragnet looking for the most gullible people, they’re not going to bother. Caller ID, while useful, is not a shortcut for this: it’s ridiculously easy to spoof caller ID, and nobody doing something illegal like this will display their actual phone number.

And if you get a chance, turn around and mess with them a little bit. It probably won’t do anything significant, but it’s much more fun that way! If you get a good story, share it with me in the comments.

Ars Technica also had an article about this or a similar scam some time ago.

Six Things Not To Do When Asking for Computer Help

I often work as an unofficial technical support representative—it’s pretty much an unavoidable result of learning something about computers. Tech support is just inherently frustrating, but the way people act when they ask me for help, more than anything else, can make the difference between whether I’m happy or annoyed at the end of a call or work session. Here are six things that people ask me or do that get me frustrated really fast. Some of them are things that just plain tick me off; others are things that not everybody would necessarily know but that still get annoying when people don’t know them.

This is drawn mostly from personal experience, but most if not all of these things annoy almost everybody.

I’m not intending to offend, make fun of, or complain about anyone with this post. If you’ve done anything on this list, it’s not your fault! You almost certainly just didn’t know it was liable to annoy somebody. My purpose here is to help people know some of the things that tend to annoy their more technical friends so as to help them avoid doing it in the future.

My intent is also not to sound like I’m being constantly wronged; reading my whole article through, I realize it might sound a bit like that’s what I think. I don’t; in fact, my main purpose in writing this article was not hoping that I’ll get these questions less often as a result (I know better than to expect that) but helping people avoid annoying the people they ask for help.

6: “Is this going to harm my computer?”

Do you think that I would tell you to do it if I knew that it would? Because that’s basically what you’re asking me here.

How to Avoid It: If you want to ask clarification questions about what effect an action is going to have or why I want to do it, I’m perfectly fine with that. I always explain what I’m doing before I start actually making any changes to a computer. But I’m aware that sometimes my investigation, which does not change the computer at all, appears to be messing everything up from the eyes of a less technically proficient user. So by all means, don’t have any qualms about asking what’s going on or what I’m planning to change, just don’t ask me if it’s “going to harm the computer.”

5: “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

How to Avoid It: Do you really have to ask this? This question makes me doubt whether you’ve made a good move in picking me to work on your computer. If you don’t trust me, then that’s fine, but please ask someone else to fix your computer in that case.
If you just don’t understand what’s going on, feel free to ask questions about that; see #6. But asking if I’m sure I know what I’m doing isn’t a good way to ask—it’s not specific, does not express what you’re actually feeling, and comes off to me as rude.

4: “I have a problem. My computer doesn’t work.”
I have a problem as well. My problem is that I don’t know what your problem is, but I know you want help from me. This doesn’t seem that bad on the surface, but once people start asking you for help on a regular basis, this starts to get old really fast.

How to Avoid It: If you have a problem that you want me to help you with, please start by telling me what the problem is—not saying “I have a problem” and waiting for me to say, “Okay, what is it?” A sample question would be, “Hey Soren, I’ve been having trouble printing lately. Could you help me figure it out?” (If you’re writing an email, it would be nice to include any other information you know as well, like “it started happening right after I updated Microsoft Office.” If I have the chance to respond right back to you in person or over the phone, that’s not important.)

3: “What was the error?” / “I forget.”
Hey, guess what I forgot? The solution to your problem.

How to Avoid It: If there’s ever an error on your computer, the message you get is where you want to start solving the problem. A well-written error message can make the difference between having the problem fixed in a minute and searching and fiddling around for several hours. (Oh boy, have I been there: I once even got an error message that said Error: No Error.) If you don’t have the error message, I’m going to have a really hard time figuring out what the problem is. This isn’t a problem if you can make the error happen again, but frequently people can’t reproduce the problem, and they’re wasting both their time and mine.

The simplest way to avoid this problem is to write down the error message and include it in an email or have it ready if I need it. Or just know what steps you need to take to make the error come up again. If you have to say, “Hold on, let me bring it up,” that makes me feel like you’ve been doing your homework; if you say, “I forget,” that makes me think, “Now I have to spend an extra five minutes on this.”

2: “Okay, now what happened?” / “Nothing.”
This scene, or something like it, happens to me on a regular basis:
Me: “Type ‘nohup anki’ and press Enter.”
User: “Okay.”
Me: “What happened?”
User: “Nothing.”
Me: “Hmm, that’s odd.”
(I ponder for a couple of minutes and run another Google search.)
Me: “What happens if you run ‘anki’?”
User: “The same thing that happened before.”
Me: “Which was?”
User: [what I was hoping for in the first place when I asked what happened]

How to Avoid It: If anything happened when you clicked the mouse button or pressed Enter, that qualifies as “something.” The response “nothing happened” does not mean “I don’t understand the message I got” or even “I ended up back where I was before.” To me, anyway, it means that you pushed the button and no pixel on the screen changed (which could happen, but typically doesn’t).

I can do my part for this, too—I try to avoid asking “What happened?”, instead saying, “Did [x] happen?” But sometimes I’m don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, and sometimes I just forget.

1: “What program are you using?” / “Microsoft.” (or even worse, “Adobe”)
Microsoft is not a piece of software, or even a piece of hardware (nor is Adobe). It is a company. (It may be a software company, but that doesn’t help much; being a logical person, I would not need to ask to conclude that the software you’re using was made by a company that makes software.)

For the purposes of solving a problem, “Microsoft” is a word almost completely devoid of useful information. It could refer to one of probably over a hundred products. And plenty of those are liable to be used: Windows, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, the Windows Live apps…the list goes on. And that’s not including the hardware: the Xbox, mice, Kinect…

Referring to your software as “Microsoft” is something like calling an auto supply store to request a part for your car and describing your car as a “Ford”.

How to Avoid It: “Microsoft” is never an acceptable name to refer to anything except the company itself. There is no piece of software called Microsoft, nor can I usually assume which Microsoft software you’re using. If you’re not sure what the software is actually called, please describe it (“I can type documents with it”) instead of calling it “Microsoft.”
And “Adobe” is even worse: we have Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Reader, Photoshop, InDesign…the same goes here.

0: “Are you hacking?”
This isn’t really about technical support, and it’s also number 7, but I get this question a lot. My typical internal response is, “Well, I will be hacking your head off if you keep asking me that.” (Of course, I never actually say that.)

The answer really depends on your definition of “hacking.” If you mean the typical popular culture definition of “breaking into computer systems,” then (generally ;-)) the answer is no. But in geek culture, hacking means a whole lot more: coming up with creative solutions to problems and the like. See here for the view of much of this community. * If you mean that, then frequently I am.

But nobody who asked me this question ever meant that, did they?

How to Avoid It: Suppose I came up to you and accused you of breaking the law because you were using a Mac instead of a PC. That’s roughly what it’s like to me when you ask me, “Are you hacking?” So please don’t do it. I’m just trying to work on my computer, and I happen to use different tools than most people do.

* If you notice, in order to avoid this ambiguity, I typically try to use the term “cracking” instead of “hacking” to mean attempts at defeating security systems.

Soren “scorchgeek” Bjornstad


If you have found an error or notable omission in this tip, please leave a comment or email me: webmaster@thetechnicalgeekery.com.

Copyright 2012 Soren Bjornstad.
Verbatim copying and redistribution of part or all of this article
is permitted, provided this notice is preserved.

Five Really Cool Chrome (and Firefox) Extensions

In my opinion, one of the best things about Google’s Chrome browser is the excellent selection of browser extensions. In the past, Firefox has taken the title for largest selection of extensions, but recently I’m seeing more and more really good Chrome extensions. Since two of these extensions are available for Firefox as well, I’ll give you links for those versions too.

Here are five of my favorite extensions.
1: AutoPager (Chrome and Firefox)
Have a favorite site that likes to split articles over five different pages, requiring you to click the Next link every time you get to the bottom of the (usually about two paragraphs long) page? AutoPager automatically loads the next page once you begin to reach the bottom of the page you’re currently on, then tacks it onto the end of the page you have.

It does require a “rule” for each page, but most popular sites have rules uploaded by users, and if you really want it to work with a site that doesn’t have a rule, you can always write one yourself.

2: Better Omnibox (Chrome only)
The “omnibox” is the improved address bar in Chrome that can be used to load websites by typing just the first couple of letters, search the web, and search websites (type the first couple of letters of the site you want to search, then press Tab). Better Omnibox extends this to allow you to search your history and bookmarks as well by simply pressing #, then entering your search terms. Searching history and/or bookmarks always used to be a painful process, requiring opening up the history page or bookmarks manager, and it never seemed to work quite right for me. With this extension, finding a page I visited yesterday is as easy as it could possibly be.

3: Chrome Remote Desktop (Beta) (Chrome only, obviously)
This extension is just what it sounds like–you can access another computer remotely. You need a person sitting at the computer you want to access, who clicks the Share button and receives a code and sends it to you; you simply type the code in and are on your way.
As a makeshift tech support representative for quite a few people, this extension comes in handy occasionally. Trying to write a script for somebody over the phone (or worse, Facebook chat with a slow typist, as it was last time this happened) is more frustrating than you can possibly believe until you’ve tried it. After I finally thought about this extension, the problem was fixed in under five minutes.
Also nice is the fact that this extension is completely cross-platform: you can access a Mac from a Windows PC, a Linux PC from a Mac, or even a Windows PC from a Chromebook. It’s supposedly still in beta, but I’ve never had a problem with it.
4: Visual Hashing (Chrome and Firefox)
This handy extension changes the white background of password fields to four colored bars which change as you type your password. Each set of colors is the result of a mathematical calculation based on the password you type, but there is no way to derive the password from the bars, so this won’t help anyone watching you figure out your password. On the other hand, once you‘ve typed your password and watched the pretty colors a few times, you’ll notice that the colors don’t look right and realize you’ve mistyped it before you hit Enter and wait fifteen seconds for the site to reload and make you type everything in again.




5: Chrome Daltonize (Chrome and sort of Firefox)
This extension is a bit more obscure, but it’s still interesting. Its purpose is to filter the colors in images that appear in web pages. It can either simulate colorblindness or perform the Daltonization technique, which creates more contrast and makes it easier for people who are colorblind to differentiate the colors in the image. This extension is probably a bit more useful for me, since I actually am colorblind and occasionally have difficulty with fancy graphs and maps on the Internet, but most of the people with normal color vision to whom I’ve showed the simulation have thought it was pretty cool too, so it might be fun to play with anyway.


Chrome configuration
Once you’ve installed the extension, right-click on the little color wheel that appears on the toolbar and choose Options. Chances are fairly good the default settings aren’t what you want. You can either choose to Daltonize or Simulate any of the three main types of colorblindness; if you actually are colorblind, you probably want to choose the one that corresponds to the type you have. (If you’re not sure, check out the handy test at http://www.colour-blindness.com/colour-blindness-tests/colour-arrangement-test/.) If you’re just playing around, you might want to try each of the settings in turn.


Once you’re done with the settings, close the tab, browse to the page you want to try the extension on, and click the color wheel button.


Firefox configuration
There is no native Firefox extension, but there are bookmarklets available at the download link. To use a bookmarklet, just drag the link to your bookmarks toolbar or menu, browse to the site you want to use it on, and click it. (It might take a second to work; be patient.) With the bookmarklets, you need to drag a different link depending on which settings you want; see the Chrome configuration section if you’re confused about what they are.


Firefox bookmarklets: http://daltonize.appspot.com/