On a recent, ordinary Tuesday, I was sitting at my desktop computer, about to check the weekly sales at my food market. Suddenly on my large computer monitor (great for my Zoom classes), multiple boxes appeared with frightening warnings:
“Don’t turn off your computer or you’ll lose all your data!”
“You’ve been hacked!”
“Call the Microsoft number on the bottom of the screen immediately!”
And, to make matters even scarier, there was a woman’s voice loudly repeating the above messages.
After many years depending on my computer, like most people, to be sure, I was frightened. And so I called the Microsoft number on the screen. (It turned out that the number, was the actual Microsoft number; just the area code was wrong. It was the area code and number of an actual person living in Hayes, Virginia, but more about that shortly.)
The man who answered said, with a slight foreign accent, that his name was Travis Wilson, and he told me to “calm down.” He said he had been receiving calls from many people whose data had been hacked, and he reassured me he would fix the situation. He then gave me an employee ID number, a phone number and an extension number. He added Microsoft’s address: 1 Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington — which happens to be the correct Microsoft address.
In answer to one of Travis’ many questions, I said I did no banking online (I don’t, and that is fortunate). But as a writer and teacher and researcher with business and personal contacts, with many friends and acquaintances, I need my data on the computer, and I want to protect it. And that was why I missed two red flags: Travis told me to keep the computer on overnight (he had installed an icon allowing him to go over everything on it) and he told me not to tell anyone for 48 hours that I was being hacked. He claimed he could “remove all malicious software” through the connection.
While his scheme, still unknown to me, was running, I went about my usual tasks — including walking for exercise at the Nordstrom Mall, going to a yearly doctor’s appointment at Hopkins Greenspring and sleeping during the night.
On the second day, I received a call — several, actually, until I answered — from someone named Ben, who had the same number Travis used with a Virginia area code. When I asked Travis about that number the day before, since it appeared with Ben’s first and last name on my phone, Travis answered, “it’s the hackers; they use phony names all the time.”
But when I spoke to Ben, he explained that the whole thing was a scam, and he said he had been getting dozens of calls like mine from people all over the country, but especially from Baltimore. (A good friend, I later found out, got the same warming on her iPad, but, fortunately for her, she turned it off.) Ben said the day before he had received a call from a woman who had had $160,000 stolen from her online bank account from this same scammer.
Travis, it appears, is part of a computer-savvy group of crooks preying on people. The scammers main objective: to get into peoples’ bank accounts and extract as much money as possible.
Ben, a retired ship builder, who lives with his wife in rural Hayes, Virginia, was very helpful. First, he told me to turn off my computer, which I did. He then advised me to call my bank and credit card company and explain what happened. I did, and there was no problem. But, above all, he told me to take my computer to a reputable dealer to have it completely checked out.
Soon after we hung up, I took the computer to Micro Center in Parkville, where I had bought the computer, printer and monitor several years ago. Their excellent technician performed a complete diagnostic scan — I left the computer overnight — and $140 later, my computer was completely restored.
Why are computers so vastly important to us today? Because we want to be smart, to work smart and to play smart. Micro Center has captured those thoughts on a wall. Large photos surrounding a photo of Albert Einstein make their point. Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and 17 others smile down on customers buying, fixing, using their computer devices. Grace Hopper, the only woman pictured, helped develop the UNIVAC 1 computer and managed the development of COBOL and FORTRAN, the early computer programming languages.
Of course, I felt quite stupid having fallen for the scam in the first place. However, several Micro Center workers said many of their customers had fallen for it as well, especially during the past few weeks.
For good measure, I took my iPad to the Apple Store, and it, too, is fine.
Meanwhile, Ben in Virginia, said he is contacting his Congress members to alert them to this awful scam.
The moral of the story: In 2022 we cannot live without our computer devices, but beware of fake messages and fake messengers.
Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of “The Feminine Irony” and “Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing.” Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.