“I am Sara, calling on behalf of Microsoft,” says a heavily-accented female voice. “There is a serious security problem in your computer.”
“How do I know you’re really from Microsoft?” I ask.
“No problem, Madame,” she says without a hint of defensiveness. “There is a control number inside every computer that only Microsoft has.” She offers to help me find it number in my laptop.
“Hit the Windows icon and at the same time the letter R for Romeo….Type in the letters “CBD” … Hit enter….Now scroll down…”
One screen leads to another. I don’t remember the path or the actual initials I enter. As each page opens, Sara says, “Read me your choices?”
Wouldn’t a Microsoft employee know the content of each menu?
When an impressive-looking code appears on my screen, I push doubt aside. Sara asks me to read along as she recites all 32 characters…
Like a magician pulling a ten of diamonds from a deck of cards, Sara wants to know, “Is that correct?”
I am baffled and still suspicious. “Is this part of Microsoft’s regular service, or do I have to pay for your help?”
With slight annoyance in her voice, she reassures: “This is a service from Microsoft.”
So-called Sara then leads me to a directory of “Internet files.” She points out that 1300 of them are marked with a yellow exclamation point or a red “Danger!” symbol.
I have no idea what I’m looking at or what the symbols mean, but she has my attention. “How do I delete them?” I ask.
“Well, you can try, but you won’t be able to,” she says confidently. “If you let me share your screen, I can help you. And if I can’t, someone from my technical team will.”
Like a women who continually ignores the warning signs on a first date, I know I shouldn’t stay, but I do. Maybe she’s really going to help me.
I have already ignored the fact that she called on my landline in Paris, a 3–week-old phone number I’ve never associated with my Microsoft account.
I continue to ignore the overly loud chatter in the background — even as I picture a small, overcrowded, windowless room somewhere in India. Every phone station is manned by a “Sara” or a “Sol,” reading from a manual.
And when Sara says she will “transfer” my call, I ignore the sound of a hand covering the receiver. I also ignore the muffled conversation I overhear right before a man’s voice comes on the line.
Identifying himself as “a supervisor,” his first question is: “Can you understand my English?”
“Quite well,” I answer, “and your name, sir?”
“Peter Johnson.” I ignore this as well. Peter Johnson, anyone knows, is a common name in India.
I ask “Peter” the question Sara never answered: How much it will cost to eradicate the deadly files?
“You’re talking about money, Madame?” he asks, attempting to shame me. “How can you ask about payment when these files are threatening your laptop?”
No one puts Baby in the corner, and no one forces “Melinda Persistent”* to back down.
Peter finally admits that there might be “a small fee.”
“How much?” I press. “A hundred dollars? Ten? Fifty??
“Oh no, Madame. It will be very cheap.”
The word cheap is my tipping point. I immediately move my cursor toward the “X” in the corner of the screen-sharing chat box.
“Don’t disconnect!” Peter shouts. Guilt didn’t work, so now he threatens. The invading files will eat my computer. (Not his exact words — but close!)
I disconnect anyway, shaken. These people, whoever they are, somehow retrieved a number from inside my lap top. I can still feel their presence. Are they emptying my bank account? Will my identity be stolen?
When I later recount these events to my partner, I hear myself. Of course, I should have hung up immediately. But in the moment, I couldn’t.
My laptop is my lifeblood and my link to the world. Especially now, living in Europe, my laptop is where I go for conversation. It’s where I see the people I miss. It’s where I take French lessons. It’s where I bring my curiosity, my thinking, my efforts. The mere hint of a disconnect is frightening.
And before you judge me, or suggest that it’s because I’m naive (or old), know that this can happen to anyone. The folks at these faux-support centers are good at what they do and the potential damage is serious.
At best the scammers are trying to get you to pay them to “fix” a nonexistent problem with your device or software. At worst they’re trying to steal your personal or financial information; and if you allow them to remote into your computer to perform this “fix” they will often install malware, ransomware, or other unwanted programs that can steal your information or damage your data or device.
The moral of my story is obvious: be very, very careful. Hang up way before I did. In fact, don’t trust anyone who calls you. And if you need help, Google the best support companies.
Luckily, my story ends well. When I gather my thoughts, I realize it’s too early in Europe to reach anyone in the U. S. I call the Microsoft number in Paris. (I have it in my phone, hoping I’ll never need it.)
I dial the number, listen to the usual series of annoying prompts — more challenging now because they’re in French. In mere minutes, I hear a man’s voice, presumably asking how he can help.
I lead with my usual conversation starter: “Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas très bien le français.” [I’m sorry I don’t speak French very well.]
He responds in heavily-accented English: “It is not so much a problem of understanding your language, Madame, as it is a problem of understanding what’s wrong with your computer.”
I explain, and he effortlessly leads me through a series of steps to restore my three-month-old Surface 3 laptop to its factory settings. My files are left intact, he assures, but my Internet history is gone — and with it, Sara and Peter.
All that’s left is the sinking feeling of dependence and vulnerability.
*Ralph Nader dubbed me “Melinda Persistent” in the early 70s, after months of my calling and ultimately convincing him to co-author, To Buy or Not to Buy, a consumer education program.