“You’ve been scammed.”
Words I did not want to hear, but perhaps I was hearing them in time to save myself some money, if not a loss of privacy.
I had just given my credit card number to an online computer repair service. I was on hold on my land line while they processed my order, and I decided to call my computer service provider in Aroostook County on my cellphone to see if I had made a mistake.
“Get out of it if you can,” he advised. “Or just turn off your computer.”
Oh, my. How could I get so far into a transaction like this — me, who doesn’t even shop online or use Facebook?
It was too easy.
When my printer began to malfunction, I searched all the literature that came with it for a phone number to call for service. Not a single number, so I typed the name of my printer into my browser and called the number that appeared on the screen.
“It is good you called promptly,” said a voice from New Delhi. “Viruses in your computer can infect other devices.” How did he know I had called promptly? And why didn’t he ask for the serial and model numbers I was so proud to have ready? I wish I had asked.
He explained that my problem could be caused by the computer or the printer. If it is the computer, we need to install new drivers to correct the problem and prevent future problems.
“This is how we work,” he repeated several times during the ensuing conversation. The standard fee would be $199.99, but if both computer and printer need service, I would receive a special discount and pay only $149.99 for the printer after paying $199.99 for the computer. I would have free tech support for 90 days, a lifetime security guarantee, and an upgrade of my operating system. Did I want to have him diagnose the problem?
I could not understand why my computer was getting blamed for a problem clearly caused by the printer. It produced blank pages for photocopies as well as computer generated printouts.
But the chance that my computer had been infected with some kind of virus was enough to persuade me to grant permission for the technician to access my computer by remote control. He printed out a couple of blank pages and determined that indeed only new drivers on my computer would protect me from viruses that could be growing as we spoke, threatening my as yet unspecified “other devices.”
He sent me a link to the company’s “payment gateway” and within 10 minutes he had requested and received my computer’s memory information, disk drive information, operating system information, recent events, CPU information and a process list.
Then I was transferred to a supervisor who explained again how this transaction would work, stressing it was entirely my decision and emphasizing that this was a third-party company authorized to service my brand of printer. Did I want to authorize them to service my equipment?
I had questions. Why did my computer need new drivers when the printer was at fault? Couldn’t I buy a new printer for $350? What other devices would be infected?
The supervisor sensed my uncertainty and talked fast about the viruses, the lifetime of security and the 90 days of free tech support. But, it was entirely on me. It was my decision.
And despite my discomfort, I entered my credit card details into the form that appeared on my screen. The supervisor then connected me with a new technician with strict instructions to communicate only through the chat box. We would have no voice communication.
“Don’t hang up.” The supervisor sounded urgent. And I didn’t, but fortunately I called my friend in Aroostook County.
“They get your information and every 30 days something will be wrong with your computer and they will fix it for $199,” he said, recalling people who had paid for several months of “service” before realizing they had been scammed.
When the voice from New Delhi returned to the phone, I was the one doing the persuading. I insisted he cancel the order.
“It is too late. You have already authorized this service.”
“I will call my credit card company to block any charges.”
“No need to do that.”
While we argued, the voiceless technician with whom I had been connected grew frustrated by my failure to respond to his repeated messages in our chat box. Eventually, as I continued my dialogue on the phone with the supervisor, an invisible hand wrote the word “Reply” in large jagged red script diagonally across the screen of my computer.
The supervisor pressed me for the reasons I had changed my mind. I insisted I simply did not feel comfortable making a decision for that amount of money after one telephone conversation. I promised that if ever I decided I wanted this service, they would be the first company I would call.
The supervisor finally yielded, explaining it would take two or three business days for my order to be canceled, after which I should call the company’s customer service number to confirm.
As I studied the display of information remaining on my computer screen after I hung up, I noticed a little box to stop the service. When I clicked in the box, the welcome words “Kathryn has revoked all permissions” appeared on the screen.
My credit card company agreed to block any attempt by the company to convert the “pending transaction” for $199.99 on my account into a charge.
Several days after the encounter, I called the online-company’s customer service number to confirm the cancellation of my order. To their credit, they complied.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.