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October 4th, 2016

‘We’re From Microsoft and We’ve Been Remotely Watching Your Computer’

It’s getting harder and harder to scam little old ladies these days. They’ll just up and switch to Linux on you.

The Heart of Linux

We are going into our third year of living in the Gardens of Taylor. When you come off of the city street and onto this property, you can sometimes get a creepy feeling, like this is familiar in an unpleasant sort of way. It can feel like you’ve just stepped into Stepford Village. Every yard has been manicured to match the ones on either side of it. The edging along all driveways and sidewalks is a perfect two inches across and if a weed or mushroom happens to grow within that etched space, it is gone the next time you look for it.

Stuff like that just vanishes. Spooky like.

Fact is, the property manager pays the lawn service to make a drive through every other day in order to take care of any anomalies. Once I got used to it, I became comfortable with living here, being that it’s for people with physical disabilities and age 55 or over.

On moving-in day, we hadn’t been there an hour before people began to take notice of us from across the street. They would stop just long enough to pretend they weren’t checking us out, then they would be on their way. Some even stopped to help.

Jane Cline

Jane Cline

At an azimuth of 25 degrees, shot from our front door, lived Clyde and Jane Cline. Not only did they bring food, they stayed to help. To say we had an interesting crew of folks helping us move-in would be understated. Claude and Jane brought some normalcy to that group. Over the months and into the years, we’ve become extremely close friends with “the 25 degree neighbors.” We take turns taking each other out for dinner and we’ll visit one another when the mood strikes.

It didn’t take me long to notice that Claude kept his computer on whether using it or not. Just a short wiggle of the mouse brought it back online, and when it returned to life, it did so with Linux…Linux Mint to be precise. I didn’t waste much time asking how that came about.

When Claude complained to friends that his computer had slowed to a crawl and said he was probably going to get rid of it, his friends asked if their grandson could come by sometime and look at it for him. The friend told Claud that this granson could probably fix it and he most likely would not need to buy a new machine. It wasn’t long before the grandson made his way to Claude and Jane’s doorstep.

Long story made a bit more tolerable, Claude’s friend’s grandson told Claude that if he put Linux on his machine, his problems would go away and he would be surprised if it ever happened again. The machine was loaded with malware and spyware, and a test also warned that the symptoms of a rootkit were present but might be a false positive. The grandson booted the computer into a live demonstration of Linux on his flash drive, and as they say…the rest is history.

Claude chose to follow sound advice and dual boot Linux. That way he could take his time transferring important files and documents over to the Linux side. Then, when finished, he could wipe that partition and use it for storage, or meld it into the partition that was running Linux. Three years ago, Claude was able to send his Microsoft partition into the netherworld.

Some time later, during a mealtime conversation, Jane would sometimes complain of unwanted ads or slowness on her system. Claude, without looking up from his dinner, would offer that he hadn’t had that problem since he switched to Linux. But because Jane did all the couple’s taxes and other banking business, she was under the impression that she had to use Windows.

Eventually she came around, of course.

Someone knocked on the door, early on a Saturday afternoon. When I opened the door, I immediately knew from her expression that something was wrong in Stepford Village. I stepped aside for her to come in and as just as I opened my mouth to greet her, she said, “I want you to come over and put Linux on my computer now.”

The look on her face was complete frustration. No matter how many patches she applied, how many hints and tips she copied from the Microsoft website, nothing helped. Not McAfee, not Norton, not any of them. She was still getting phone calls and full page popups.

She had once also received a phone call from a person claiming to be from Microsoft who had noticed a virus on her system. She was asked to go to a Moneymart or SpeedyCash and have a software patch.

Jane might be part of the “disconnected generation,” but she’s not stupid. With haste and working with Claude via text messaging, she told the guy to stay on the phone while she went to get the moneygram from Walmart. What she was really doing was handing a teller at her bank a message that she was being scammed and to please lock her accounts until this had played itself out.

She did, they did and all was well.

Now it was happening again. The same gig, the same explanations about why he was calling, and the same instructions on to how to get the virus off her computer, just spoken by a different person and accent.

This was the last straw. Jane did the right thing and set her compass and course 25 degrees from her front door and made way to mine.

Now Claude and Jane both run Linux. Their money is safe, and if anyone calls giving them instructions how to get a virus off of their Windows’ computer, they just laugh and hang up, but not before telling them they run Linux.

There will come a day, maybe sooner than any of us think, when a scam like this might actually work on a Linux machine. In the past two years we’ve seen stories of Linux servers being compromised, and there is constant news that this or that piece of malicious code might be making its way to Linux computers soon.

Being prudent, I run both Avast for day-to-day stuff and various Clam iterations for biweekly sweeps for rootkits. I exchange a lot of Windows stuff with my Reglue kids, so that’s only smart. Not that I expect anything to go south in the near future. Everything I’ve seen coming down the Linux pike demands hands-on the target computer to inject the badware.

Here’s a Helios Helpful Hint: Don’t let someone you don’t know have access to your computer, sans the repair guy.

However I do believe in preparedness. Jane’s Linux Mint install runs the same security as mine and I administrate it remotely (from home. I’ll get Claude up to speed on Wednesday.

How long ago was it that many of us gave up on the “disconnected generation?” For a while I didn’t work with people who were so set in their ways that they bucked any suggestion of having to learn something new. And honest-to-goodness, a lady in the neighborhood asked me to make her computer the same way it was when she bought it. That would be the Windows Vista release. Sigh.

“No ma’am. Not for any amount of money. Sorry.”

I’m not into any more stress than necessary these days.

Vista? Really?

Sigh.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

22 comments to ‘We’re From Microsoft and We’ve Been Remotely Watching Your Computer’

  • UPS

    And if she needs some help to set up Linux, she know who to turn to…

    However some of those old ladies are very very good when it comes to their terminal skills …

  • Great to hear from Ken again! I love reading these tidbits of life in Taylor. It makes my life bearable again.

  • Another great article Ken!

  • John Kerr

    Good to hear from you again Ken.

    Yeah they called my mother (91 years old). Scammer said he was from Windows security and that her computer had a virus.

    Mom: I do not have that problem.
    Scam: No wahy lady everybody has virus problems on their computer.
    Mom: No My son says I do not have that problem because I run Linx.
    Scam: … … oh that is right lady, you would not have those problems.

    And with that he hung up.

    Cheers

    John

  • James Dixon

    We’ve gotten half a dozen or so of those calls. My wife passes them to me if I’m there and I string them along for a bit acting confused that my system doesn’t match what they’re describing. Eventually they get around to asking what version of Windows I’m running. When I tell them I’m running Slackware, the next sound is “click”.

  • UPS

    If there is more people with Linux there would be less problems with bud stuff, any way…

  • Mark

    For those of you who really need to run Windows: Create an Admin account with full rights and a simple password, and change the day-to-day account type to Standard Users.

    Problem of malware gone.

  • kb0hae

    Good to hear from you Ken. As to these calls, I have had them (back when I had a land-line phone. I was already dual booting Windows and Linux, and mostly using Linux, especially to go on-line. In fact, my Windows XP Pro (at the time) was assigned a static IP address, and that was blocked at the router, so Windows never went on-line. I have now been Windows free for a while, and never look back. Glad that you are there to help your neighbors!

  • James Dixon

    > Problem of malware gone.

    Not if there’s a remote admin exploit for the software it’s attacking. And even if the don’t get admin access, they can still modify or delete all of your personal files. Just ask the many people affected by the recent rash of encryption viruses.

  • BillH

    @Mark, In a word…. NO! It helps stop some of the malware, but today’s malware is sophisticated enough to get past something like a non-administrative account. It happens to be the way we run our client PCs in our enterprise and yet we have a team of techs who typically do nothing but clean malware.

    The problem is that malware never really goes away as long as you are running Windows.

  • archuser

    Nice to read replies , very funny and makes me happy. My PC came with Windows more than a decade ago and I felt something was wrong just like Mr Anderson felt in Matrix movie, but with Linux it looks normal.

  • I’ve missed your posts here Ken. Seems yours are the the most fun to read. You’re a true storyteller, I hope we’ll see more of you on FossForce.

  • Mike

    When telemarketers/scammers call me I tell them to hang on while I get whatever info they are asking for, then I mute the phone and go watch a TV show.

    Their bread and butter is call volume. If enough people did what I do, the slime wouldn’t be able to stay in business.

  • Nonya

    If you (GOD FORBID!) use Win10, M$ really IS watching your computer!

  • Love the article! Welcome back Mr. Starks (anyone ever notice he has a name similar to “Tony Stark”….a.k.a. IRON MAN!..LoL!)

    I’ve gotten these calls before and because I’ve been using Linux now since Fedora 13?…I have fun with ’em. It usually ends up with them getting so frustrated because my “Windows” doesn’t correspond with theirs….and of course I don’t give specifics:
    “What version of Windows are you running sir?”
    I don’t know…there’s all these squares…
    “You mean Tiles sir?…then its either Windows 8 or Windows 10”
    Ok.
    After like an HOUR of this?…they simply tell me that I’ll have to buy a new PC because this one is not fixable!

    I also remember one time they called my Mum (who’s been using Linux Mint since version 15!) At first she panicked, and called me, I told her not to worry and that if they called again she should forward the call to me…which she did, from her house phone. And when I picked up? I answered “NYPD Digital Forensics Division, Lt. Ed O’Connor speaking”. THEY HAVE NEVER CALLED HER NUMBER BACK SINCE THEN!…Hahaha!

  • Win 10 rules, Linux is for boomers

  • UPS

    If YO like malware Win 10 rules for sure…

  • Love reading your articles Ken, always a great word picture painted.

  • mini fang

    a recorded “windows technical support” can be found here:
    http://www.ufoship.com/?p=1656 it starts about 35 minutes in. the callee answers the “windows technical support” with a soundboard.

  • scammer: We are getting bad things from your computer.
    Walt: Tell me the IP and MAC address, so I know which computer
    scammer: how many computers do you have?
    Walt: You tell me
    scammer: usually hangs up.

    when asked what version of windows I run; My reply is X11R7

    🙂
    Walt

  • midi-man

    I have fun with them. I ask for the computer name since they say they can see everything. they never give it to me the just keep asking me me to go to the start bar. I tell them I do not have a start bar. LOL.

    This keeps going on for about 10 to 15 minutes minutes then I just hang up on them.

    Freaking 10idt..

  • tracyanne

    A friend of ours responded to the scammer with an excited “Really!”, which put him, it was a him, of his stride momentarily, so he asked her why she was so excited, so she told him that she had never had one of those calls when she was using Windows, and now that she’s using Linux she finally gets one… he hung up.