Several years ago, I received a call from an unidentified number. This was in the days before we were inundated with phone spam, so I didn't think too much about it when I answered.
"This is your computer security company calling, and we noticed your Windows computer is infected with a lot of computer viruses," said the mystery caller.
"Really? I have a computer security company?" I asked. I knew this guy was a scammer because computer companies don't call you. Ever. Also, I had a Mac.
"Oh, yes, it's a free service that Microsoft provides."
That was his biggest lie: Microsoft doesn't give away anything for free.
"How bad is it?" I asked, setting the hook. I had heard about this scam: Crooks would call you up, say your computer is infected by rampaging hordes of computer viruses, and get you to install software so they could steal your financial information and computer passwords.
"There are dozens of viruses that we found during a routine scan of your computer."
"Oh, my! That sounds serious."
Yes, I literally said, "Oh, my!" I was afraid I had overplayed my hand, and he would know I was onto him.
"Don't worry, sir, I can help you remove them." You could hear the eagerness in his voice. He thought he had a live one and would be snooping around my hard drive in mere minutes.
"Excellent. Before we start, can I ask you a question?" I asked.
"Is your mother proud of what you do?"
Holy monkey, did that ever make him mad! It was like throwing rocks at a hornet's nest and nailing it on the first try. He cursed and yelled at me to do unnatural things to myself and then slammed down the phone.
That was rude, I thought. I should complain to Bill Gates.
If you have a computer or a phone, people will try to scam you and hack into your devices. And if you do something stupid like use "password" as your password, it's a question of when, not if, it happens.
And no, "p@ssword1" is not any better.
You have to be especially vigilant these days because criminals are much more sophisticated. Not like 30 years ago.
In the early '90s, I worked for a company that sold poultry feeding equipment to international customers when I received a hand-written letter from a Nigerian prince. He needed my help transferring $180 million from his country to the U.S. If I helped him, I could have half.
I was thrilled! I was over the moon!
I mean, it was clearly a scam, and I wasn't dumb enough to fall for it. But these hand-written letters were still fairly rare, and they didn't go to just any old schmuck. Getting one meant I was a big-time schmuck in the international poultry market.
Scammers are more sophisticated these days, but they're lazier than their pen-and-paper predecessors. They send out impersonal emails that don't contain the recipient's name, just an all-capped "DEAR FRIEND" or "DEAR SIR OR MADAM." Or my personal favorite, "BELOVED."
Aww, that's sweet. I appreciate you, too.
You would think no one is dumb enough to fall for these things, but they are. According to CNBC, the Nigerian Prince email scams rake in about $700,000 per year, with the average victim losing just over $2,000.
I feel bad for these people, but not enough to avoid saying, "Look, we've talked about this. No one's going to give you $90 million for doing them a solid."
Another new scam to watch for is where someone — probably my guy from the computer security company — calls an older person and poses as a grandchild. They can even use software to replicate the grandchild's voice.
"Grandpa (or Grandma)? I'm stuck in Mexico and my wallet was stolen. I need you to wire me $500 so I can get back home."
So the grandparent worries their second-favorite grandchild is stranded in a foreign country, and they race to the nearest Western Union station to wire the money.
Except it's not true. Your grandchild barely leaves the house, let alone the entire country.
My dad got one of those calls once and immediately knew it was a scam because none of his grandchildren call him "Grandpa." He hung up on the little miscreant and never gave it a second thought. I sure hope that little guy got home OK.
If you ever get this call, ignore it. It's not like your grandkids call when things are going well, so how would they even know your number?
If you're not sure, call your own children and ask if their kids are out of the country. Chances are they're not because who can afford to travel these days?
But who knows? Maybe your grandchildren are the more adventurous type, ready to go out into the great big world and take risks so they have stories to tell their own grandchildren. And maybe they know they can call you when they need help.
Or maybe his friend from the computer security company can help him.
Photo credit: Sabinevanerp (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)
My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available from 4 Horsemen Publications. You can get the ebook and print versions here.