It is embarrassing when one’s identity is stolen, and it is even more embarrassing when one is so obdurate as to assist in that process. That happened to me, and I don’t want to hide the circumstances.
I don’t use my laptop computer for anything much except for emails. Don’t go on line, Google, visit Facebook pages, that sort of thing. With that limited use I never bothered with a password.
Early last week I was working on last week’s column for the Herald when suddenly the screen went blank and the cursor was taken completely out of my control, darting aimlessly about the screen from corner to corner. A pattern came on the screen and then the phone rang. A man’s voice said: “The pattern you see on the screen is from your Windows agent.”
He didn’t ask for my name, but knew who he was talking to.
I said: “I go with Comcast.”
The man said: “That’s your carrier. We are your Windows agent.”
I’m so ignorant about things I figured since my laptop uses Windows, he could be right. Then the screen began to show a moving list of incomprehensible figures and letters and the man on the phone exclaimed: “Oh! Look at all the viruses that could hit your system!”
I didn’t say anything, and he went on: “We have a new system that will offer protection from viruses for you.”
He then gave me a combination of numbers and letters that he said was a “service code,” saying: “On any day when one of us calls again, be sure to ask for this code number, and when we give it you’ll know it’s us for sure, and that we’re legitimate.”
He also gave me a telephone number that had a New Jersey area code, and an email address that included the word “windows.” With all that, I was dumb enough to think he was probably authentic.
The man on the phone said: “There are fees for this service. Coverage for two years is $150, for five years it’s $250, and for your whole long lifetime it’s $349.” While he was speaking the figures he mentioned appeared on the screen in bulky black numbers.
I said the $349 looked best to me, and he said: “That’s a very good choice and will be in place for your whole long lifetime.”
This man had such an accent that sometimes I couldn’t make out what he said. He said his name was James Aldrich, but he didn’t sound like anyone who grew up in this country. Yet it wasn’t an accent of any nationality I’m familiar with. I occasionally heard the sound of someone else in the background.
Meanwhile the screen showed images of the various credit cards, and I chose one and then the screen went blank except for a horizontal line labeled “credit card number.”
I started writing the numbers the way I do on paper, four numbers, a hyphen, and four more numbers, and so on.
The man on the phone said: “Don’t use hyphens. Just the numbers.” So they were following what I was writing very closely.
Then the screen gave a vertical list of months, and I chose the month of expiration. The screen then showed every year from the present to 2020, and I chose the year of expiration.
The screen then showed only the words “making 53 adjustments.” The man on the phone said: “Don’t turn off your computer until the adjustments are complete.” And that was the last thing he said.
The next day I was told that it’s illegal to break into someone’s computer and take control of the cursor away from the user. I wonder if Comcast is aware that bandits of this nature are coming in on those lines.
I called the credit card company, where my line of credit was very low, and told them what had happened. The “fee” had already been registered, but they said they’d close that account and sent me a new card with different numbers.
I also talked to a detective at the attorney general’s office in Montpelier. He was quite sympathetic, but said there was little that could be done.
My brother talked me through the creation of a password.
What’s scary about all this is how much information the bandits can acquire from the records of my credit card account. If they can work back to the main accounts of the bank whose checks I use, that would be a major catastrophe. Also, if they use those card numbers to buy something worth several thousand dollars, and the outfit that sells it to them goes to the credit card company and finds out the account is closed, will I be accused of fraud and get into all kinds of legal trouble? I don’t have too many resources and could easily go totally bankrupt.
It has been somewhat cathartic to speak plainly about all this, and it’s also cathartic to hope that it will give a warning to others who are, like me, amateurs on the computer.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.