For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.

Handling Calls

Summary: Your computer is infected. Follow these instructions.

With the opening of the first trans-Atlantic cable it became possible to send messages in the blink of an eye between continents. Better technology made long-distance calls so cheap no one thinks twice about calling a friend a thousand miles away. Routers and switches connected the entire planet in ways unimaginable a few decades ago. Technology is our friend.

I work out of the house. All day long the phone rings; often there's some miserable salesperson on the line. Frequently it's a recording. Too many mendaciously start off with "this is not a sales call." So many are from call centers where there's a several-second delay before a real person gets on the line. That delay is a giveaway that this is a call you just don't want to take.

Yesterday "Kevin," with an almost unintelligible foreign accent, got through. He claimed to be calling from the "US Department of Medicine" and wanted to know if I had knee problems. No, I answered, but my wife is having knee surgery at this very moment. Would he like to talk to her? He did, and I warned him that we couldn't afford the cost of anesthetics, so she was being operated on while quite awake. "You can probably hear her screaming in the other room," I warned him. Oh, and surgeons were too expensive as well, so my son was operating. He didn't know anything about medicine but did have an X-acto knife. Undeterred, Kevin asked to be put through. "Fine, but she's in so much pain she's screaming in tongues. I really don't know what language it is." He asked me to wait while he put the call through to a manager, at which point I hung up.

What is it with these morons? Are people really so gullible? Are they hoping for vulnerable old folks to bend to their will?

My very old parents, who were once the most astute people in any room, sometimes fall for these evildoers, usually from email scams. Despite the obvious transparency of the lies the inclusion of an institution's logo is enough to make them falter. My exhortations to hover the cursor over the URL to make sure it's legitimate just haven't sunk in. Nor has the rule to never deal with any money issue via email. At least they have learned to make no financial decision without calling me first; so far, they haven't been victimized electronically. But what about the other millions of Internet-connected elderly?

Not long ago thievery meant getting a gun and physically holding up a bank or store. Today, with cheap communications and gullible victims all it takes is an Internet connection. The ease and anonymity brings out the scum. I've always believed in the innate goodness of most people, so am astonished at the vast hoards willing to do dirty work. The phrase "veneer of civilization" seems more apt than ever.

But despair is debilitating. I generally hang up as soon as it's clear the caller is someone not worth my time. Sometimes, though, it's impossible to resist having a little fun. A few weeks ago "Bill," also armed with a thick accent, called. He was from Microsoft and wanted to let me know my computer had a virus infection. Fear not, if I followed his instructions the problem would go away.

He gave me a series of DOS commands to enter, which I typed into a text editor so he'd hear the keyboard's clicking and clacking.

Then I said "oh no - there's smoke coming out of my computer."

"Now it's worse; there's tons of smoke coming out. Is this because of these commands you had me type in?"

Then, "the computer's on fire! There are flames coming out! What should I do - call the fire department? Or do you think I should get my child in the other room and leave the house?"

He instructed me to toss the computer out the window.

I told him that, OK, it was gone, "but it landed in a pile of leaves! Now they are on fire and the fire is spreading to the house! Put your manager on the line!"

Now it was he who hung up.

Published September 25, 2014