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Having recently retired as a computer-support guy, I know how confusing computers can be to civilians. I’m also interested in computer-support scams that attempt to leverage this confusion. There is an almost-Newtonian quality to technology: For every instance of technological benefit, there is an equal and opposite human cost.

This morning, I got a spam call from "Norton support.” The tape-recorded greeting told me my subscription to Norton had auto-renewed and asked whether I wanted to keep it or get a refund. I don’t have any Norton software on any device, but I do like to keep scammers engaged as long as possible because I'm curious about how their individual scams work.

I was surprised at how clever this version of the scam was. As directed, I pressed a phone key to speak to a "technical specialist." As my call was very important—not to say valuable—to them, I waited a bit until a "Mike" came on the line. Mike said that he worked for Norton, told me I had a Norton subscription that had just auto-renewed, and offered me a full refund should I want it. I said I didn't have any Norton software, to which he replied, "Maybe you've forgotten. Or maybe someone in your house has a computer or phone with Norton on it." I lied that that was possible.

Here’s where it gets clever: He then had me open a browser and go to Lifelock.Com— is a legitimate Norton page—and then had me click on "My Account." He then directed me to drill down several clicks to a Log on page, then instructed me to log on. I said—as he already knew I would because I’d told him—"I can't log on because I don't have any Norton software." 

Mike, expertly projecting a slightly-disinterested-but-patient affect, offered, "No problem. If you’d like, I can help guide you through all this and get your money back." I said, “Oh, yes, please.” He provided instructions for opening a new browser tab, then spelled out a web address. 

That opened a (non-Norton) download page from where I could install (non-Norton) remote-control software that would (“With your permission, of course”; me: “Of course”) allow him to connect to my computer to "help me." Together—“You will see everything I do”—we would then logon to the Norton site, navigate it, and get me the "refund" to which I was entitled.

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The brilliantly-scabrous part was that, by initially directing scammees to a legitimate Norton/LifeLock site and encouraging them to navigate around it, the scammer lulls the scammee into thinking the call really is a Norton-backed effort to get the scammee’s money back. The danger is that, once I have downloaded and installed remote-control software and allowed Mike to enter my computer, he then has complete access to everything on it. Plus he can then install malware that, whenever I subsequently turn the computer on, will record and transmit everything I do, including the financial sites with which I connect and the passwords I type to identify myself.

I told Mike I wasn't going to proceed with the remote-control session, but I said, “Listen, Mike, I'm a writer. I’m interested in what you do. I want to write about it. I’d like to talk to you about what the world looks like from your point of view. You sound like an intelligent guy. I want to know what it is you tell yourself about why it's okay to spend your time scamming confused, innocent people." 

He hemmed and hawed about how he would never do that, how he was a good guy working for Norton, but I fended that off and kept asking him to talk to me. Finally he said, "Okay, I'll talk to you, but you have to pay for my time." I said that if he lived closer I’d buy him coffee and asked what else he would do for money. He hung up.

There are many iterations of these phone and email scams in the wild, and new, more-sophisticated versions proliferate daily. In this case, a clear tell was the certain knowledge that a for-profit corporation would never put so much effort and cost into equipping and staffing a phone bank whose purpose was to search for paying customers to give money back to them, not after it had gone to so much effort and spent so much to get it from them in the first place.

Other examples of the “no benefit without cost” Law of Technology: 

  • Facebook/Meta, which brings us closer together while affirming that we really don’t want to be
  • Twitter, which allows immediate access to people’s reactions and thoughts while affirming that we really don’t much want to know
  • Snapchat, which provides instant snapshots of people’s banal lives while affirming what we already know from living our own banal lives
  • Cell Phones, which have made us instantly accessible to each other while making us virtual prisoners of our bosses
  • Internet Shopping, which has given us immediate gratification while giving us immediate gratification
  • Online banking, which makes it possible for us to manipulate our financials while at the same time providing scammers with that same privilege

Be careful out there; the Luddites weren’t wrong.