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I have been seeing A LOT of people lately who have been caught in today’s most common computer scams.

I want to review them briefly and help you avoid making a mistake and giving control of your computer or bank account to a scammer. All of them are modern takes on the “snake oil” smoke-and-mirrors show from history designed to separate you from your money.

There are three ways that the latest wave of tech scams work:

  1. You get a random call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft or another large computer company, sometimes on all of your cell and home phones in a short time frame. They’re always sporting a fairly heavy foreign accent and phrase things strangely. They’ll tell you all kinds of stories about how terrible your computer is or how many viruses you’re leaking on the Internet. It’ll sound REALLY BAD. They’ll offer to help you fix it…for a price of course.
  2. The pop-up scary talking warning! Your browser loads an infected website or a malicious ad and gets kicked over to a HUGE SCARY WARNING that says your computer is infected and you need to call the number on the screen. If your speakers aren’t muted, it’ll also talk to you in a synthesized voice. If you call, you’ll get the same people as in (1) but this time they didn’t have to luck up and cold-call you, plus you’ll already be terrified so they can trick you into doing what they want.
  3. You call “tech support” for a large company like HP or Dell. You’re not really talking to an HP or Dell employee; you’re talking to an iYogi employee in India whose job is to sell you a support contract. I’m not sure if they’re the same people doing the other two, but it’s the same song and dance as the other two: you’ll get a nice show hyping up how horrible of a situation your computer is in and a hard sell on buying support from them.

In all of these situations, the person on the phone will want to use remote support tools such as TeamViewer or Citrix GoToAssist to get remote control of your computer. Once they have remote control, they are capable of doing ANYTHING THEY WANT to your computer, though they don’t usually seem to infect machines; it’s mainly a high-pressure sales pitch for $300 of computer snake oil.

CUT SCAMS OFF BEFORE THEY CAN AFFECT YOU.

For cold-call scammers in (1), hang up quickly. If they call again later, keep hanging up. The more they talk, the more likely it is that they’ll convince you to remote them in and pay up.

For the huge scary pop-up in (2), open Task Manager and kill your browser from there. If that’s not working out, just hold the power button on the computer for five seconds and it’ll shut off. Your computer IS NOT INFECTED. If it happens again after rebooting, try power-cycling your modem and router; these can get temporarily “infected” in a way that causes the computer to land on these scary sites quickly, but this “infection” doesn’t survive the power to the box being unplugged.

For the big corporate tech support calls in (3), it’s a bit more difficult because sometimes you’ll be talking to a legitimate support agent that isn’t going to try to scam you. The key things that tell you it’s going to be a scam are that they (A) want to get remote access to your computer without spending a lot of time trying to talk you through it first, (B) they tell you that your computer has serious problems and want to help you fix them, or (C) they mention money at any point in the process. IF ANY OF THESE THREE THINGS HAPPENS, try calling back or seek help from someone else that you trust. Make sure you’re calling the support phone number on the manufacturer’s official website as well!

Almost all of the computers I’ve checked in the past month that were targeted by these scams didn’t have any serious problems before or after the scammer got on, but many of my customers had to initiate chargebacks on their cards or change their bank accounts or get their cards exchanged which is frustrating and annoying.

If you’re in or near the Chatham County, Randolph County, Orange County, or Wake County areas of North Carolina and you’re concerned that your computer has been messed up by a scammer, you can get support from me at Tritech Computer Solutions in Siler City, including 100% free in-store diagnostics and repair quotes.

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So many PC laptops, particularly those in the cheaper range, are now shipping with “special functions” such as screen brightness adjustment and wireless adapter on/off switching as the default action when you press the F1 through F12 function keys. On what planet was this a good idea? What kind of morons were sitting around at HP and Dell going “gee, no one ever uses F-keys, so let’s make them do something else?”

What’s the keyboard shortcut for closing a program? It’s Alt-F4. This has not changed since the days of Windows 3.1, and is a very commonly used keyboard shortcut with anyone that knows what keyboard shortcuts are at all. Not having to shuffle a mouse to the top-right corner of a box to close it literally saves many seconds of effort, and those seconds add up when multiplied across an entire day’s work. Now, however, Dell’s infinite wisdom has decided that the out-of-the-box configuration requires pressing the “Fn” function modifier key to use any of the F1-F12 keys for the functions they have maintained on their own for the past two decades. (Apparently Microsoft isn’t adding any extra combinations for “Alt-Brightness Down” anytime soon.) So, when  I get on a Dell Inspiron 1545 laptop to perform service work, I hit Alt+F4 to close windows and instead of having the intended behavior, I just accidentally turned down the LCD brightness. Now I’m on the hook to press F5 to bump up the brightness again, then hit Alt+Fn+F4 to do what I originally intended.

Oh, but if you think that’s bad, it gets far far worse! Let’s say I’m downloading a big driver file for a printer or display adapter, because these are always hundreds of megabytes in size, yet 98% of the download is extra crap that isn’t required for printing a document or making a video card show cute rotating boxes. I’m waiting on a 200MB HP printer driver to come down the pipe, and while I wait, I’m performing other tasks. I find a file I need to rename for some reason, so I click the file and hit F2 to bring up the renaming function in Windows Explorer.

Guess what? Some complete and total asshats at Dell assigned F2 to be the magical key that disables the internal wireless adapter. Instead of renaming a file as intended, I just killed my wireless connection and lost the entire download. All that time waiting is lost as well, so I now get the privilege of waiting even longer for something that never should have been aborted in the first place. Just to make matters even worse, F2 is immediately above the number 2. Anyone who needs to type a 2 and overshoots the stroke could easily end up killing off their Internet connection instead. HP isn’t much better; while they usually put the wireless switch control on the F11 key instead of F2, F11 is still above the last keys on the number row and is still easy to accidentally press. Other functions such as internal/external monitor switching are almost as annoying, but tend to self-correct when they notice there’s no monitor to switch to, and so are somewhat more forgivable.

In the BIOS settings for most of these systems, an option exists to restore the function keys to their normal function key behavior, as it should be! The user should never have to change a BIOS settings on a factory released computer just to make the keyboard work properly! My problem is that the default setting from the factory is the one which is in favor of accidentally killing off your Internet connection and messing up your screen brightness. In my extremely not-humble opinion, every manufacturer that does this is stupid. No one should purchase these computers. It’s not worth supporting this level of ignorance about how a computer is used. Combine this kind of foolishness with the “ClickPad” garbage that’s being put into lots of laptops nowadays, particularly in HP laptops, and some of the ridiculous keyboard layouts on cheap Compaqs from the past few years, and you have a recipe for a brain-dead, productivity-hostile pile of crap laptops that I wouldn’t accept for free.

Add one more thing to the growing list of “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” nonsense I’m so tired of tolerating these days. Grumble, grumble.

those seconds

It seems that Dell has set up their hardware to be very consumer-unfriendly.  Ever since the charcoal gray Dell Pentium 4 laptops came out, Dell started to force out third-party power-related items for some reason.  Dell laptops that take PA-9 series AC adapters have to be sent some sort of special signal that indicates a 90W-capable PA-9 adapter is plugged in, or else the laptop assumes a PA-6 is plugged in, issues an ominous warning about how it’s lowering the unit’s performance because of the adapter not being right, and forces you to press something in order to continue starting up.  Of course, using a different connector from the PA-6 type would have solved that problem much more easily, as no one could accidentally plug a PA-6 into a PA-9 power jack, but apparently Dell didn’t think about that.

The same thing happened when Dell transitioned from PA-10 to PA-12 adapters: they kept the huge outer ring with the tiny center pin, but the PA-12 tells the laptop that it’s the higher wattage model.  This sort of makes sense, though: a processor that requires the extra 25W boost to run at full speed would overload a lower-wattage adapter and present a possible fire hazard, or could just burn out the adapter and force the purchase of a replacement.

However, I have noticed a very annoying trend as of late: Dell laptops that use a PA-10 or PA-12 adapter seem to be very good at figuring out that an attached adapter is third-party, particularly the ones requiring PA-12 series.  I have purchased numerous Dell replacement adapters from third-party vendors, and it seems that initially these adapters work perfectly fine without a hitch for about a month.  Then, at some point, the laptop decides that the adapter is no longer a correct PA-12 adapter, claims that it doesn’t recognize the attached AC adapter, and has the usual tantrum.  How can an adapter work just fine for a month, then suddenly be not good enough, despite obviously powering the unit just fine?  What makes this even worse is that some units refuse to charge the battery when this happens. It sounds more like Dell is attempting to lock out third-party hardware (and doing a very good job of it) than trying to ensure the unit receives adequate wattage.

The saga continues with the plethora of third-party Dell batteries out there that these Dell laptops refuse to charge after an obscenely short time.  There are widespread reports on the Internet of people purchasing Dell replacement batteries that eventually stop working.  Of course, some failures are inevitable, but the problem being Dell’s doing became obvious after we helped at least four separate customers purchase (from four totally different vendors) third-party Dell replacement batteries for GD761 and KD476 laptop batteries.  In all four cases, the batteries would charge and work wonderfully, often holding a charge for hours of off-AC use, and then one day, for no apparent reason, the Dell laptop determines that the battery is not a valid battery and refuses to charge the battery with an annoying orange blinking battery light.

One or two batteries would be easy to write off as a fluke or a bad batch or a coincidence, but four batteries from four different vendors, all of which are similar only because they don’t have a “DELL” brand stamp on the pack?  It couldn’t be more obvious that Dell has put special circuitry and programming into their laptops to disable third-party batteries.  I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I call it how I see it, and four totally different batteries can’t all be wrong.  If Dell didn’t charge $200 for a replacement battery that costs less than one fifth of that to make and bring to market, I’d just tell everyone to buy replacement batteries straight from Dell.

The problems appear to be ongoing and systemic, too; for example, one poster reports that his two otherwise identical Dell branded batteries for a Dell Latitude XT and a Dell Latitude XT2 are not interchangeable, despite having the exact same Dell part number and being official Dell batteries.  If these laptops have serious problems recognizing official Dell batteries, what does that imply about non-Dell branded ones?  It sounds like Dell has spent too much time engineering ways to lock out third parties and not enough time thinking about their customers’ needs.

What would motivate this?  Two things.  One, profits from battery sales (and upgrades and accessory sales in general) are Dell’s biggest money maker, and two, every $200 battery sale seems (based on some third-party replacements being $50 or less) to carry a gross profit of over $150.

The problem is that I can buy any third-party component I want for an HP or Toshiba or Acer or Gateway, and it will gleefully run with my choice.  Dell appears to be the only computer manufacturer (sort of; Dell owns the Alienware brand) that designs ALL of their computers to discourage or outright block third-party components.  Even the desktops tend to be either the long-defunct and universally hated BTX case form factor (like a Dimension E510) or a small form factor variant of BTX (think of the XPS 200, which also has an extremely serious design flaw that causes the hardware to overheat).  Replacement motherboards for these desktops MUST be a matching Dell board, which usually forces the buyer to purchase even more parts to fix a motherboard failure, because now the computer’s case, power supply, and CPU heatsink/fan assembly all have to be replaced as well, often pushing the costs of a motherboard replacement above $200.

Such is the hidden cost of buying a computer from any manufacturer that does not adhere to the long-time industry de facto standard ATX form factor.  Every major computer parts outlet such as CompUSA and Newegg sells ATX cases, power supplies, motherboards, and standardized heatsink assemblies that only change depending on the type of socket a processor fits into.  Any computer tech worth a fig can find a replacement part for a fully ATX compliant design in a matter of minutes, and physically install or replace it without a single problem.  These weird cases that some manufacturers use now are a serious problem and the benefits of sticking with ATX compatible designs deserves an entire essay all by itself.  For now, just be sure that if you buy a computer, it doesn’t have one of those giant holes in the front and it isn’t a cute-looking itty bitty tiny case.  Also, when you look at the rear of the case, all of the connectors should be on the LEFT side with all of the add-in card slots on the BOTTOM; if either or both is reversed, it’s not ATX and you’re getting ripped off and locked in to that vendor’s own exclusive premium-priced parts inventory.  In other words, the cost to get OUT of that computer will be higher than a standard design.

I seem to have diverged from the original point, so in closing, I’ll just say this: DON’T BUY DELL LAPTOPS.  If nothing else convinces you, this will: one of my techs worked for Dell’s premium (paid) tech support (and was the highest rated support agent in the building!), and I ran all of this by him just to be sure that I wasn’t blowing smoke from my backside.  Not only did he agree that I’m hitting the mark squarely, he also confirmed with this exact quote: “I would NEVER buy a new Dell laptop.”

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