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Issue #628: August 4-10, 2019

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Q: How can you select reliable on-line assistance? Is there a database of tested reliable help that you can safely use remote access such as Let Me In?

– Mary R.
Shalimar, Florida

A: As often happens here at It’s Geek To Me, your inquiry implies the need for additional information about which you didn’t explicitly ask. So, I’m going to go ahead and try to fill-in the gaps under the assumption that the only reason you didn’t ask was because you didn’t know to ask, and that’s probably why you asked in the first place.

First things first: Never, ever, EVER, use a company, service, individual or whatever, if the first time you heard from them was because they somehow contacted you to tell you that an error was detected on your system. This includes messages that pop-up while you’re browsing, dialogs that appear out of nowhere while you are using your computer, e-mails of any sort, and telephone calls claiming that illicit activity has been traced to a computer at your phone number or address. No matter how legitimate these sound, they are phony. Don’t be impressed by claims that these come from Microsoft, or any legitimate-sounding company. Computers are never diagnosed and repaired in this manner. Any such contacts are almost certainly from someone who is working on behalf of an organized hacker group to recruit PCs into a network of computers called a botnet. It’s been a while since I wrote about them, but I have covered botnets in previous columns (Geek Note: see I.G.T.M. #583, Sep 23-29, 2018, and I.G.T.M. # 484, Nov 6-12, 2016). These contacts are designed for one purpose, and that is for the hacker to get access to your computer for their own nefarious purpose, which is usually to install malware. The worst ones actually trick you into believing they’ve fixed something, which allows them to charge you, so you actually pay for the privilege of getting your computer infected.

Such danger is still present even when the contact begins with you. It is difficult to impossible to determine the legitimacy of something that you find online. Hackers can – and do – hang out a shingle offering computer services, then wait for people with computer problems to come to them to give them access to their PC. You might even get your problem fixed in the process, but that requires giving them unfettered access to your PC, during which they can do whatever they please.

So, this brings us around to your original question of how can you tell the difference between legitimate help, and waiting hackers? I know of no “database of tested reliable help” however, online reviews can be a pretty good way of determining how good a company performs. However, these can be easily faked. I wonder if you saw a column I wrote last year (Geek Note: I.G.T.M. #588, Oct 28-Nov 3, 2018) in which reader Bob S. asked for assistance in determining the legitimacy of a company one of his family members was using for assistance. The bulk of my answer in that column was devoted to the methods I used to do my amateur background investigation into this company and expose its true nature. I’m pleased to report that a quick check of the URL as I write this revealed that the site has been taken offline.

For my money, about the only reliable way of knowing a company is legitimate is to have a pre-existing relationship with them. You can only do so much research, but a few telephone calls, check-ins with websites that specialize in scam reporting, and so forth are a great place to start. Sometimes though, it’s best to rely on a local provider that has a storefront that you can see and visit, and check for the existence of a registered business license.

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