Business Columns & Blogs

If someone from the 'Windows Security Desk' calls you, hang up immediately

And here is some more stuff I know, the “we’re done with Halloween, it’s on to Thanksgiving” edition:

• By now, those who rely on the Internet for commerce, communication or entertainment have become accustomed, if not numb, to the daily barrage of hoaxes, frauds and scams that land in the spam filter of the email program.

The pleas for assistance from the widow of a deposed general of a west African nation that once spurred puzzlement and then amusement over the tortured English and word-for-word duplication of the last 12,763 such messages now merit not a single glance. Instead they, along with the daily warnings that one’s email account is about to be shut down unless a certain link is clicked upon, the notification of a winning lottery ticket, even the now-rare offers of exotic medicines, are flushed away with a quick “select all” followed by an even faster “delete.”

And then you get this phone call.

“Hello sir, I’m calling from the Windows Security Desk. We have detected that your computer may have been infected by a virus that could seriously damage it. Are you at your computer? Good. Would you please type in the following. ...”

That’s a paraphrase and a compilation of the latest scam to sweep the Internet. Or maybe latest isn’t quite the right word. Your columnist had not heard of or encountered it until reading about it on the local tech website GeekWire.

But since then he has been unfortunate enough to wind up on whatever call list circulates among practitioners of such frauds. In the past three weeks he has received no fewer than half a dozen such calls. A perusal of stories on the Internet suggests this has been going on for several years, so apparently we’re late to the game.

Like those emails asking for assistance in transferring a very large sum of money out of Burkina Faso, the calls follow common themes and scripts. Not to cast aspersions on an entire subcontinent, but the callers speak in Indian-accented English. In the background of these calls is the familiar soundtrack of a call center, presumably the product of a room of computer diagnosticians helpfully alerting computer users to lurking viruses.

The advantage of the email scams, at least from the scamsters’ point of view, was cost. Maybe the response rate was low, but it cost virtually nothing to send out millions of emails in the hope of snaring a live one. The computer-security scam requires more expense and effort.

But it must work (and does, according to news accounts), or they wouldn’t bother. Stay on the call long enough, and you’ll be instructed to download software that surreptitiously gives control of your computer to anyone wanting to grab confidential information. You might also be asked to fork over payment for the “service” of “decontaminating” your computer.

For the record, Microsoft’s own website has an alert on this scam, advising consumers that “we do not send unsolicited email messages or make unsolicited phone calls to request personal or financial information or fix your computer. If you receive an unsolicited email message or phone call that purports to be from Microsoft and requests that you send personal information or click links, delete the message or hang up the phone.”

Your columnist has dealt with some of the calls by hanging up at the first mention of Windows and security, others by yelling (hey, everyone needs to vent a little frustration during the work day), and still others by reading aloud stories about the scam. That last approach has been met with protestations that “that is not us, fraud is happening somewhere else.”

The time it takes to deal with these calls is not great. Still, add up the amount of time the targets are spending dealing with this nonsense, let alone the time spent setting up and running this scam, and muse for a while on what might be accomplished if even some of that time were converted to productive work.

• In the midst of a campaign for commissioner posts as well as a regional debate over the role and future of port districts, the Port of Seattle dropped a little “oh by the way” announcement recently with its disclosure that the Elliott Bay container-terminal operators have asked for discussions of “operations, facilities, services and other matters in order to improve service, reduce costs, increase efficiency and otherwise optimize conditions at the port,” according to a joint statement from the port and the operators.

“Shipping lines are consolidating into a handful of alliances and investing in larger vessels to reduce costs, which also results in fewer port calls,” the statement said. “Many container terminals and shipping lines are experiencing losses.” According to a Port of Seattle financial report, container volumes there were down 22 percent for the first half of the year compared with a year ago, likely because of the shift of Grand Alliance traffic to Tacoma, which was up 29 percent for the same period (the West Coast overall was up 1 percent).

This is no small deal for the region especially if, as is the widespread assumption, the discussion turns to lease fees. If the Port of Seattle doesn’t grant concessions, it makes other options — among them Tacoma and the Canadian ports — more attractive for shipping lines. If it does, it weakens its own financial position, with no guarantee of increased business to compensate.

The Port of Tacoma says it has not had any conversations with its terminal operators about renegotiating leases. If the Port of Seattle is pressured into rewriting leases, that statement may have to be appended with the word “yet.” Keep watching this one.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at