Beware of Strangers at your Digital Door

Our first apartment had a little chain on the door that allowed you to size up any person knocking before deciding to give them further access. With a stranger in your doorway, your desire for self-preservation led you to weigh every stranger with an abundance of caution.

What has made crime especially insidious in recent years is that it attacks people in areas where they are unprepared to defend themselves. The criminal stranger has moved from your front door to your computer screen, or telephone. If a stranger sends an email, or pops up on your screen, since there is no personal physical threat as is the case with standing at your door, the natural protection mechanisms often do not engage. This is especially true of our older population who, unlike the youth, has not grown up with a healthy distrust of everything digital.

This week an individual told me the story of her encounter with a computer repairperson. She was surfing the Internet when a window popped up containing a big warning stating a virus had infected her computer. It claimed that immediate action needed to be taken to protect her computer files and her personal data from possible identity theft.

The warning offered a link that would take her to a site that could safely remove the virus. Had this been a strange man at her door, she would likely have stayed safely behind the chain, but without her natural defenses she believed the message and clicked on the link. Within a short period of time she had entered her credit card information and computer password to enable the “chat room” repairman to complete the repair. When the repairman informed her he had successfully removed the dangerous virus, she thanked him and closed out the session feeling very relieved.

The next day when she went to access her computer she noticed her logon password had been changed. Fortunately she had written down the password for a separate user account so she was able to get the thing running and set about to check the news.

While doing so she received an interesting phone call from the same computer repairman to inform her that he had overbilled her and wanted to give her a refund deposited directly to her bank so “could she please provide her banking information?” It was at this point that she called our office to see if I thought it sounded fishy. I immediately advised her to unplug her computer, and start calling her financial institutions to warn them of the potential breach.

We need to treat strangers at our digital doors the same way we treat them at our physical doors. If you did not initiate the contact, whether it be through the internet, email or by telephone, be suspicious. Assume for your own protection that the stranger may be up to no good. A lifetime of careful financial living can be easily turned upside down in a moment of vulnerability.