Commentary

Hacked: It felt like we were in Password Hell, among other troubles

January 29, 2022 6:10 pm

Laptop. Credit: Mayur Kakade/Getty Images

Hacked.

I write as a warning to those who use the internet  – and hope it helps some of you avoid the trouble we’ve had over the past two months.

I was recently trying to make an HP printer work.  It was almost new, but refusing to print anything after I put in a new ink cartridge.

So I put the name and model of the printer into a Google search seeking the cure.

A website that appeared to belong to HP popped up and the chat box asked about my problem.  When I responded, the chat box offered an HP technician to help me on the phone.

The man who called said his name was Daniel and his ID number was HP8852.

He said he needed to check the computer I was using to see if he could diagnose the problem.  He said he was checking my security and claimed he found a Trojan virus and evidence that someone had been accessing my computer.

Hackers he suggested.  He displayed the words “Trojan virus’’ on the screen and an indication that someone had accessed our system.

He offered to secure the system for me, but said it would cost me $795 to get lifetime protection for all of my computers so no one would ever be able to access them.

At this point I still thought I was dealing with an HP agent.  What could possibly go wrong?

Then he started insisting that I write a check and show it to him and send it by overnight mail.  He wanted $795 to secure our computers for life.

By this time I realized there was a lot that was wrong about this deal,  but I had let him in the door and was trying to figure the best way out.

The second our call ended I googled up the words HP and Scam and found an undated post apparently made by HP.  It warned of fraud and urged people to protect themselves from scammers who might try to convince you that your computer required immediate technical support and request payment while trying to trick you into installing “malicious software, viruses or spyware” that could jeopardize the security of your personal information, passwords and user names.

The warning included a note that HP would never contact customers to provide unsolicited technical support but said some scammers were pretending to work for HP and had even changed their caller ID information to make it appear the calls had come from HP.

It urged anyone who had been contacted by one of the scammers to change all passwords, run a security scan and report the information to authorities.

I immediately disconnected our internet modem and removed the internet connection for all of our devices, including iPhones and started trying to contact CenturyLink, the telephone company that provided our home service.  It took me five days to reach a human being — and that happened only after I posted a complaint on Twitter.  The company’s Twitter team contacted me.

But CenturyLink did furnish us with a better modem and better service despite the fact that COVID keeps technicians away from your house.  They simply mail you the equipment overnight with instructions for installing it.  Fortunately a tech savvy friend helped us set it up.

By then the Best Buy Geek Squad had cleaned our computers and promised to send techs to our house to review all electronics and internet access.

My husband and I had immediately discovered that the hackers had installed some sort of spyware and could access anything we connected to the old internet system.  That left us unable to use our computers for a couple of weeks while we awaited a home visit from the Geek Squad.

We are not computer experts and pay an annual fee for help from the group. The Squad sent a very competent expert to check our system, the printers and everything that could be infected.

I immediately reported the contacts to the FBI’s internet crime complaint center and the Federal Trade Commission, after finding their complaint forms online.  I also called HP to complain and they quickly sent an apology and took a report on our situation.

I did not pay the hackers any money and stopped payment on the check I had written even though I had not mailed it.

We spent weeks changing and re-changing passwords, establishing fraud alerts on all accounts and verifying and re-verifying our identity with each account. It felt like we were in Password Hell. Every account wanted additional verification that it was really one of us accessing it.

Meanwhile we were checking and re-checking accounts to be sure our bank account did not disappear and no one else could charge anything to our credit cards and accounts.

I cannot count the hours of sleep we lost or the number of times we called our bank’s automatic line to verify that our account was okay.

It has taken us almost two months to replace some account cards, create new passwords and accounts and make sure our computers and home internet services are secure. Even my Facebook account had been locked because someone was trying to make changes to it.

It was a nightmare. Be careful out there.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.

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