Recently, Sky News in the UK ran a sting to investigate local PC repair shops.
They disabled a honeypot machine by loosening one of the RAM chips and took it to various repair shops for service. The machine had “private” data on it, including photos, documents, the usual stuff, and it also had spyware on it, not the kind you get from browsing the interwebs, but the kind that you install to spy on people using your machine.
The exercise was simple: take the borked machine to local repair shops and see what happens.
The local news here in Portland did a similar experiment, minus the spyware, a few months ago. The results were similar to what Sky News found. The majority of repair shops didn’t or couldn’t diagnose the issue and offered detailed and expensive motherboard replacements as the fix.
Sky News also found an alarming number of repair shop technicians snooping through the personal photos, even copying them off to thumb drives. This isn’t new. About a year ago, a PC repair technician in Florida was arrested for installing spyware on women’s laptops and snooping on them using their laptops’ built-in cameras.
I should mention that both Sky News and KGW here in Portland found awesomely capable repair shops that were courteous and otherwise exemplary. They didn’t get as much ink though. Maybe someone Yelp should start including PC repair stores to help people vet local shops. Maybe they do already?
Many of us, myself included, complain about doing family PC support. It’s a bummer to be the go-to for every little glitch, and yet, feel like your warnings about safe practices go ignored. I suppose in some cases getting help from people can make the problem worse, although that’s never happened to any of us, right?
This must be how mechanics feel. In fact, the horror stories about PC repair remind me of how I feel in an auto repair shop. Usually, I just feel like a n00b, stuck with a decidedly thinner wallet, but sometimes, I feel a bit violated too. Like the time I totaled my car and had it towed to a salvage yard; I didn’t have a manifest of what exactly was in my car, but I know for sure I was light a few CDs and a pair of sunglasses when I got my box of personal stuff.
Of course, computers are much more personal than cars and store all kinds of potentially embarrassing and private information.
This trend of careless or wrong diagnosis and invasion of personal privacy is only going to get worse.
On the diagnosis side, I feel for some of these shops. Even though a loose RAM chip seems obvious and easy to fix, I’m not convinced I would have found that right away because it’s just not a common occurrence, in my experience. If you’ve ever opened up a PC and replaced RAM, you’ll know those suckers are pretty well fixed in there. Sure, if the checksum fails on boot, you’d probably crack open the case, but still, computer repair is tough when you’re presented with a machine that’s “not working”.
Plus, people with borked computers are rarely calm, and their anxiety only adds to your own personal stress. Fixing a computer requires patience, which I don’t have in abundance. So, maybe it’s just me.
I have no sympathy, however, for squeezing money out of a customer. Recommending a motherboard replacement for a loose RAM chip seems like negligence in diagnosis or downright fraud. I think we’re all on the same page about invading people’s privacy. When I did PC support back in the mid-90s, I saw way more than I wanted to by accident. Fixing other people’s computers has always felt icky to me. It’s like doing their laundry. TMI.
But what can you do if you don’t have a savvy friend or relative to fix your borked machine?
If you’re a Mac user, the Genius Bar seems like a good option. I’ve only heard a few negative stories, mostly involving snobbery and not incompetence or privacy violation. Maybe the new retail outlets Microsoft is opening will offer a similarly trustworthy experience for Windows people. If so, this is a smart move, given the horror stories that are quickly becoming routine.
Personally, I would never take a machine in for overnight repair without wiping it clean first, yet another reason to have current backups. Then again, if I got to that stage, I’d probably buy something new to avoid the repair cost. Hey, that’s a valid reason to up-level your gadgets.
What about you? I’m pretty sure most of you are in the same boat with me, having the savvy to get it done on your own and recognizing the risks.
If not, tell us how you get your stuff fixed. Do you have any personal horror stories to share?
Comments are good.