PC Repair Horror Stories

July 31st, 2009 13 Comments

Don't Worry I'm from Tech SupportRecently, 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.


Possibly Related Posts

13 Responses to “PC Repair Horror Stories”

  1. Brian Huff Says:

    wiping the drive won't help much… those tech guys are the ones with the un-eraser tools. o_O

  2. Jake Says:

    To recover a reformatted drive? Even so, you run into an effort barrier, i.e. why recover a cleaned drive when you can snoop on someone else's unprotected one?

  3. Gary Says:

    “Personally, I would never take a machine in for overnight repair without wiping it clean first”. I did go through that exercise when I took a PC in for an upgrade. Full backup, erasing every personal file plus anywhere passwords may be stored, plus running an eraser program to REALLY wipe the space.
    Got the machine back, reloaded a bunch of stuff then found one of the USB ports wouldn't work. Lucky it was just a disconnected cable I could do myself, as I didn't want to go through that again.
    If they are real crooks (as opposed to just being nosy), duplicating even a formatted drive and scanning for something like a credit card number wouldn't be too hard.
    Of course if it is broken (eg won't boot) you may not be able to do that.

  4. Jake Says:

    I'm sure some ring of data-stealing crooks who lifted personal passwords and information off of computers in for repair will eventually surface. Like I said to Bex, not being an easy target probably helps a lot, just like with botnet/virus/spyware. Being fully protected is unicorn, so why fool yourself?

  5. Jim Says:

    I'm not too much of a techy, but my Dad often calls me for help on his PC. Usually the problem can be fixed by doing a quick search on Google, and I'm surprised that my Dad doesn't do the same. Maybe it's a confidence thing. Or maybe it's easier to call me. I don't mind anyway.

    Recently my PC died – the power supply unit blew up complete with fizzes, pops, bangs and smoke. Took it to a PC shop, who tried a new PSU, which went the same way. Bought a new PC, which had Vista on it. Wow! I was amazed at how bad (i.e. slow, sluggish etc. – looked pretty, didn't do anything useful) that was. There was a downgrade to XP option there – tried that, and it was like a bad install of XP. Wiped everything, put a clean install of XP on it, and it was like new again.

  6. Jim Says:

    I'm not too much of a techy, but my Dad often calls me for help on his PC. Usually the problem can be fixed by doing a quick search on Google, and I'm surprised that my Dad doesn't do the same. Maybe it's a confidence thing. Or maybe it's easier to call me. I don't mind anyway.

    Recently my PC died – the power supply unit blew up complete with fizzes, pops, bangs and smoke. Took it to a PC shop, who tried a new PSU, which went the same way. Bought a new PC, which had Vista on it. Wow! I was amazed at how bad (i.e. slow, sluggish etc. – looked pretty, didn't do anything useful) that was. There was a downgrade to XP option there – tried that, and it was like a bad install of XP. Wiped everything, put a clean install of XP on it, and it was like new again.

  7. Jake Says:

    Yeah, I wonder about why people don't Google any and all PC issues. That's my secret in many cases too. I think you're right it's a confidence thing, plus a bit of paranoia too, since the interwebs are a bad place with bad advice.

    Rich says Windows 7 is much better than Vista. If it weren't such a pain, clean reinstalls should probably be done on Windows boxes every year, just to wipe the slate. Forget limping along with defragging and scanning.

  8. joel garry Says:

    Why people don't google any and all pc issues? Could it be because they suspect every top set of links found are come-ons for dysfunctional clean your registry and tune-your-pc ripoffs?

    Local Fry's kept wife's PC for over a month before “you need new motherboard.” New Dell laptop only a few dollars more, except stuck with non-XPable Vista.

  9. Jake Says:

    You're probably right. People are conditioned to avoid any and all PC-help from the interwebs. It's a weird Catch-22. On the one hand, you're afraid to update b/c it will mess w/your PC-chi, but on the other, you won't get help from the best resource for fixing most issues b/c you're paranoid about baddies who would mess w/your unpatched PC.

  10. Facebook User Says:

    A Rupert Murdoch company concerned about snooping – well, I never….

    Usually, if I can't fix it myself, then it's probably time for a new machine. However, let's put all this in perspective. How many times have you got your car back from the shop and it runs just as badly but the radio stations are all messed up and somebody's put the Britney CD into the Kronos Quartet jewel case?

    That said, there are some professional operations out there, I think it all comes down to recommendations, gut feelings and making sure the guys working behind the counter look like the ones from the IT Crowd (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gt9j80Jkc_A).

  11. Jake Says:

    I've generally had pretty decent luck with auto repair shops, and now I know where my Britney CD went :)

    There are always good shops out there, which is why I asked about Yelp. That would be great for repair shops of all kinds. I can't open that video, and now I'm curious.

  12. uvox Says:

    Video is from the “IT Crowd” on youtube (“IT Crowd: truest moment ever!”) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gt9j80Jkc_A. It's a comedy about two guys working in IT. Allegedly. Not sure if youtube allows global content anymore – should work (as I can see it going through a US proxy).

  13. John Says:

    That’s really sad that some places “spy on” other people’s data and make copies of it. Most of the computer places I’ve been to have been pretty decent. One was particularly good at tracking down that my underpowered PSU was the cause of my woes.
    I really don’t mind helping other people who know less than me with their computers. I’ve even offered to help my ex-neighbours, not that they ever asked me for anything to fix.
    The only issue I can recall is one place not giving me my copy of Windows 7, because they thought you weren’t supposed to give the customer a copy. (Huh?!) I got it off them though. ;-)

Leave a Reply