Digital Fever – Skepticism & Good Sense

 

There just seems to be something about computers, something that screams credibility and believability to most people. In the early days of computers big corporations and the Federal government used computer cards for checks because they could be mechanically sorted when they came back from the bank. It was convenience really, for the originator not the recipient.

You merely preprint the normal check information on computer card stock and then generate the final check with a printed card punch. The recipient received a very official-looking check in a windowed envelope and everyone recognizes that such a check could only have originated with a mega-corporation or the government, including bank tellers. It wasn't long before check forgers caught on to this and realized how easy these checks were to duplicate as long as you had access to a card punch or facsimile thereof. You see bank tellers couldn't “read” the holes in the check but they sure looked official. Only a machine could differentiate the bogus checks and the checks only came in contact with the machines much latter in the process.

The days of the punched computer card checks are long gone. Today's checks are preprinted with a special magnetic ink that still allows them to be machine sorted but is indistinguishable to the naked eye from normal ink. Despite the best efforts of banks and others most modern checks remain incredibly easy to forge but they don't have that cosmetic computer credibility.

Why did I just spend three paragraphs on this historical morsel, because today's Internet has become the con man's dream. Many of us still lack even a semblance of skepticism about things computer related. Whether it be our incredible gullibility for computer hoaxes, shoddy “news” websites, spyware-laden “free” software or pop-ups, fraudulent e-tailers or the all-too-common phishing e-mail even the most urban and sophisticated of us rubes it seems to Internet con artists. Even worse, many of us actually participate in the fraud by passing this material off to others in our circle of friends.

When our kid with crumbs on his t-shirt and frosting around his mouth claims he has no idea who ate the chocolate cake on the table we are skeptical. We notice the story discrepancies and the visual clues. When we receive a bulk mail offer that is “too good to be true” we typically detect it quickly and toss it in the garbage. But when we receive an e-mail about how some crooked Nigerian government official who choose only us to be his confederate in a scheme to loot his country's treasury we throw caution to the wind and send him our banking information so he can wire the millions to us. If a computer is involved we all seem to be pigeons waiting to be plucked.

I am pretty tired of getting forwarded e-mails of transparent frauds and untruths disguised as news. Anyone can put up a website these days and say just about anything about whatever topic suits their fancy. We wouldn't buy this bullshit if it was served to us by snail mail or some loudmouth at work but find in in our e-mail or on a website and we abandon our skepticism and accept it on blind faith. The Internet is full of frauds, hoaxes and urban legends not to mention just plain shoddy versions of news and history. Stories about celebrities, politicians, conspiracies and outrageous injustices are served up to a willing and seemingly insatiable audience.

This is so big that there are websites devoted to the phenomenon. Check out some of the following: www.hoaxbusters.ciac.org, www.snopes.com, www.millersmiles.co.uk, www.vmyths.com, www.hoaxbusters.org, www.symantec.com/avcenter/hoax.html, www.truthorfiction.com, www.cdc.gov/hoax_rumors.htm, www.eff.org/Net_culture/Folklore/Hoaxes, www.antiphishing.org, www.crimes-of-persuasion.com, www.scambusters.org, www.fraud.org, www.internethoaxes.info. These are just a sample of the many websites you can explore to learn more and help develop some healthy skepticism.

Buying into many of these hoaxes merely makes you look like a putz to your friends but the damage can be far worse. There are far too many people forming political judgments based on falsehoods presented as fact on websites. You need look no further than the letters to the editor page of the Zephyr for examples of people who have been spoon-fed political claptrap via websites that they simply assume must be true.

People are exposing themselves to credit card and bank fraud when they fall for a phishing attempt. Phishing is almost always done by e-mail that appears to be from your bank or some entity with whom you do business. Typically a phishing e-mail will request private information like account numbers or passwords that will later be used to defraud you. A common technique is to embed a link to what may appear to be an “official” web page with a form you can fill out. No legitimate bank or Internet business will ever ask you to divulge such information in this way.

The point of this column isn't to make you feel stupid for having fallen for an Internet scam or hoax but to make you more sensitive to them in the future. Just as in people you meet in your day-to-day lives credibility isn't something you should simply presume or take on faith. It must be earned and maintained before you can trust someone unconditionally. The same should be true of websites and the authors of e-mails.

Mike Kroll is an unabashed skeptic who operates Dr. Mike Computer Therapist, a small computer shop in Galesburg where he daily provides therapy to all sorts of computers. You can reach him by e-mail at <Dr.Mike@Bizconnect.net>