Monday, November 30, 2009

Hello, Video Professor? This is Barbara Streisand calling.

Even after all my years in tech, there are still a few things that surprise me. One of them is how supposedly tech savvy people, and companies, will commit an utterly avoidable mistake, even after others before them have committed the same mistake, and often on a fairly spectacular scale.

If you follow tech news at all, you should be aware by now of the brouhaha stirred up by the TechCrunch exposé (among others) regarding "scammy" adverts in online social network games, with Facebook primarily profiled as the poster child. Even if you don't follow tech news, you've probably seen some reference to the whole sordid mess, as it got picked up by mainstream outlets like The Washington Post and Time, as well as the far geekier Slashdot. I'd love to write a post about it all myself, but so much has already been written, and so well, that anything I might have to add would likely be more noise than signal.

Amongst all the noise - and signal - was a brief reference to an ad for the "Video Professor". You've likely seen the TV commericals, where this guy who looks a bit like a cross between J. Jonah Jameson and the Monopoly Banker tells you he can make you a whiz-bang wizard with Microsoft Word, or Excel, or Powerpoint, or whatever, with his comprehensive, interactive lessons, all available on CDs with a free trial blah-blah-blah . Yeah, you can tell how those ads had me riveted. For one thing, I don't need to learn -->insert program here<--; of the stuff touted by the Video Professor, either I already know it or I don't use it. If I do need to learn a new trick in Microsoft Word (or whatever), there are plenty of available online resources, some from Microsoft themselves, and I don't have to check out these resources as a "free trial", they are just plain free. For another thing, I need more software CDs like I need a hole in the head (BTW, if anyone out there wants some nerdy drink coasters, drop me a line).

Since I never gave the venerable Video Prof more than a glance in passing, it never occurred to me to stop and take a hard look at him as a possible scammer. Not until now, that is. You'd think a company that claims to be in the business of teaching people how to use computers would be familar with the Streisand Effect, and would know better than to put themselves squarely on the map with it. Evidently the Video Professor missed this lesson, and has managed to get the undivided (and no doubt unwelcome) attention of the watchdogs at TechCrunch, going from being just a "side note" to a target on which TC (and MA in particular) is focused "like a laser". Oops.

Of course, the Streisamd Effect once set in motion generates its own self-perpetuating momentum, so naturally references to the "Video Professor Scam" are popping up on the 'net like mushrooms after a spring rain, ranging from side notes (that one's a single sentence mention following list item #5) to focused lasers. I'm sure more references will pop up, including this one as soon as I post it. For my own safety, I'm going to shield myself with that journalistic device Mike Arrington so hates (even though I Am Not A Journalist) and declare that the opinions expressed in any and all articles linked here are not necessarily my own. It is up to you, Gentle Reader, to judge the sources on their own merit and decide for yourself if the Video Professor's schtick does indeed qualify as a scam.

Now, I will go out on a bit of a limb here and state that at the very least, I think you could find a much better value for your money than the Video Professor's CDs, starting with a set of second hand dish towels and some macramé plant hangers from your local garage sale or flea market. That most definitely is my opinion, and it is, as always, absolutely free.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Are we having fun yet...?

Did you have fun this weekend? If so, did you post photos of this fun to your Facebook account? And if you did that, did you (hopefully) stop to consider whether those photos could get you into trouble with your significant other, your boss, or your mom? Maybe you think you don't have to worry about that, because your S.O., boss, or mom were with you (so you've got still more photos to ensure they will withhold any judgement), or because the fun was so innocent (or within their definition of innocent) that they wouldn't care. Maybe you don't care, because such opinions have no influence in your life, or because you've locked your Facebook account down so the only people who can see your photos are the friends you've approved (and therefore will presumably approve of you).

If you think no one whose opinion could literally change your life might see your Facebook photos, you're probably wrong.

If you think no one other than the friends you have approved can see your Facebook photos, you're wrong. Period.

And if you think you don't care who sees your Facebook photos, ask yourself if you'd care if your insurance company saw them - and then dropped you.

The story above concerns health insurance, but raises questions about what else insurance companies might find useful out there on the intarwebs. If your fun this weekend was marred by a fender-bender and you took pictures of it, I would strongly suggest you hold off on posting those pictures to your Facebook least until you get those pictures to your auto insurance company, and you are sure of their judgement.

And if you took pictures that could be in any way be construed as you having the remotest bit of fun at the scene of the accident, I would strongly suggest not posting those pictures to your Facebook page at all.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Loyalty can be bought - has yours?

There's a few reasons why I have one credit card designated solely for online shopping, but up until now having to beware of being surreptitiously signed up for some fee-charging "loyalty program" wasn't one of them. This definitely makes my "WHOA!!" list.

Read the above linked article thoroughly, and more than once if the first time doesn't make you mad enough. Then check the statements of any credit cards you've used online - thoroughly. If you find you've been getting charged for "loyalty" you didn't definitively declare, I'd suggest you make some "customer noise" with the volume cranked up to max. Yeah, buyer beware, caveat emptor, RTFP (that's my acronym for Read The Fine Print, before anyone thinks I got it wrong), and all that, but even in the grey area of letting people hang themselves with their own rope there's a difference between someone sticking their head in a noose that's more or less visible, and a noose that gets slipped over a person's head while a sleazy advertiser distracts them by hollering "HEY LOOK, OVER THERE - CASH BACK AND A COUPON!!".

For myself, I've never made a purchase via either directly or through an ad on their website, but I'm nixing my account there ASAP. I check it only once in a blue moon, and any true classmates of mine who haven't already found me via other (and better) channels are probably people I don't care to hook back up with anyway.

Yes, it's a jungle out there. That still doesn't give supposedly legitimate online businesses (or their affiliates) a free pass to act like starving jackals.

p.s. Techcrunch has a got plenty of scoop here. Many of the comments are as enlightening as the article itself, so settle back with a favorite beverage if you have time for a bit of reading.

Oh, and have some aspirin handy.

A Phew Phishing Phacts

Hopefully by now, everyone who's had an email account for any length of time has not only heard the term "phishing", but actually knows what it is. Almost certainly anyone who's had an email account for any length of time has gotten at least a few phishing emails (for varying values of "a few").

CNET recently posted sort of "phishing primer" article that's worth the read. In a nutshell, phishing is, in its most common form, that scary/shrieking/somber missive in your inbox that proclaims to be from ->insert official organization and logo here<- and tells you to click the embedded link and log in to verify your information now or risk having your PayPal/eBay/CheckFree/Amazon/whatever account shut down.

Alternatively you may be facing an audit (or a refund!) from the IRS, or your bank has just been declared "failed" (I got one of these the other day, which made me smile - I've already given my bank a "FAIL" many times over the years, so I hardly need an email notice about it); the list goes on and on. One of my personal recent favorites is the one proclaiming to be from the email provider itself, warning that the "servers" are due to be "upgraded", so all user account information needs to be verified beforehand. I guess they're not planning on backing up all that "account info" themselves prior to the "upgrade", and in fact have never stored or backed it up at all. C'mon, folks, if your email provider has to email you to provide them with your basic email account information via an email reply...think about it. Have some aspirin handy.

There's a few more phishing facts worth elaborating on:

The warnings to be wary of .exe file attachments are all well and good. Problem is, malicious code can be embedded in .doc files, .xls files, .ppt files, .zip files, .gif files, .pdf files - bascially any kind of file that can have executable code embedded in it. So be wary of any attached file you aren't specifically expecting. And do yourself a favor - turn off the preview pane in your email client. Now. The days when you had to explicitly open an attachment for it to deliver its payload are long gone; just opening the email it's attached to can be enough. The content of the email itself can be enough, if it's got Evile Dancing Bunnies in it and you have your email client set to render .html when you open a message. Guess what the preview pane for your inbox does?

If you feel irresistibly compelled to call a phone number contained in a suspicious email, do not call from your cell phone. Call from a land line you don't care about, or borrow a cell phone from someone you don't like. The scammers will happily settle for a working phone number they can sell off to telemarketers or use for SMS spam if they can't get the goods via email.

If you've clicked on an embedded link and been directed to a website, it's too late to worry about being fooled. Chances are good you already have. Shut down your web browser, kick off a complete virus scan, and go play outside while it runs. If you don't have a working and updated antivirus installed on your computer, slap yourself sharply across the face and then go shopping for one. When you get back, start looking for those restore CDs that came with your computer. You might need them.

Finally, as always, never EVER respond to any sort of spam, even to give the spammer what-for and demand they blot your email address forever from their consciousness. All you're doing is confirming for them that A) your email account is in fact active, and B) you opened their email. Jackpot for them, but no cookies for you. Well, except the ones they may have scattered all over your hard drive while they sold your verified email address to fellow spammers for the highest bid.

Time for me to wrap up a post that's turned waaaay longer than I intended...I need to go check my email. :)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Oldies but goodies

Who says legacy hardware can't still be useful in production? And I've had people point and laugh because I run a MacIntoaster...

Traffic Signal Computer On The Blink.

"This is a rather old computer. It's probably 25 to 30 years old. It's a 1980s-vintage Data General main frame computer. Parts are not really available."

Well, okay perhaps in this instance it's not exactly useful - at least not at the moment - but, still in production. Better than I expected, actually; I was thinking maybe they had a 20+ year old workstation running OS/2. And while security by obscurity is definitely not a recommended approach, I know my PPC 7100 is secure, certainly as long as there's no land line handy for connecting the modem. ;-)

(bonus question for anyone under 30 reading this: what's a land line, anyway?)

Okay, back to watching my Cube's bouncing beach ball. :-P Hey, so it's slow at times, but it is still both in production AND useful.