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Last Tuesday my computer got the flu. Something called System Tool tried to convince me that my PC was infected and that I had to upgrade my anti-virus at once. I didn’t buy it (in any sense of the verb), but it froze my screen and started a cascade of events that led to a full week sans desktop. Meanwhile, the laptop’s been complaining that it needs new keys to the anti-virus. Easy peasy, I thought, and called Customer Support (CS). What’s a little license key, right? Wrong.

“Let’s look under the hood,” says CS, as he does that thing that always amazes me, which is to manipulate my mouse all the way from India. Centuries years ago, he’d have burned as a witch for magic like that. But I digress…

“Oh, not good,” says CS, and he starts opening files and circling them with a virtual red pen, showing me — with speed and authority — all the things that are wrong with my baby, all of which are upsetting my anti-virus and putting me at serious risk, which he, of course, can fix…if I sign up for a year of extra support for $169. And don’t try to do this with a local guy, he warns. They don’t know the platform and will crash the computer.

At which point I get mad. I hate a hard sell. Stubbornly and foolishly hate it. I’ll refuse water in the desert if someone’s selling that hard.  And this is the System Tool all over again, in the flesh, trying to sound helpful and wise, peddling fear and techno-babble. It’s just another kind of scareware. And I’m still not buying it.

Fear is a potent motivator. Advertisers use it all the time. So do politicians. A few well placed words or images and fear, along with its cousins — anxiety, concern and worry –can make you do all kinds of stupid things. It doesn’t even have to be your own fear. When I was in my 20s, a panicked man convinced me that his young daughter was locked in a car and needed help. Right now. And like that, I had the virus: the contact high of high concern. And like that, we were in my car, driving who knows where to get who knows what to solve it. In the end, there was no daughter, just a nut looking for a joy ride.  I was lucky enough to get out of it with no harm but a dent to my wallet and my time, not to mention a huge lesson on the dark magic of other people’s emergencies. Because, even if there had been a child in jeopardy, panicked people rarely offer the best solutions.

Years later, when I first saw Bowling for Columbine, I really got it: the most politically radical stance I could take was to resist scare tactics. Scareware always has an agenda.

Half a morning later, I finally came away with reinstalled software (no charge), a new license key, and a renewed appreciation for the strange spells that words can cast. Distance computer control may amaze me, but words and warnings are stronger stuff.

So watch out for pop-up programs that want to “save” your computer — what looks like Batman could easily be The Joker — and notice who’s playing the drums of fear. What are they really saying? And what do they really want?

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