It happened as, I assume, many of these things do: It was a busy day, I was working at home, and the cellphone rang. Dozens of calls were coming in, and I assumed it was a colleague.
Instead, a man intoned loudly, “This is a Google Help Center. Your computer has been hacked. Your bank account and other financial records are in serious jeopardy.”
I should have quickly hung up, but I was mired in work, thinking about all the things I need to think about in a workday, and I hung on. Soon, a woman with a soothing voice got on the phone, telling me all would be well and that the help center would work this out with me.
Within minutes, I was sent a screen shot. It showed a long list of phone numbers. Some of them were from area codes I recognized in the U.S. Others were not.
The woman told me that Chinese and Russian hackers had gotten into my computer system and had “made many attempts” to get into my bank account. She said they had not yet succeeded, but were extremely persistent and would eventually find their way in.
Time to hang up? Of course. Most of my body and soul didn’t believe her, but to be perfectly candid, a tiny part wasn’t entirely sure. What if it was Google?
The man returned to the phone. He asked if I lived near a Walmart or a CVS. He said I would need to go to either and purchase an Apple card. I said, “Wait! You said you’re Google. Why are you telling me to go buy an Apple card?”
He fumbled a moment before saying the Apple card was “standard” for doing business. He asked if I had a cellphone, and told me to keep it on as I drove to the store and to keep it on once I was in the store.
But I think he knew he had failed. Still, he asked me to put $400 to $1,000 on the Apple card and to call him once I did. He said the card had a code that I would need to read to him.
That was it.
I told him I had no intention of going to any store and that I would report the call to my bank and any authority I could think of. He maintained his poise. He said he would call me back in a few hours to see if I had changed my mind, and wanted to keep the hackers away from my bank account.
He never called.
I bring all of this up because this is a serious problem, and it’s getting worse. Recently, a close friend was hacked, and important work data from his files was destroyed. I read recently about an elderly grandmother who lived by herself who was hacked. She was told to go outside on a chilly evening and put $400 on a card and give the caller the numbers. She was saved at the last minute by a friend.
Many people I know think it can’t happen to them. But it can. Consider this FBI statistic: The agency’s Internet Crime Complaint Center said the total losses reported to it by scam victims increased to $3.5 billion in 2019 from $1.4 billion in 2017.
Many local, state and federal agencies employ cyber experts who try to track down hackers. But the real issue is that it’s up to each and every one of us to be guardians of our own digital information.
There are the simple steps to take. Outfit your computer with software that provides protection against hackers. Don’t answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize. Hang up on anyone who asks for money over the phone. Don’t play any of the quizzes or games on Facebook. Many are just ways to get your email or other information.
But there’s another way. It comes from Orthodox Jewish tradition to observe shabbos, or the Sabbath. The custom includes detaching yourself from all electronic devices — cellphones, computers, TVs and radios — from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. Instead, shabbos observers spend time with friends and family, think about ways they might become better people, read books and study.
I’m not such an observer, but given the 24-hour, round-the-clock chatter and noise that makes up our lives, I can’t help thinking about giving up the electronic gadgets one day a week and just listening to the voices of family members and friends. That’s really the only kind of noise I now long to hear.
James Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments about this column? JBerstein@liherald.com.