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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Keeping Net users safe the Linux way

31 January 2019

The internet is a wonderful thing.

It has changed the way we learn, communicate, shop, work and enjoy our leisure time.

People like myself, who grew up long before the internet existed, remember the pre-Net days with some fondness -- but I doubt we'd ever want to return to such times. From a communications and global awareness perspective, they were indeed dark days.

However, along with all the many benefits, opportunities and pleasures that the Net brings to our lives also come some dangers, threats and down-sides.

So far this week, for instance, I've had three calls from Spark's technical support desk, each advising me that their systems have detected malware on my computer and that there are overseas hackers connected to my PC.

On receiving these calls, my first thought was obviously "why are there so many people with accents from the Indian subcontinent employed in Spark's technical support department? Are Kiwis not good enough for such roles?

Fear not dear reader, of course I was aware that these were those nasty scammers trying to trick me into giving them access to my computer and parting with my hard-earned cash.

Sadly however, there are plenty of unwitting dupes out there who, scared into action by the claims made in these calls, give full access to the scammers and even hand over their credit-card details or buy fists-full of iTunes vouchers to pay them.

It seems to be mainly the elderly who get caught by these guys -- probably because they were bought up in that pre-internet era when you could leave your doors unlocked and leave your car running outside the shops while you rushed in to grab a loaf of bread (wrapped in waxed paper). Sadly, the world is a much different place today and the anonymity provided by our globally connected network of computers has see a huge rise in crimes of dishonesty and fraud.

Whilst the tech-savvy amongst us may have a lot of fun baiting those scammers who want us to believe that we are being hacked by malware and viruses, the reality is that "the average Joe" can often be scared into doing silly things by these cold-calling crooks.

In the past month or so I've been getting two or three of these calls a week so I wonder if there are multiple groups of scammers or if they're recycling the same phone numbers. My bet is on the former option because you'd think they'd have flagged my number as "don't waste your time" by now if this was all being done from the same scam-haus.

To be honest, I've grown kind of tired of stringing them along and, to their credit, the scammers have become more adept at qualifying their targets, so as not to waste too much time with people that are either too smart or obviously not going to fall for the scam but I have tried a number of different strategies when dealing with these calls.

The last call left the would-be scammer very upset because I "played" him for about 20 minutes, only to leave him snookered when I admitted that "I don't know anything about computers so my son set up this one for me and it says Linx, Lunx or Lomix or something when I turn it on. He told me this was safer than Windows and meant that scammers like you wouldn't be able to rip me off."

And therein is perhaps the secret to protecting our oldies (hell, I'm almost in that category myself!)

If you've got a parent, older sibling or indeed know anyone who is using Windows, it might be a really nice idea to switch them to Linux.

These days, distros such as Mint are so much like Windows in terms of their user-interface and come with so many useful programs that there's no reason to go the Windows route at all.

Load up their machine with a good distro, give them a few minutes coaching and then you can sleep soundly at night, knowing that they're far less likely to get ripped by the scammers whose little voice script and flowchart makes no allowance for anything other than Windows-based machines. The fact that recent scammer calls have made absolutely no attempt to proceed when I mention the 'L' word is proof of that.

With a good Linux distro, regular updating is a breeze, downloading and installing new programs is simple and safe, and even backups have become point-and-click easy.

Libre Office will do everything most people expect from the Microsoft-equivalent software and you can throw a copy of your favourite browser into the mix to make everyone feel right at home and comfortable.

There really are very few down-sides to running Linux these days, especially in the case of the most vulnerable members of our society who might otherwise find themselves in all sorts of trouble with scammers -- or even real viruses and malware.

Today's question: how many readers have already set up Linux on the computers of others who might lack the tech-savvy to protect themselves against scammers or malicious bits of code that are targeting Windows-based machines? Has it been an easy task? Have you identified any issues?

Let's make the online world a safer place, one upgrade (to Linux) at a time, eh?

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