I’ve gotten two calls from Microsoft Support in the last two days. It seems their monitors detected that my personal computer had downloaded some viruses.

This is remarkable in a number of respects. First, the caller spoke directly to me as the owner of a Windows computer, without first asking for me by name, when there are actually four computers in the house owned by four different people and mine is the one that is not a Windows computer. Second, I had no idea Microsoft had a phone number associated with any of our computers. Third, I had no idea Microsoft was capable of monitoring the sum of Internet traffic on all Microsoft computers, and detecting uploads of viruses, especially considering that they are apparently unable to make their operating system more secure against said viruses. And, finally, I had no idea Microsoft Support routinely called from a phone number in Colorado Springs assigned to one Edward Deitl.

A scam, of course. I was in a grumpy mood; I told the caller that I owned a Linux box, to quit bull—–ing me, and to take his wire fraud elsewhere.

(My wife and daughter, overhearing this conversation, were quite upset. Not that someone had just tried to con me, but that I had actually used the term “bull—-” in our home. I suppose they have a point.)

Got another call this morning, from a different number and from a female caller, but same script and same south Asian accent. I suppose I should feel sorry for people who are able to master English  as a second language (after a fashion) but still can’t find honest work.

The prevalence of such schemes is a natural consequence of the dramatic decrease in communications costs in our day. Every silver lining has a cloud, after all. It is inconceivable that anyone would have tried conning people with this particular script before the breakup of AT&T drastically reduced the cost of long-distance calls. You simply couldn’t have found enough gullible targets to cover the expense of the calls.

It’s the same thing with spam. Junk mail by ground carrier has always been self-limiting; even at bulk rates, the cost of sending out fliers is enough that doing so must increase your income stream significantly.  This means there has to be a plausible market for what you’re selling at the price at which you’re selling it. Not true for spam; since an email message costs essentially nothing, you can afford to send out 10,000 messages if one actually gets a hit. Same for the Nigerian prince scam and every other email scam that has since been invented.

There’s a solution, at least for spam and email con rackets: Start charging for email.

Quit blinking at me like that. It’s a serious proposal that has been seriously made by serious people other than myself before now. If sending an email actually costs something — and it needn’t be much — then all these schemes become unprofitable. If you were billed as little as a tenth of a cent per email, then your 10,000 spam emails would cost $10, enough to take a serious cut out of your profits from the one hit.

The problem is not that people won’t pay a mil per email for some spam protection. I’d pay ten times that amount to never see a spam or racket email again. The problem is how to set up the scheme and actually collect the money. The Internet is organized almost exactly the way you’d want to organize it if your purpose from the start had been to make it impossible to collect charges for delivering a message. And, as it turns out, very few junk emails get through the filters I have in place now, and the filters cost me nothing but the occasional effort to tell the filter it missed one.  (The best filters include machine learning algorithms that gradually improve their ability to spot spam.)

I wish something similar could be applied to my phone. I suppose the caller ID functions in that way. We rarely answer if we don’t recognize the number. I’ve only been answering unknown callers lately because, with my recent injury, I expect some calls from unexpected numbers. I’m surprised the Microsoft Support scam can collect enough to pay for the costs of the calls, but then I don’t know where they actually originate. It would be fascinating to know more about it.

The other aspect of this is that the very technology that makes these scams possible also makes it almost impossible for law enforcement to catch the perpetrators. Again: The Internet was designed almost exactly the way you would have designed it if your purpose from the start was to make it impossible to pin down exactly where a message originated. I don’t know why this should be true of long-distance phone calls, but it seems to be so.

And I consider the ability to communicate cheaply with almost anyone in the world I wish to to be well worth the cost of the occasional clumsy attempt to scam me.

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