Online column

A weekly tech column written for The Southland Times, a company that pays well enough to keep me in handbags and Drambuie

Sympathy for the scammed

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

The news that someone in Cromwell fell victim to one of the many cold-calling scams doing the rounds at the moment is a timely reminder that we need keep our wits about us, both online and off.

Many online Southland Times readers weren’t particularly sympathetic on reading about the victim losing a whopping $4000, but I can’t help feeling sorry for them: not everyone reads or watches technology news and I’m sure we all know someone trusting enough to take the “I’m calling from Microsoft” line as gospel.

phone (15)It’s not that I’m an extra nice person. In fact, much of the time I’m not even an averagely nice person. However, I really can see how someone who is new to the internet, or maybe just a little naive, can be sucked in. It’s not like the fake lottery/Nigerian scams where people let pure greed get in the way of good sense.

I get fairly frequent calls from the fake Microsoft representatives telling me there’s a problem with my computer and requesting my credit card number to fix said problem. Sometimes, I simply hang up, often uttering a rude word or two before doing so, but I do also quite enjoy wasting their time. I figure if they are tied up on a fruitless phone call with me, they aren’t targeting some other poor bugger.

The simplest method of messing with them is to just pop the phone down and let them carry on talking until they finally realise you’ve abandoned them. They will get the message and hang up. A variation on a theme is to ask them to hold on while you go get your credit card: I’ve found they will stick around for quite some time if they think you’ve taken the bait.

If you would rather go for a more interactive option, try repeating everything they say but making it a question . . . “you’re from Microsoft, you say?” . . . “is there something wrong with my computer?” . . . “do you need my credit card number?”

Or go for the toddler-inspired “but why?” response to everything they say.

More recently, I’ve been a little more creative, reciting the lyrics of whatever song happens to be playing when they call: yesterday it was Rocket Man, last week it was Walk on the Wild Side. However, I think my high point was Barbie Girl: I almost made it to the end of the song before he twigged and hung up on me.

Be careful out there.


The stench of oversharing

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

What would Benjamin Franklin make of all this interweb malarkey?

During a chat about the perils of Facebook this week, a workmate reminded me of the old saying that compares houseguests and fish, but I reckon the internet has given Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote even more oomph.

The United States founding father and inventor of the lightning rod and bifocals said that both fish and visitors stink after three days but I suspect that if @bennyF happened to be around today he would extend his range of things that stink to the pleasingly alliterative families, friends and Facebook. And perhaps he would shrink that timeline, too, because three days is a tad generous when it comes to smug status updates, drama queen moves and pointless hashtagging.

It’s a strange old world we now live in, where social networking via Facebook and Twitter means we know a whole lot of stuff about almost total strangers and even more about our nearest and dearest. And that can make things more than a little uncomfortable.

There’s that person you followed or friended because you met them at a friend’s party or they made an interesting comment on a friend’s Facebook or Twitter feed: suddenly you are getting all their updates and know the intimate details about their life that should really be saved for those who know them well. One person who friended me after a chance meeting via a mutual friend-of-a-friend and a cold beer shared with the world every angry word between her and her then-partner, the perils of menstrual cramps, a three-week battle with thrush, an ongoing comparison of the best home cures for constipation for those following the Atkins diet, her brother’s relationship woes, her thoughts on the pedigree of the aforementioned brother’s “cheating slapper of a girlfriend” and the financial crisis facing one of her colleagues. Until she popped up on Facebook, I didn’t even know her last name or where she worked, but after hitting that little button to accept her friend request I knew far more than I ever wanted to about her life, and the lives of those around her.

After just a couple of weeks, I quietly deleted and blocked her and hope to never run across her again.

But perhaps even worse that the over-sharing semi-stranger is the over-sharing family members. It’s easy enough to block someone you don’t really know but when family members are littering your feed with drivel you’d rather not have to read, it can be a lot more awkward. It’s all about attention seeking, from their I’m at the gym/my child is a genius updates to the endless photographs of every boring, mundane meal they stuff into their gobs, or those cryptic “life is so hard” posts designed to have everyone asking in their very best pretend-concerned-online-voice: oh, are you OK 🙁

I don’t care about your latest sweaty efforts at the gym, I don’t care that you believe your child is some sort of prodigy (besides, my cat is a genius and furry, that’s even better), and I certainly don’t care about your Sunday roast. Sure, if you’ve been to an awesome new restaurant, share your thoughts. Or if you’ve just had an amazing degustation menu, show us all a photo or three. But if you’ve just dished up meat and two veg? No one needs to see that.

And if you ever feel compelled to make one of those drama queens posts telling the world how hard things are for you, then when a concerned friend or followers asks if you’re OK you reply with “I don’t want to talk about it”, be prepared to be unfriended. You aren’t Greta Garbo and you really aren’t that interesting.


An intrusion by the boss

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

Is your boss your Facebook friend? Do you want the person who oversees your work also having an overview of your private life?

While chatting with a friend this week, she commented that her boss has friended all the staff at her office and not everyone was happy about it. However, they faced a dilemma: do you reject the boss’s friend request and put him or her offside? Ignore the request and hope they don’t mention it again? Or, as most of them had, do you feel obliged to hit the approve button and live with the knowledge that your boss is now privy to your drunken escapades, romantic meltdowns, “I hate my job” tirades and all manner of other outside-of-work information?

While most businesses have some sort of accepted code of conduct for face-to-face interactions between bosses and staff in the workplace, the online version is often overlooked. Sure, there are usually rules and guidelines for when, where and how you can surf the net (do it in your lunch break, stay away from naked people sites and don’t download dodgy stuff), but I’ve never heard of a company with a policy covering the social minefield of social media on a boss versus staff level.

So, should your boss friend you on Facebook? I think probably not: they are in a position of authority and you may not feel you have any choice but to accept their request because of that imbalance.

If you want to be their friend on Facebook, then that’s fine. But they should allow you to be the one to make the first move.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a set of guidelines for strange dudes who insist on emailing messages through my website with details about their dangly bits, but it’s safe to say the accepted unwritten etiquette would be to avoid exaggeration of the acreage of said bits and please, wash your hands.


Quite a display for April Fool’s Day

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

I managed to get through April Fool’s Day pretty much unscathed, unless you count a slightly demented cat trying to ankle tap me from under the bed as an April Fool’s Day prank.

Avoiding the many and varied pranks that populated the internet wasn’t really particularly difficult, since I spent most of the morning stretched out on the couch reading, making the most of an extended long weekend off work.

googlesearchAs usual, Google had a range of jokes, ranging from the not-particularly-believable Google Maps Pokemon Challenge to the ridiculous but sadly too believable Gmail Shelfie that popped up on logging in to your email.

With the Pokemon Challenge, Google explained you’d need to use the map to find nearby Pokemon, then catch them by going to the location in person before adding them to your Pokedex. While I’m sure there are plenty of fans who would be keen to take on the role of Pokemon Master such as my nephew Zeke), I’m pretty sure there would be few people who wouldn’t have twigged that this one was a prank.

However, the Gmail Shelfie, or the SHareable sELFIE, likely had a ring of truth to it for many users: “everyone can now set your Shelfie as their Gmail theme “so they can enjoy checking, reading, and writing emails while seeing your friendly face in the background”.

And while we’re on the subject of selfies, please: stop with the #makeupfreeselfie craze. If you want to donate to cancer research, then do so. But honestly, taking a photo of yourself sans mascara and lippy doesn’t really do a lot to raise awareness of cancer. Besides, some of us rarely wear makeup anyway, so it sort of loses its oomph. I suppose I could just post a #lookingmorehaggardthannormal photo on Facebook instead.

My personal favourite from Google was the Auto Awesome Photobombs, featuring the Hoff. Yes, the feature claimed to let celebrities make a spontaneous appearance in your pictures. Well, just one celebrity to start with: David Hasselhoff, the man, the legend, the Speedo-filler.

If you fancy getting your bum into a more perky state, Virgin Active came up with the idea of a pair of undies with a digital counter on the waistband that counted every time you did a butt-clench, while Domino’s opted for an edible pizza box. Sounds quite reasonable.

The Mail Online rounded up a lot of the day’s offerings and even managed to create a quirky story of its own about the possibility of a new flag if Scotland opts for independence.


Even the weather app throws up its hands

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

umbrellasxIt’s been an interesting start to autumn so far, with the new season appearing to arrive hand-in-hand with winter.

This follows on from our remarkably summer-ish spring and a decidedly “a bit of everything” summer so who knows what we’ll get by the time the calendar says winter is here; perhaps a tropical cyclone and a heatwave?

Even the weather man seems to be struggling to deal with Mother Nature’s current mood swings, with the handy dandy wee MetService app on my iPad effectively throwing up its digital hands in dismay and shrugging its digital shoulders in an “I dunno” move, listing absolutely no forecast details for the start of the week when I checked on Sunday.

The only person in our house enjoying the weather at the moment is Norman the cat, who seems determined to show just how absorbent one small cat can be by sitting in puddles and gazing adoringly at the falling rain.

She usually follows up that little party trick by running inside, climbing on one of her trained staff (usually me) and sharing her sogginess.

I should point out here that I am in no way cat obsessed.

Well, maybe a little, but I’m rather fond of dogs, too.


Wise up about smartphone security

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

I it’s safe to say we are all a lot more clued-up when it comes to online security than we were a few years ago, but what about when it comes to our favourite little mini gadgets?

Kiwis are keen on smartphones, tablets and the like, but according to the security gurus at Symantec, we aren’t so quick to keep them safe.

Net nasties are out there so take care.This year’s annual Norton Report on the world of online nasties was released yesterday and shows that there is “a general lack of security awareness when it comes to using mobile devices”.

The number of us who became cybercrime victims increased to one million, but while the global cost is up, the cost in New Zealand is down from $462 million last year to $152m this year.

Symantec New Zealand country manager Michelle Amery says this is because the crims have changed their methods, most likely as Kiwis become more aware of the scams.

The company believes online scammers are also working on the theory that it is better to take smaller amounts of money from a larger group of people because they have more chance of flying under the radar.

Whatever the explanation behind the numbers, the fact that these online parasites are still making money is a worry:

The report also says 27 per cent of New Zealand survey respondents had experienced mobile cybercrime during the past year, up from 16 per cent in 2012, and about one in five of us have managed to lose our mobile device. Ouch.

Add to that the fact that the cybercrims are embracing mobile devices every bit as enthusiastically as the rest of us – developing mobile-specific malware and scams and taking advantage of all those lost and stolen phones – and users who are either unaware or unwilling to protect themselves and you have what Symantec calls a “perfect storm for cybercriminals”.

Security is every bit as important for your smartphone or tablet as it is for your computer, especially if you are using that smartphone or tablet as it was intended: to do your banking, check your emails and generally live your online life.

Another worrying trend for Kiwis in the report is that we are taking major risks online when it comes to social media and “blurring the lines between their work and personal devices”.

Great, now I’ve got that damned song stuck in my brain and a vision of Miley Cyrus waggling her foam finger and other things.

But I digress. The Norton Report says 39 per cent of us are using our personal devices (desktop computers, laptops, smartphones and tablets) for work-related activities and nearly half of those surveyed say their company does not have policies in place for using personal devices for work.

Symantec Pacific region product marketing manager David Hall says that creates new risks for businesses because “cybercriminals have the potential to access even more valuable information”.

But wait, there’s more: we aren’t even very good at protecting our own personal data. Just more than a quarter of those surveyed connect with people they do not know on social media and one in four share their social media passwords with others. Yes, really: we are sharing our passwords. Well, I’m not, but someone out there is and they need to stop. It’s a really, really, incredibly stupid thing to do, so stop it!


Thanks for the extra, but not to Xtra

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

It’s bad enough that so many Xtra email addresses have been compromised but the fact that Yahoo, the company responsible for managing that email system, won’t even give an answer on how many accounts is nothing short of arrogant.

emaildramaIf you have an email address of any description, it’s likely you have been affected in some way by the Xtra email dramas: either your email has been hacked or your address spoofed. I have suffered the latter fate and I’m not happy. And there isn’t a thing I can do about it.

This whole sorry saga began at least a year ago, when hackers managed to get their grubby paws on the login details for 87,000 of Xtra’s 450,000 email accounts. Yahoo has been running the email service for seven years and while it has never officially explained what went wrong, those a tad more tech-savvy than me reckon is was a cross-site scripting attack that targeted a security flaw in a piece of blogging software used by some Yahoo geeks. Everyone thought the problem was fixed but the ongoing problems would seem to indicate that our email addresses are still in the firing line.

I’ve had phonecalls from friends and colleagues who thought my email had been hacked because they had received messages from me with odd links but while I’ve actually managed to avoid the whole being hacked part of the equation, I have still been affected. How? I’m being spoofed.

It looks like the hackers copied the address books or took the email addresses from messages Xtra users had sent and they are now spoofing those addresses in the emails: the from line might say it’s from me but it isn’t. It just looks that way.

This is worse than being hacked because it means that no matter how carefully you secure your email account, how good your security software is, no matter how careful you are, you cannot stop your address being spoofed.

The only way around it is to change your email address and if – like me – you have had your address for a couple of decades, changing it is a bit of a nightmare.

Sure, I have the obligatory Hotmail address, and Gmail. I even have one tied to my website domain.

However, my main email address is that little beastie and I’m peeved that it’s now out there in the big, bad web being exploited.

Telecom must be a bit worried about losing customers because I got a nice wee note from them this week telling me they had added a further 10GB to my current web plan at no extra cost.

That’s all very nice, Telecom, but I’d rather you hadn’t given ownership of your Xtra email to a company that seems to have no interest in offering any sort of explanation to its customers.

So that’s a thank you to Telecom but a “shame on you” to Yahoo.


Inspiring, uplifting content

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

Over recent months, I have made it my mission in life to spend five minutes online every morning before I start work, finding something that will brighten my day.

Sometimes it feels like the internet is little more than a gathering place for every negative/ sexist/racist/homophobic/douchey person in the world to spew forth their venom so it’s a breath of fresh air to find content that lifts your mood and maybe even encourages you to think a little more deeply.

I don’t know what’s been up with my Facebook feed of late but while I’m happy to accept anyone’s religion, I’m not so happy to accept bigotry: trying to justify posting hateful messages about homosexuality or other faiths by claiming it’s a Christian view doesn’t cut the mustard. If you are a racist, a raging bigot, or a card- carrying homophobe, at least have the courage of your convictions to own your narrow-minded beliefs and stop blaming it on the big guy upstairs.

If you wrap your nastiness in a few religious verses, it doesn’t make you a Christian. It makes you a bigot hiding behind Christianity.

Pastor Tony Campolo is a bloke with an interesting story to share about his views on homosexuality, and why he has those views. He also rebuts perhaps one of the most commonly used phrases trundled out by Christians on the subject of homosexuality: “love the sinner, hate the sin”. Check out the video:

I found that video posted on the Upworthy website, a great place to spend five minutes (or five hours) of your time. Subtitles “things that matter”, you’ll find videos and other posts on news items, religion, sport, politics and any other topic you can imagine.

As the name of the site suggests, the content is all pretty uplifting and inspirational. Best of all, most of it manages to avoid being corny and sappy. Some of it will make you laugh, some might even make you cry, and all of it will make you think about things a little differently.

Another uplifting (but sad) read this week was Laurie Anderson’s article in Rolling Stone magazine on the death of her bloke and all-round awesome musician Lou Reed – a beautiful piece of writing.



Being disconnected has its advantages

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

Technology is supposed to make life easier but sometimes it feels like it’s just making it more complicated.

We’re all so connected now that it’s hard to shut off: our cellphones mean we get calls anywhere and any time, and social media means our every movement can become public knowledge.

I’m still no big fan of cellphones but can appreciate the usefulness of the wee beasties. However, one of the things I have appreciated most about our little whitebaiting hut on the Mataura River was the dodgy cellphone reception (and associated peace and tranquillity) so I’m a bit unimpressed that it appears to have improved considerably this past season.

And while our swanky new phones can do everything from take calls to clean the oven (I wish), I don’t really think we buy them for their usefulness.

No, we all tend to be most excited by their slightly more frivolous features: a built-in spirit level so I can check my picnic table is appropriately straight (don’t want my wine sliding off now, do I?), song identifier apps, and let’s not forget the ringtones. Oh, how we love our ringtones.

I have them set for two specific people: the Darth Vader theme music from Star Wars for my boss (sorry Fred) and something suitably inappropriate for my hubby but, aside from those, my phone now simply rings. Like a phone.

There’s no backing-up-vehicle beeping noises, no latest hit songs, no oh-so- funny little ditty. It just rings. Like a phone.

I have friends with a different ringtone for nearly everyone on their contacts list and can’t help wondering if they need to carry a list with them to cross-reference who it is. They still look at the screen before they answer the phone anyway so I’m not sure I see the point in all the customisation.

Besides, when my phone rings, I know straight away it’s mine: I seem to be the only one with a phone that sounds like a phone! Did I mention that it just rings? Like a phone


‘Tis the season for giving (and receiving)

(This is the Online column, written for The Southland Times)

contactusSince it’s the season of goodwill to all men, I will flex my festive tolerance levels and include businesses in that warm, fuzzy equation, too. For now.

Like many people these days, if I need to contact a business my first port of call is the company’s official website. However, I’m not so keen on filling out contact forms on sites because more often than not, you never hear from them again.

Sure, it’s usually a simple enough matter to stalk them on their Facebook pages and nudge them into responding to your question/concern/complaint by asking again, in public, on there – but should you really have to shame them into answering you?

I’ve had this happen so often lately that I was beginning to think it was a conspiracy against me: online businesses were adding me to some global blacklist along with the Nigerian scammers and those dudes selling the herbal viagra.

I contacted one local supermarket a couple of months ago after a wee mishap that resulted in me going arse over tit. I didn’t hear anything for a week or two so popped a message on their Facebook page saying what had happened and that I had filled in their contact form but received no reply. The response was immediate: could I please contact them again, they’d be in touch. And they were, via email, once. I haven’t heard from them again.

A few weeks later I contacted another local supermarket, this time to complain about mouldy produce.

I hit submit on their lovely wee contact form and have never received a response.

Then there is the television shopping channel website where I tried to review a product I had bought. My review wasn’t particularly positive and after submitting it twice in as many weeks it never showed up on the site.

My next move was to ask on the channel’s Facebook page if they edit reviews. And once again, the response was immediate: no, of course not. They would look into it for me.

Have I heard back? Of course not.

As you might imagine, I was feeling a tad disheartened by the whole “contact us” concept, so when I had a problem with my favourite breakfast cereal recently I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful as I filled in the dreaded online contact form.

I was wrong. So well done Kellogg’s, you’ve put the rest of them to shame. A lovely bloke was in touch immediately and things were put right straight away.

My faith has been restored. Except perhaps in Twitter.

According to Symantec, a whole bunch of Twitter users (there needs to be a collective noun for those who Tweet, a flock of Twitter users maybe?) got suckered in to following fake Twitter accounts known as @VerifiedReport and @MagicReports.

The accounts claimed to be part of a Twitter experiment between users, news organisations and journalists, and followed several Twitter users while tweeting: “This is a Twitter experiment. We are changing the way users interact with journalists and news organisations.”

Many users discovered these accounts through a legitimate Twitter account known as @MagicRecs, developed by Twitter to send “personalised recommendations as direct messages (DMs) when something interesting happens in your network.”

It seems even some Twitter employees followed the fake accounts.

Twitter has since suspended both accounts but there are some other suspect accounts still active (@MagicFavs, @MagicSmacks, and @MagicSext).

It’s not clear what these accounts were created to do, but Symantec says even when using a legitimate service like @MagicRecs, exercise caution when choosing which accounts to follow.



Jillian "George" Allison-Aitken

I live in the deep south of New Zealand, where smelly dairy cows are taking over from sheep in the livestock stakes. My hometown is the small but perfectly formed city of Invercargill, which is also the hometown of the original boy racer, Burt Munro. Find out more about me here.


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