Although this took place in the U.K., it happens in the U.S. as well. It’s very important that before you take your computer to a repair facility, always back up sensitive data and remove it from your laptop before taking it to be repaired (if you can). Clear the cache of log-in details and passwords and always get more than one quote. If you can’t access your files, get referrals from friends or family and only take your computer to a trusted source.
When Sky News launched an undercover investigation into PC repair shops, it turned to PC Pro readers for help with identifying rogue traders. As a result, Sky’s cameras caught technicians scouring through private photos, stealing passwords and over-charging for basic repairs. Here is what they found
How many technicians does it take to fix a laptop? Just one, but if you know where to find him, please let us know.
We’d heard there were serious problems with computer repair shops: faults misdiagnosed, overcharging for work and data deleted. So we put them to the test in order to find out why customers were getting such a raw deal and who the culprits were.
The exercise was simple. Create a simple fault on a laptop, load it with spy software, take it into several repair shops, then sit back and see what happened. Would they arrive at the same diagnosis and charge us a fair price to fix it?
First, Sky News engineers installed professional spy software on a new laptop. Spector Pro was programmed to load on start-up and silently record every ‘event’ that took place. If the mouse was moved, a folder opened or a file looked at, we would know about it. Every event would also trigger a screen snapshot to be taken.
We also installed Digiwatcher. This devious little tool auto-runs on start-up and quietly tells any connected webcam to secretly film whoever is at the machine. The process is invisible and the video file is hidden on the hard drive and password protected.
We then filled the hard drive with the sort of data anyone might have on their PC: holiday photos, curriculum vitae, MP3s, Word documents and log-in details. Our laptop now looked just like any other.
To create the fault, we simply loosened one of the memory chips so Windows wouldn’t load. To get things working again, one needs only push the chip back into the slot and reboot the machine. Any half-way competent engineers should fix it in minutes.
All we needed now was our targets. We teamed up with PC Pro readers to track down shops with the worst reputation and took our laptop into be repaired. We expected poor customer service, but nothing prepared us for the first shop we visited.
Snooping on holiday snaps
Laptop Revival in Hammersmith initially offered us a free diagnosis when we dropped our laptop off. Yet the spy software later revealed something extraordinary. The webcam shows that almost immediately the technician discovers our loose memory chip and clicks it back into position [based on recorded boot and shut down times]. The machine is rebooted and the problem solved.
Yet he then begins browsing through our hard drive. A folder marked ‘Private’ is opened and he flicks through our researcher’s holiday photographs.
He then picks up the phone and calls our researcher. He tells her our motherboard is faulty and will need to be replaced. Usually it costs £130 but he’ll do it for £100. We tell him we’ll think about it and call him tomorrow.
After more snooping, he logs off. But a few hours later, another technician boots our machine. He also begins searching our hard drive until he finds log-in details for our Facebook and Hotmail accounts. With a cackle he removes a memory stick from around his neck, plugs it in and then copies them across.
Most worryingly, when he discovers log-in details for our online bank account, he logs onto the bank’s website and attempts to break into the account. He only fails because the details we created were false.
There were also difficulties with PC World in Brentford. The technician triumphantly diagnosed a faulty motherboard and insisted we needed a new one. We were told unless we paid £230 in advance, we couldn’t have it repaired. We agreed. But when we collected the laptop and got it home, we discovered only a memory chip had been replaced and not the motherboard.
Prepare for repairs
So a word of warning. Always back up sensitive data and remove it from your laptop before taking it to be repaired (if you can). Clear the cache of log-in details and passwords and always get more than one quote.
And bear in mind technicians often place all objects in the world into one of two categories: things that need to be fixed and things that will need to be fixed after they’ve had a few minutes to play with them.
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