April 1, 2017 |

Fake news, fake phone numbers, battery dangers

Bob's Tech Talk

Q. My daughter is upset with me because I get news from Facebook. I don’t understand why that is such a big problem.

A. Social networks like Facebook and Pinterest get most of the information they present from users. Conventions vary, but generally sites only filter extreme material like pornography. There is nothing to remove inaccurate information. To make the matter worse, financial incentives exist to create and distribute false information. In the race for attention, quality is overwhelmed by spectacle. Rumors and facts become indistinguishable from one another.

Social networks are the most obvious examples, but these problems touch every corner of the Internet. Thinking of the internet as one big electronic newspaper is bad for several reasons. Traditional newspapers operate in a world of consequences that tend to favor consistency, whereas the Internet tends to reward viral headlines.

Sensationalism is nothing new, yellow journalism and over-the-top headlines have existed for over a century. What is new is online technology. Physical newspapers have always been limited by the cost of distributing newsprint. The cost to distribute something online is almost zero.

Sources are also more opaque. There are few if any human editors. A typical web page is assembled in an instant by a computer program that selects bits of data from dozens of different places with the primary goal of capturing your time and attention. Capturing attention is the reason that so many sites are littered with headlines that seem more at home on a supermarket tabloid. It is also why you might see an advertisement for a product or service someone you know personally “likes.”

The bottom line is that sorting truth from fiction on the internet is a skill. It requires a mindset based on the adage: consider the source.

Q. The other day my computer displayed a message that instructed me to call a toll free telephone number to fix a problem. I ignored the message, but a few days later my computer started crashing. Now I’m worried I made a mistake. How can I get this fixed?

A. A web page that asks you to make a phone call to fix your computer is almost certainly fraudulent. This type of error message, which is known as “phishing,” is a style of attack aimed at some larger purpose, such as identity theft or stealing your credit card number. What was probably a random message on a web site can seem more sinister if some new glitch is suddenly discovered.

While there is a slight chance they could be related, the resolution is no different: follow the troubleshooting steps necessary to solve the underlying problem. Check that your system is up to date, that anti-virus protection is in place, and try to isolate the crash to a specific program or action.

Malicious instructions to place a telephone call are a widespread concern. And the delivery mechanism varies. For example, I know of a case where a specific error message on Kindle, when searched on Google, would return a fake Amazon page with instructions to call a specific telephone number. Anyone who responded became a victim of fraud. Sadly, fake phone numbers are common online.

Q. Last Christmas someone gave me an external battery to recharge my phone and tablet on the go. I’m planning a vacation, and would like to use it on my trip. Are there restrictions for taking these batteries on a plane?

A. That is a great question with what might be a surprising answer. External lithium batteries, the type used in most portable power chargers, can be packed in your carry-on bag but they are prohibited from checked luggage.

Lithium batteries are extremely reliable. Unfortunately failures can be very dangerous. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 debacle is a recent vivid example of the power they contain, and it demonstrated the serious damage that results when things go wrong.

As supplemental lithium batteries became larger and more popular, the FAA issued guidelines that expressly forbid them from checked airline luggage. Pack it inside your carry-on instead.

My advice is to use care where batteries are concerned, follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and immediately dispose of them properly if the slightest defect appears.

A tech enthusiast his entire life, Bob can be contacted at techtalk@bobdel.com.

Wander the Web

Fact vs. Fiction

I suspect that the first urban legend appeared online about six seconds after someone first tapped the power-on button. Not long after the first websites appeared, Snopes started as an early effort to debunk urban legends. I have been reading it regularly for over 20 years, and over that time it has only gotten better. They do not catalog every possible item, and I assume that sometimes they publish mistakes. But they have been in the business of sorting fact from fiction longer than just about anyone else online, a job they do very well. www.snopes.com

Airline Luggage Safety

The details on packing potentially hazardous items for travel is a complex topic. The FAA has posted a comprehensive chart of items with advice on how to “Pack Safe.” Note that, like spare lithium batteries, the instructions are not always obvious.


Rambo the Puppy

When you need a restful diversion, check in on Rambo, a delightful Internet-famous Maltese-Yorkie mix with a lust for pizza and margaritas. This little guy has a lifestyle that looks more exciting than mine! www.instagram.com/rambothepuppy/