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My rebut to Why You Should Not Fix A computer for Free

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Thomas Zucker-Scharff
Veteran in computer systems, malware removal and ransomware topics.  I have been working in the field since 1985.
There is a very good article here on Experts Exchange on the 5 Reasons you should NOT fix a computer for free.  That article is both articulate and for the most part true.  But the other side is worth stating.  Here is my experience...

I have read and reread the article, "WARNING: 5 Reasons why you should NEVER fix a computer for free."  It is without a doubt an excellent article with several excellent points, but my experience has been very different.  Nevertheless you might want to check out this article on the Oatmeal titled, "Why it's better to pretend you don't know anything about computers."  I also found this xkcd cartoon while trolling for a good image:

image of a flowchart which at the top states that we don't usually know how to do what you ask, but go through this process, which anyone can try - basically try everything and if that doesn't work ask for helpI thought this cartoon elegantly expressed what many of us feel when people ask us for help.  Yes, by doing this type of task repetitively, we become more expert at it than others, but in the end, it is mostly not rocket science.


Let's go through the Experts Exchange article, linked to above, point by point and let me give you my reasons for agreeing and/or disagreeing.  I should point out up front that I am not a consultant, although I did do that for several years a couple of decades ago.  When I did do consulting, I was terrible at billing.

1 -   You Break it You Bought it.

This comes down to, "if you fix one issue while causing another, you will be blamed."  Although this may be true, I have seen too many instances where it is not the case.  For example, I feel very strongly that people should protect their phones and identity.  My aunt wanted something for free she could use to do this.  I rarely recommend free, because you usually get what you pay for.  But in this case, I had been using an application called Logdog (which you needed to have a yahoo account in order to take full advantage of) for a long time and never had a problem, quite the opposite. LogDog had saved me from hackers/being exposed on the web any number of times.  So I recommended it to my aunt. The next day Yahoo was hacked (first time).  I felt soooo guilty!  But my Aunt fluffed it off and will still ask me for advice on security.


2 -People don't respect things that are free.

This one is hard to argue against, mainly because I feel the same way.  But, if you do not give advice freely, those around you will not benefit from your advanced knowledge.  Shouldn't you be sharing this knowledge with everybody?  A case in point is MS-ISAC's monthly newsletter.  If you are unfamiliar with it, check it out.  The creators of this great resource encourage you to put your own logo on the newsletter and your own name.  At a recent New York State Cyber Security Conference in Albany, NY, Andrew Dolan of MS-ISAC told us that if we win an award for the newsletter, they will consider it a boon.  So is this newsletter, which is free, any less respected or useful?


3 -They will expect it forever.

This is definitely true.  But is it really a bad thing?  I want my family to continually come to me for advice on the best way to keep themselves secure and the best way to backup their devices.  I give them the tools to find answers themselves, but we all know that most will take the path of least resistance, they will ignore these tools and ask a question - it's just easier for them.  Truthfully, I don't mind answering these questions, as long as my answers are not taken with a grain of salt.  


4 -The demands will only grow with time.

I have not found this to be the case.  My family's demands have stayed about the same.  Maybe my family is different, or maybe it is because I try to teach others how to best do it themselves (teach a man to fish ...).  The outcome seems to be the same.  My family and friends get sick of hearing me telling them to backup, encrypt, secure their devices, etc, and they just do it to get me off their backs.  The result is the same, they have done what I am suggesting - 'nough said.


5 -It Weakens Your Backbone

This may or may not be so.  As I said, I am no consultant.

The final question should be, "Do you want to let your family and friends slip down that slippery slope to insecurity and falling prey to phishing scams, or do you want to protect them?"  My answer is a resounding I'll HELP!!  As Raj Goel of Brainlink said, "If you don't help your friends and family who will?"


It is not just computer "experts" that are commonly asked for free advice and/or help by family and friends.  I recently asked my brother in law for advice about a camera and binoculars, since he is a birder and has extensive expertise in researching and purchasing this type of commodity.  I will sometimes ask my sister for advice on political matters since she is not only a co-founder of the Working Families Party but also the director of Citizen Action of New York.  And everybody and their brother ask my father for medical advice since he is an M.D. and a Ph.D.  We all freely give any advice/help for which others ask us.  If that is foolhardy, so be it.  It may be because none of us are consultants that we have this luxury.  


In the end, I would feel terrible if someone I had refrained from imploring to backup files and even purchasing a yearlong backup subscription for them, got hit by malware which required them to retrieve their data from backups they did not have.  Or if I had not specifically told someone that they should NOT be clicking links in emails, and when they did click a link, all their data was compromised.  I would rather err on the side of caution, possibly going down the slippery slope of offering free services, than having to deal with a malware event afterwards.


Currently my mother, although I have told her about snopes.com many times, calls me up whenever she has a question.  The one time she did not call me, she ended up having her computer hijacked remotely by someone posing as an Apple repair technician.  


The Take Away:

So, if you weigh the time and effort needed to install CrashPlan, or some equivalent, or even help someone turn on BitLocker, against the time and effort it takes to completely rebuild the OS, and reinstall all the software the person had been using (impossible), the conclusion is obvious.  Protection almost always takes less work and less time than remediation.


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