Author: Jesse Mueller (Page 2 of 40)

The Unpaid Toll Collection Scam

Please keep an eye out for any text messages, alerting you to “unpaid tolls”. While there are legitimate ways to inform you of overdue toll fees, texting is typically not one of them. If you receive the SMS message below, you’re probably looking at an Unpaid Toll Collection Scam.

The Unpaid Toll Collection Scam

The FBI started seeing this scam circulate in March 2024, and it is still making the rounds. This smishing scam is simple: it tries to dupe people into visiting a bogus website and paying for a toll that doesn’t exist.

Have you gotten a copy of the unpaid toll collection scam yet? Here’s my advice:

  • Don’t open any link in the message
  • Consider reporting it to the FBI
  • Delete the text and/or mark it as spam

And if you have any doubt about legitimately owing on a toll, find a legitimate phone number or website for the toll authority and contact them. Don’t rely on anything you receive via text.

The Unpaid Toll Collection Scam

Extra Commentary

This scam changes every week or so. The website URL and name of the Toll Company keeps shifting. This is probably because when the FBI gets reports on this scam, they work quickly to shut down the criminal website. But it is a game of whack-a-mole. Cybercriminals will just create a new website for the next money-grab. Still, this is why reporting the scam to the FBI is helpful!

People ask me often: How do these scammers get our contact info? For this scam, my best guess is a recent data breach exposed a large number of cellphone numbers, and a criminal outfit bought them up to use in scams like this. Data breaches happen everyday in the USA. Consider:

But a useful phone list could come from any of the big companies in our country that collect our personal data. It’s unlikely that we’ll learn who’s to blame and even unlikelier that there will be consequences for them.

Low on Google Storage Space?

If you use Gmail or have an Android phone, you might someday see a message that you are low on Google Storage space. Because this often comes as a surprise to some, I thought I should explain it. And give you some tips on what to do:

The Basics

An Android or Gmail user must have a Google account. This is often the same as your Gmail address. And with each Google account, you get 15GB of cloud storage for free. If your data in Google’s part of the cloud gets too close to 15GB, you’ll start getting warnings about your usage. If you eat up your entire quota, then your Gmail will stop working until you address the issue.

But your Google storage is more than just your saved emails. Everything you save in 1) Gmail, 2) Google Photos and 3) Google Drive combined counts toward that 15GB limit. So if you find yourself maxing out your allotment, you must first figure out what’s using up the most space!

You can quickly get a storage breakdown, if you know where to look. On your computer, one way is to open your browser and go to your Gmail . Log into your account and once you see your Gmail inbox, scroll down to the bottom. Beneath your message is a small quota notation and you can click on it for more info. You can also click this link, or open the Google One app on your phone. You want to be at this sort of screen, to know how data you have stored and where it is:

Low on Google Storage Space?

Managing Your Storage

You are always welcome to click the Get More Storage button and pay Google for more space. I certainly do, because I keep a wealth of data safe in my Google account. But many people don’t want another recurring tech fees, or didn’t mean to packrat so much data, so here’s how to manage things and get your storage under the 15GB threshold.

Next to each category of storage is a blue pop-up button. You may want to target the largest offender first. Click the blue pop-out to visit its storage category, and you’ll be able to find things to delete. Whatever the category you visit, we should search for the largest files for deletion.

  • If you click the Google Drive popup, look first for a Clean Up Space button. That tool can quickly help you find the biggest files to delete, as well as empty your trash.

    Unfortunately, the Google Drive website is not very helpful for searching for your largest files. But if you use the Google Drive software on your computer, you can open File Explorer or Finder, and use its search functions to suss out any monster-sized files.
  • If you use the Gmail popup, it simply takes you back to your Gmail page. That’s not very helpful! But once there, look at the search field above your Inbox messages. You’re going to click and use the Advanced Settings button at the end of the Search Mail field.

    On the complex search tool that appears, you want to home in on the line for “Size”. To the right of “greater than”, type in a number between 1 and 25. (Maybe start with 20, and you can repeat this search again later using 15 or 10.) Click the Search button, and Google will then show you all of the largest messages in your account. Start deleting!
  • If you hit the Google Photos popup, you find yourself looking at your photos and videos in chronological order. Again, you want to target your largest files here, so click your search field at the top and type in “video”. When you search on that, Google Photos will show you only the videos in your account. Those are the largest things in this area, so focus on deleting any unwanted videos before you cull any photos.

Google also offers a storage management page for you to use, but I tend to like the more granular approaches above.

Buying Storage Space

If deleting a lot of stuff doesn’t appeal, you should consider buying more storage with Google. It’s actually fairly affordable — just remember to click the “Annual” price button to get the best deal. Right now, you can up your Google Storage to 100GB for just $20/yr. And if you become a paid Google subscriber, they let you share that storage pot with up to 5 other people.

Port Savers

hdmi port savers

Flash drives, monitors, security keys, camera card readers. We plug things into our computers and other tech, without thinking about it. Because it’s usually not a big deal. Plug-and-Play means exactly that, and there’s nothing else to put thought or effort into. Unless, maybe, if you’re plugging in that particular cable very often. In and out and in again on a daily basis. Then we might want to think about using port savers.

ethernet port savers

Excessive use of a port can wear it out. That connection point can get wormy, loose or just break, after thousands of uses. And if the USB port on your laptop stops working, if the HDMI port on your projector gets glitchy, you’re looking at an expensive repair, or even a system replacement.

Think of a port saver as a sacrificial cable. Or an extension cord that doesn’t extend. You would plug it into the oft-used port, and when it’s time to connect your device, you connect to the port saver each time, instead. After thousands of ins-and-outs, the low-price port saver is the thing that erodes and dies, not your expensive computer or screen.

usb port savers

Some examples:

The Dell 2024 Data Breach

If you have a Dell computer, you may have recently received an email notification of a data breach. Millions of customer records were recently stolen from Dell. Here’s what you need to know about the Dell 2024 Data Breach:

What Was Stolen

49 million customer records walked out the door. Each record may contain:

  • Purchaser’s Full Name
  • Physical Address
  • Unique Service Tag from the computer/hardware
  • System Ship Date
  • Warranty Plan Details
  • Serial Number (for monitors)
  • Dell Customer Number
  • Order Number

At this time, Dell claims that no payment info or phone numbers were taken. We can be grateful that there’s no worry about any financial accounts being invaded. But this breach is still a big deal, far bigger than Dell is letting on in their blanket email. The potential for phishing scams, using this stolen info, is high.

What To Expect

We’ve been through this before. It is generally known in the tech community that Dell has had other data breaches, and just not fessed up about them. How is that, you ask? Over the past several years, various Dell scams have been reported on or discussed, and those scammers used inside info, like Dell Service Tags and PII. The customer data they used was specific enough to have only come from Dell’s records.

These scams work well, and here’s an example of how it plays out:

Joe Scammer runs some quick searches against pubic information databases, and finds phone numbers to go with the names and addresses he’s holding. Then he starts cold-calling those numbers, with a plausible story.

“Hello, Ms. Vanderbluth! I am John Snordwrangler from Dell and I see that your Inspiron 3450 is overdue for a BIOS security update. If your service tag is BXT459A54, then I am authorized to perform this fix, free of charge for you! Do you have 2 minutes for me to remote-in and secure your system?”

This is often their schtick. And it is very believable, because the scammer already has all the answers. He’s not asking for sensitive info, he already has it, and many people would not think twice about saying Yes to a free fix. But anyone duped by this scheme will soon be taken for a horrible ride and bilked out of significant money. Or have their computer ruined after they refuse to pay up.

Based on past scam attempts, we might expect these to come via phone calls, email messages and even postal mail! Yes, you might even get a letter in the mail; it has happened before in other schemes.

How to Protect Yourself

This is a tough one to guard against. Again, the scammers will come armed with a lot of your personal information. They may employ the Dell logo on their printed materials. They have the ability to falsify their CallerID. Their email address may be spoofed to show “support@dell.com” or the like.

I have to prescribe extreme dubiousness for any Dell communications you receive. Maybe this should also apply to any unexpected contact from big tech companies. If you didn’t initiate that surprise call or email, mistrust is a good first option.

But there is always the slight chance that you will receive a legitimate Dell notice. So we’ll want to be suspicious but not impolite. Don’t respond to any Dell emails directly. Don’t interact with a Dell rep who called you on the phone. Never dial a number shown in an unexpected email.

If Dell is asking you to take any particular action, end the call or step away from that particular email. Next, you are safe to reach out to Dell, using trusted means, as shown on their website. The various phone numbers and chat methods on that site are safe. Using them will help you verify a real request, as well as reveal a phishing attempt.

Please also discuss anything strange with your friends, family or other trusted people. Remember: scams reveal themselves and fall apart when you talk about them with others!

Also, Dell asks that you report their impersonators to them. They have a page for reporting phone scams, and you are welcome to forward phishing emails to security@dell.com .


The Dell 2024 Data Breach
screencap of bad actor selling Dell’s stolen data

Image Background Removal

Image Background Removal

When working with photos, a common task might be image background removal. This is where you edit the picture so that the background and miscellaneous details are wiped out. You’re just left with the subject of the photo.

Maybe you need to do this with your headshot, for your LinkedIn Profile. Or perhaps you have something more creative in mind. Whatever your pursuits, removing the background of a picture is very easy to do. You do not need Adobe Photoshop or other complex tools for this.

The Photos App in Windows 11

Microsoft has built this popular function into all new PCs. It’s hiding in the Photos app. Just open your pic in Photos and click the Edit Image button to the top left. Then click the Background button to the upper right and use the Remove function that appears.

The Preview App in MacOS

Apple has put this functionality in their Preview app. If you open your photo in Preview, then you can follow these steps and remove the background.

If you’re running the latest MacOS (Ventura), you may also right-click (command-click) any photo in Finder, select Quick Actions and then click Remove Background.

Free Websites

There are also countless websites that offer image background removal. A longtime classic is remove.bg that is now owned by Canva. Photoroom also offers this tool for free. It looks like Pixlr has added this in, too.

These websites are extra-convenient, especially if you are using a Chromebook or other limited device. They promise to respect your privacy with whatever photos you supply, but I still wouldn’t upload anything sensitive.

Antivirus Isn’t Enough

If your computer is going to dip its toe in the internet ocean, you need protection. There are hazards everywhere, and nothing is sacred on the wretched worrisome web. But antivirus isn’t enough. Whether you are using Microsoft’s free Windows Defender Antivirus, or shelling out big bucks for Snotron McAffeinated 420 Ultra SmartWare Gigaplex Security Suite 2025 Excruciating Edition, you need more. No antivirus is going to keep you 100% safe from the hazards of the internet.

After your antivirus is squared away, you need an ad-blocker. This is software that suppresses or blocks advertisements from ever appearing as you surf the web. And you really need to be blocking ads, on (almost) all websites. They can be dangerous no matter where you go.

Irresponsibility

Websites everywhere look to make a buck through advertising. But they often don’t want the tedium of finding advertisers, collecting ads and payment and other managerial minutiae. It’s much easier for a company to hand that task off to ad firms, who will place and rotate ads on designated places on their website.

But that leads to trouble. If the ad firm doesn’t vet their customers well, or if they suffer a data breach, or if they just don’t care, then you wind up with this nonsense:

antivirus isn't enough

To be clear: This screencap is taken (today!) from a Valley newspaper’s website, that most people in the region visit for local news. Directly under their masthead is a large banner ad that will lead people to two different types of undesirable software downloads. I cannot tell you how many computers I have cleaned of OneLaunch this year. And EasyPDF is a well-known search hijacker. Some people are going to ignore that junk. Other people are going to click on it and foul up their computers and have to call a professional to clean things up.

As much as I like to earn my pay, this isn’t right. This is irresponsible, although it is debatable whether the fault lay with the newspaper or the ad agency they’ve hired. Whomever we should wag the finger at, they are unlikely to be sympathetic or helpful when it comes to fixing your computer. And this sort of thing happens frequently, on many of the mainstream websites you visit.

Hence my stance: You need an ad-blocker! An ad-blocker is the second layer of protection for your computer, after your antivirus.

Ad-Blocking Options

There are a lot of options for blocking ads, and they usually do not come from your antivirus vendor. And there are even scammy and spammy ad-blockers out there, so let me suggest some that I know to be legitimate and safe:

AdBlockPlus: I’ve used this browser extension for years and it has been consistent and solid since its inception.

uBlock Origin: Also a quality ad-blocker extension, but this one is fairly unique, as it does not ever ask for money, even a donation.

The Brave web browser: Brave is not an ad-blocker, it is an entire web browser with ad-blocking, baked in. It is a modified version of Google Chrome, with lots of privacy and other protections added into the mix.

I should mention it is best to pick only one ad-blocking solution and run with it. If you need to change, remove one before adding another. Multiple ad-blocking softwares can conflict or cause system slowness.

A Final Caveat

Using an ad-blocker may change your life. If you haven’t used one before and this is your first time, you may be amazed at how much more pleasant the internet becomes, with all of that chaff eliminated from your news, your webmail, your shopping websites…

But some websites don’t like that you are running an ad-blocker. They can tell. Those sites may pop-up messages when you visit, exhorting you to disable your ad-blocker, so that “we may continue to rake in those sweet sweet advertising dollars!” Most of these messages you may safely ignore, but a few websites are a bit more rigid than others. They may prevent you from using the website, until you turn off your ad-blocker. In those instances, you have a choice:

A) Disable your ad-blocker for that one website. Usually, you would find the icon for your ad-blocker, click it and then toggle it off. After you refresh the website, ads will show for that one webpage, but the ad-blocker will still function everywhere else you surf.

B) Don’t visit that website. Just leave. If they won’t respect your need for computer security, then perhaps they don’t need your patronage.

Even More Facebook Scams

The hits just keep coming. I’ve got even more Facebook scams to describe, so that you’ll be able to recognize and dodge these if you meet with them:

Concert Tickets for Sale

This is as simple as they come: Someone will ask for a Venmo or CashApp payment for some concert tickets, and then ghost you as soon as they receive the cash.

And once they’ve stolen your money, they will also Block you. This prevents you from reporting them to Facebook.

Garage Door Repair

Now we can add “garage door repair” to the list of service scams on the internet.

Working on garage doors is not for the faint of heart and is dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. I think it important that you be sure to have a properly licensed and insured person performing this service for you.

Missing Child Notice

I’ve blogged before about missing child alerts on social media, but this adds a new angle to that. These posts are fakes. These children are not missing. They’re not even located in the named town or region.

I’m fairly certain that these posts will later be changed into something shady, à la The Facebook Edited-Post Scam.

Precious Things Found

From missing people to found items, these scammy notices work the same way. If they can just get their post to be shared far and wide, they’ll later change it to something scammy.

Used Car for Sale

Many people sell their cars on Facebook, so this scam is hard to spot until you start dealing with the poster.

But I know this is a scam, because this person’s account was stolen from them. Once a scammer entered this user account, they changed the password and all other security info. And Facebook did not help the rightful owner of the account. The scammers are still in there as of today, posting about this car on all of the groups that they can.

For those who reach out about this car, they’ll be asked to make a small payment to “hold” the car for them. Or they may be offered a “too-good-to-be-true” price to get the car sold quickly and delivered to you. In any case, it’s just another way to get your cash before they block you.

Red Flags for These Scams

  • The poster asks you for payment or a holding fee before you have seen the product or received any proof of the item’s existence.
  • No company name is given, no local phone number or website is shown for offered services.
  • Real missing-persons notices would include the name and phone number of the relevant police station.
  • Scammers tend to Like their own posts and often Turn Off Commenting.

Romance Scams

romance scams

The internet is a great place to meet people. But are you you meeting real people near you or scammers who are out to steal from you? Let’s go over Romance Scams, so that you’ll be a little safer making friends and finding that special someone online.

Red Flags

Is that person you are chatting online looking for a serious relationship, or just your money? It can be really hard to tell! But look out for these red flags:

  • They won’t have a voice or video call with you.
  • They are very far away and cannot meet with you.
  • Meet-ups are planned, but always fall through or are cancelled.
  • Things move very fast, e.g.: they profess their love too quickly or ask for marriage very soon after your first contact.
  • Requests for money come up, to help with medical expenses, travel costs or investment opportunities.
  • Communications move to privacy-oriented apps, like Signal or WhatsApp, and you cannot learn the person’s physical address or true phone number.

Honest people that you have just met may exhibit some of these, too. It can be hard to know who’s legit and who’s lying to you. As the red flags pile up, you should trust the other person less and less. But then you may also see if you can knock down any of those flags by:

Verifying Someone’s Legitimacy

This is easier said than done. Not everyone wants to cooperate with requests for personal info, and with good reason: How do they know that you aren’t a scammer?! Still, these items can go a long way to helping you believe that you’ve met someone like you:

  • Have a call with them, where you can see them and hear their voice.
  • Meet with them in a public place (library, coffee shop, high-traffic building).
  • Perform a reverse image search of any profile picture you have of them. That picture may track back to who they say they are, or it may turn up on a ton of stock photography websites.
  • Ask to postal mail something to them.
  • Do your own research, looking up tax records and court records through trustworthy government websites.
  • Talk with family or friends about your new online acquaintance, to see if they think things are kosher or sketchy.

What Can Go Wrong

I can’t tell you how to create a successful relationship or make lasting friendships online. That’s going to be a challenge for many people, even when everyone is being honest. The hope with this post is that I can help you avoid the worst of the worst and their scams, that are out to take advantage of lonely, trusting people. And to that goal, you should understand what these schemers hope to do:

  • Earn your trust to the point that you’ll send them some money. And then they’ll ask for more. And then more and even more money. This repeated money extraction is sometimes referred to as a pig-butchering scam. Once the victim is bled dry of cash, the criminal will ghost them and move on to the next mark.
  • Convince someone to engage in romantic written/photographic/video content. Once the scammer has enough adult or illicit material, they use it to extort money from their victim. The extortion can be as simple as “I’m going to tell your wife” or as devastating as “I’m actually 16 years old and I’m going to the FBI with those photos you sent.”
  • In rare instances, romance scammers urge someone to travel to visit them. If this happens, it could be a trap. When the romantic hopeful arrives in a foreign country, they could be robbed or kidnapped or worse.

Already In a Jackpot?

If you find yourself in the midst of such a scam, cut off communication ASAP. If you’ve been sending them anything of value, you have got to get a tourniquet on things. Don’t send any more money, and consider any previously-sent gifts or cash as gone and unrecoverable. If you have any other worries, find a trusted person (friend, family member, police officer, pastor, counselor) to consult with.

If you know someone who is in the midst of a romance scam, gently confront them to say how you are concerned for their well-being. Show them this blog post or the many other articles that are out there, describing how romance scams function. Be prepared for and understanding about their resistance. The scammers may be in their heads, and have secured their trust. It can be an uphill battle to convince a romance-victim of the larger truth. In extreme cases, you may have to arrange an intervention.

New Broadband Labeling Requirements

If you are shopping for internet service, you should know about the new broadband labeling requirements. The FCC now requires ISPs to clearly state speeds, pricing and other critical details about their services. These new Broadband Consumer Labels look like the FDA’s nutrition labels. Overall, the government is trying to make ISPs present their offerings in a standard and less confusing way.

Examples

Here’s an example of what you will find, when you go shopping at Xfinity’s website:

New Broadband Labeling Requirements

When I visited the Glofiber page, their internet offerings were super-clear with these labels:

Despite this being a strict federal requirement, some ISPs are going to play with the format, to see what they can get away with. I went shopping for Verizon Fios, and didn’t see these labels. They gave me the same old Plan Summaries and encouraged me to choose one. But below these choices was a small, plain link that said “Jump to broadband facts labels” and those revealed the clearer details:

If you cannot locate these Broadband Nutrition labels on an ISP’s website, please know that:

  • This is a very new requirement, and perhaps they are still getting their website updated with this info.
  • Small ISPs (with fewer than 100,000 subscribers) have until October to comply.
  • The FCC would like for you to let them know, if an ISP is not posting these labels, or if they are being inaccurate with their pricing or other stated details. You may report such deceptive business practices at this site.

Importance of Broadband Labels

These labels are meant to help you avoid unpleasant surprises on your internet bill. So many people sign up with an ISP due to a low monthly price, only to find out a year later that they were enjoying a promotional discount. When the real price kicks in, those customers feel duped or taken advantage of. The FCC would like to help you know, from these labels, when you are paying a reliable price or a temporary one.

Besides clearing the air over pricing, these labels may help you understand your internet speed. It is so important to know what speed you should be getting in your home! Let me digress with this scenario:

I frequently help clients in speeding up their tech and figuring out why things are slow. And in the course of this detective work, I have to ask them: What speed of internet are you paying for? Many people do not know the answer to this, so we look at their internet bill. If we can’t find the speed on the bill, we visit the ISP’s website. And even then, we may not find any speed numbers. How in the world are we to know if their internet is operating correctly, if we can’t determine what speed they should be seeing?

These labels will clear up that kind of mess. Customers will be able to run a simple speed test, compare it against their broadband label, and reach out to the ISP over any discrepancy. Not that I don’t enjoy the detective work, but this will save everyone so much time!

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