Contagion! How not to stop a computer virus

One user's overactive imagination spawns creative theories on how computer viruses are spread

I've met a number of users over the years who don't understand how technology works at even a basic level. They can go through the motions of what's needed to do their jobs or simple personal computing, but that's it. You explain what's happening the best you can, make sure the problem gets fixed, and steel yourself that you'll be hearing from them frequently.

Here is a story about one such encounter that prompts a laugh when I need it and reminds me to stay patient and courteous when the conversation seems to be going in circles.

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Our IT help desk provided support for business and home users, and one day I received a call from a customer we'll call Bob who was having problems with his personal computer.

The conversation went something like this:

Bob: I think I might have a virus on my computer.

Me: What is your computer doing that makes you think it has a virus?

Bob: It's been running really slow recently, and I'm getting a message on the screen saying I have multiple viruses and I need to send in $50 to get them removed.

Me: It does sound like you have spyware, a virus, or even a fake antivirus program trying to get you to send them $50.

Bob: How bad is it? Will the virus spread?

Me: It's possible that it could spread or get worse. I highly recommend you power down your computer and bring it in to our shop so we can scan for viruses, remove them for you, and check your antivirus software.

Bob (sounding very concerned): I can't make it in today. Will my other computers be OK if I wait until tomorrow to bring the infected one in?

Me: You should be OK if you power down and unplug your computer.

Bob: My computers are placed very close to each other. Will the virus escape when I'm not looking?

Me (trying not to laugh): No, that won't happen.

Bob: But the case has small holes on the back. Will the virus be able to crawl out of those holes and get to my other computers?

Me: No. Computer viruses don't spread that way.

Bob: Are you sure?

I told him that if he shut off the infected computer that all would be fine. Then I went through a basic description of the way computer viruses spread and precautions he could take to minimize his chances of getting a virus on the computer again. Apparently, my explanation was not understood.

Bob: OK. But are you sure the virus won't crawl out of the case and into my other computer when I turn it off?

Me: Yes, I'm sure.

Bob: I think I'll put it in my car for the night to keep it isolated.

I fought the urge to tell him to bring the computer in immediately and to wear gloves to keep the virus from infecting him. But I held my tongue.

Me: OK, if it makes you feel safer that will be fine.

Bob: I'll be in tomorrow.

Me: OK. See you then.


It took me a while to stop laughing after that call.

I guess there never is a boring day in IT. And if computer viruses really worked the way Bob thought, we'd all be in big trouble.

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