Flapped by computer scam butterfly effect


As I arrived at Mac's Post Office/News Agency at 7am on the day before the Melbourne Cup, I realised this was an anniversary. Mac was busy arraying the sun hats, buckets, spades and other paraphernalia outside the entrance. To cross the threshold customers had to run a gauntlet of summer fripperies, which included, I noticed, mysterious items called 'Spiky Balls', plastic spheres studded with knobs, like World War II  floating mines.

Black spiky ball'It's two years to the day since I wrote that piece about you in Eureka Street,' I said.

'Can't be two years,' Mac said, then, conceding reluctantly, 'two years! My fan base hasn't grown. I blame the writer.'

'Well, my fan base is pretty static too. I guess I need a more interesting local subject.'

'What's going on?' he said. This is Mac's way of asking if anything of note is happening, or indeed, if anything at all is happening. But before I could answer, he launched into his own story.

In the unlikely event of his ever having to save himself, like Scheherazade, by telling a story every night for a thousand and one nights, Mac would be just warming up when his listeners called it quits and pleaded exhaustion around night number 700.

'There's a bloke comes in here pretty regularly, you'd have seen him, ex-army type, confident character. Always pleasant, unlike some.' His dismissive, sweeping gesture took in the entire township and most of the coast. 'Anyway, this bloke told me just the other day that he was working on his computer — I think he writes a bit, like you, only he's much more serious ...'

I winced, then grinned bravely.

'Actually,' Mac went on, warming to his narrative, 'he was revising and printing a speech he had given at his son's wedding, to give the happy couple a copy, when everything on his screen shuts down and disappears and replacing it is an urgent virus alert. A loud female voiceover warns him repeatedly that serious damage to his computer could occur.

'Now, as he said to me, this is the sort of thing you ignore or delete ...'

An elegantly dressed, elderly woman, who had come into the shop a few minutes earlier and selected a newspaper and a magazine and had been waiting for Mac to finish talking rather than interrupt, now seemed to realise he might not ever finish, so she moved towards the counter clutching a $10 note.

Mac gave her one of his more winning smiles, thanked her warmly, and wished her a good morning and a successful Cup Day. She left, giving us a stern, anti-gambling, anti-horse racing look.

'The sort of thing you delete,' Mac continued as if nothing had happened. 'But it's easy to talk. The bloke said he was so spooked by — by ...'

'By how plausible it all sounded?' I said.

'Exactly. Plausible. Just the right word from the local wordsmith,' Mac said using one of his descriptions of me that seemed to praise but actually sent me up. 'So, he rang the number on the screen and about three hours and $300 later the amazingly polite bloke on the other end declared his computer saved from being controlled by German and Mexican hackers.'

'A scam?'

'Well,' Mac said, 'you'd think so. As soon as it was all done, the bloke had serious doubts, especially when his computer completely shut down again.'

Mac was now talking to me over his left shoulder because he was putting mail in the local boxes. 'It turns out that his son, the one he gave the wedding speech for — you with me?'

'I think I'm following,' I said drily.

'This son is a computer expert. He's an IT man with a big firm and his specialty is: guess what?'

'Surprise me,' I said.

'Security,' Mac said triumphantly as if he'd won the lottery. 'Scams, hacking, that sort of thing. He solves all his old man's computer problems. But —'

'But what?'

'Concentrate. Remember, the young bloke's just got married. He's on his honeymoon and, though he's due back on the very day this scam business happened, he can't come home because where do you think he and his wife are honeymooning? In Bali. Under the volcano. All flights grounded.

'Bloody amazing in life, isn't it, how things dovetail and link up mostly when you don't want them to. If you put that in one of your stories we'd say, "Break it down, sport, that's too many coincidences. That sort of thing doesn't happen."

'But it does of course, regardless of all the wonders of the so-called digital age.'

'It's called the butterfly effect,' I said. 'A seemingly insignificant move in one place produces unpredictable consequences somewhere else. Like the letter I'm going to write to the Surfcoast Echo complaining about the obscene display outside your shop.'

He looked blank.

'Spiky Balls,' I said. 'It'll be a sensation round these parts. In this so-called digital age it's called "going viral".'

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews



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Existing comments

Spiky Balls? Are they any relation to Matzo Balls?

Pam | 12 November 2015  

Thank you Brian. It is good to start the day with a chuckle for a change. We have similarly been plagued with these criminal scammers. My husband has found his own revenge. He bought a very shrill umpires" whistle and blasts it down the phone at them. Effectiveness: dubious. Satisfaction: immense.

Pauline Small | 13 November 2015  

Thanks Brian, as Pauline said, a good story to start the day. Keep going with this writing thing - you do show some skill at it :)

Brett | 13 November 2015  

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