Exposed: the PC repair shops that rifle through your photos and passwords

22 Jul 2009

PC Pro readers help Sky News uncover the shocking state of Britain's PC repair shops

When Sky News launched an undercover investigation into PC repair shops, it turned to PC Pro readers for help with identifying rogue traders. As a result, Sky's cameras caught technicians scouring through private photos, stealing passwords and over-charging for basic repairs. Here is what they found

How many technicians does it take to fix a laptop? Just one, but if you know where to find him, please let us know.

We'd heard there were serious problems with computer repair shops: faults misdiagnosed, overcharging for work and data deleted. So we put them to the test in order to find out why customers were getting such a raw deal and who the culprits were.

The exercise was simple. Create a simple fault on a laptop, load it with spy software, take it into several repair shops, then sit back and see what happened. Would they arrive at the same diagnosis and charge us a fair price to fix it?

First, Sky News engineers installed professional spy software on a new laptop. Spector Pro was programmed to load on start-up and silently record every 'event' that took place. If the mouse was moved, a folder opened or a file looked at, we would know about it. Every event would also trigger a screen snapshot to be taken.

We also installed Digiwatcher. This devious little tool auto-runs on start-up and quietly tells any connected webcam to secretly film whoever is at the machine. The process is invisible and the video file is hidden on the hard drive and password protected.

We then filled the hard drive with the sort of data anyone might have on their PC: holiday photos, curriculum vitae, MP3s, Word documents and log-in details. Our laptop now looked just like any other.

To create the fault, we simply loosened one of the memory chips so Windows wouldn't load. To get things working again, one needs only push the chip back into the slot and reboot the machine. Any half-way competent engineers should fix it in minutes.

All we needed now was our targets. We teamed up with PC Pro readers to track down shops with the worst reputation and took our laptop into be repaired. We expected poor customer service, but nothing prepared us for the first shop we visited.

Snooping on holiday snaps

Laptop Revival in Hammersmith initially offered us a free diagnosis when we dropped our laptop off. Yet the spy software later revealed something extraordinary. The webcam shows that almost immediately the technician discovers our loose memory chip and clicks it back into position [based on recorded boot and shut down times]. The machine is rebooted and the problem solved.

Yet he then begins browsing through our hard drive. A folder marked 'Private' is opened and he flicks through our researcher's holiday photographs, including intimate snaps of her wearing a bikini. He stares at picture after picture, stopping only to show them to colleagues.

He then picks up the phone and calls our researcher. He tells her our motherboard is faulty and will need to be replaced. Usually it costs £130 but he'll do it for £100. We tell him we'll think about it and call him tomorrow.

After more snooping, he logs off. But a few hours later, another technician boots our machine. He also begins searching our hard drive until he finds log-in details for our Facebook and Hotmail accounts. With a cackle he removes a memory stick from around his neck, plugs it in and then copies them across.

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