The loan officer leaned back in disbelief. “You want this bank to give you good money so you can put movies on tape and rent them to people to watch on their little TV screens at home with this new VCR thing?” he spluttered. “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. Why would people do that?” Roger Amidon still remembers those words, spoken in l974, about six months before those little movie rental kiosks began appearing in malls.
There were just a handful of the pioneers back then — the techno-revolutionaries of the 1960s. Tinkering in their basements, guys like Gates, Wozniak, and Amidon built their own computers and envisioned the day that the little machines would be standard in every home. Gates and Wozniak became iconic American business titans as their prediction came true. Amidon’s success is not quite on that level, but he has spent the last 35 years designing platform after platform at his Hopewell-based DX Computer Company.
Amidon speaks on “Spams and Scams” — and other online nuisances — at the Trenton Computer Festival on Saturday, April 22, at 1:30 p.m. The two-day computer festival, the first and largest in the country, takes place at the College of New Jersey. It begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday, and continues on Sunday, April 23, when the kick-off time is also 9 a.m. Cost: $17 for two days. Visit www.tcf-nj.org for complete information.
Talks range from the “The Apollo Guidance Computer” to “Buying a Digital Camera.” This is one of the rare shows with equal offerings for the professional designer and the novice. Allen Katz, a founder of the computer festival, says that the novelty of the computer itself has worn off, but that applications — including downloading music, making movies, organizing photos, and instant messaging — are hotter than ever. This year’s computer festival, he says, revolves around those applications. In addition to scores of speakers, the event features an expansive flea market full of computers and every imaginable peripheral.
No, Amidon is not a household name, but industry experts estimate that his top 10 inventions alone have made several billions for his employers. He is credited with a variety of breakthroughs, including one of the first liquid crystal displays for watches, the Zapple monitor, smart terminals, home and portable video game cartridges, and the Z 80 CPU board.
Amidon grew up in Verona. His father was a banker who taught him to look toward the latest innovations for the greatest profits. Halfway through his studies at Upsala College, Amidon took his father’s advice. He realized he was making way too much money in electronics repair to continue in college. A ham radio operator since age 12, he was soon running a successful TV repair shop in Kearny.
By the end of the 1960s, he had become intrigued by the possibilities of the brand new digital world. In l970 he was part of the team at Optel Corporation in Princeton that designed the first digital liquid crystal display (LCD) wristwatch utilizing a dynamic scattering display.
Meanwhile, literally in his basement, he built a TTL computer, which was heralded on the cover of fledgling “Byte” magazine. In l976, working for Princeton’s Technology Design Labs, he designed the Z 80 circuit board for the Atari computer, which increased the computer’s power five times over. In l981, after a brief stint with IBM, Amidon formed Rising Star Industries, where he designed the Epson QX 10, a user-friendly computer. He now works at his own company, DX Computers, which is located in Hopewell.
In on the computer revolution from the beginning, Amidon nevertheless views some of functions the machines have made possible with a slightly jaundiced eye. “Be a little suspicious,” he warns. “E-mails should not make you paranoid or overburdened. But a little wariness and a few tools can help.”
An old scam made new again. Older than the bank passbook, this scam still flourishes. An individual phones or E-mails you that your account information needs updating. It may be your bank, or a service you use, perhaps a utility or a credit card company. Often a little enticement is thrown in such as “we fear a security breech,” or “we must terminate your service if you do not respond.” So, dutifully, the recipient types in information ranging from his password, bank balance, credit and Social Security card numbers, and medical history.
The drawbridge is lowered. An attachment automatically sends your private information to the dummy site indicated on the E-mail, and your identity is no longer yours alone.
The solution is simple: call and check before giving out any information. Get your past bill from the retailer, credit card, or utility company and report such requests to them. The E-mail could be from a retailer with whom you deal constantly. Regardless of the claim, this info seeker is a stranger knocking at your door. Beware.
Debit card woes. “Debit cards are the sirloin of the bad guys,” says Amidon. Not only are they easier than standard credit cards to steal and scalp, but the issuing bank typically offers no aid or protection to the victim.
After a lovely meal, the host whips out his debit card to settle up. At some point during the transaction, the owner’s pin code is demanded. He has been assured that this information is sent encrypted. But in the back room, while the merchant is sending the details, another machine copies them down prior to encryption and sends the information to a flat in Moscow, where his identity is stolen and his bank account cleaned out.
Anyone can make a phony ATM card with your information on it.
Quietly, every year, these scams rake in billions, with most of the losses borne by customers. Amidon suggests two ways to prevent this theft. First, never purchase online with a debit card. Use a credit card instead.
Second, call a representative of your debit card issuer and tell him not just when you do plan to travel, but when you do not. If you have told the bank that you intend to remain in the tri-state area for the next month (preferably in writing), it will be able to red flag purchases from outside that area. Unfortunately, banks are not always set up to handle this information, but even if they do not, your warning does give you legal leverage if theft occurs.
Nigerian scam. Under the category of “you cannot cheat an honest man,” Amidon offers a warning on the many variations of an old money laundering scam. The thief sends an E-mail asking to borrow your bank account so that he can temporarily store some politically stranded soul’s untold riches in it. The greedy victim gives out his bank number, and again, down goes the drawbridge.
Spam squelchers. The best protection against invasive spam is that which is installed by your Internet service provider. The easiest way to get it is to phone, rather than E-mail, the company and discuss the options available. Amidon boasts that he went from 120 spam messages a day to six by having his provider install the Wildcat system. Most Internet providers provide spam protection. If yours doesn’t Amidon’s advice is: get another provider — quickly.
Souped-up filters. A variety of mail filters can prowl your E-mail for taboo words. They keep out any E-mail containing them in the title or address. Frequently these are employed to protect youngsters from what parents deem as profanity. But many of these software packages allow you to insert your own list of taboo words. Think how much less spam you would be receiving if missives with words such as “home mortgage,” “pharmaceuticals,” “generic,” and “dysfunction” were deleted from your daily mail.
Cut rate deals. “If you receive an E-mail offering the entire Microsoft office software package, normally retailing for $300, for a mere $40, think a moment. The odds are high that something other than a discount is going on here. First, it is possible that the sender may take your offer and send you his bootleg knock-off version of the software, akin more in labeling than performance to the original.
A worse possibility is that the sender is luring you into giving him your credit card information. Down drawbridge. One basic defense against this scam is to install, via E-mail server or through your own computer, a guard that accepts no E-mails without a specifically verifiable address.
Amidon admits that our computers are under siege. But he insists that we need not take up a siege mentality. Says he, “If you verify accounts, look for company logos, and beware of uncommon deals, you can remain fairly scam-free online.”