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As Seen in Boston Globe North
 

Geeks on call

Technicians remove spyware, set up networks in a single home visit

Cheryl Richardson of Newburyport is a noted motivational speaker and author whose business is steeped in spiritual messages. So it doesn't help her image when she boots up her computer every morning and logs on to a pornographic website.

But she can't help it. Something has taken over Richardson's PC and, despite her best efforts, it isn't leaving. So, Cheryl, who are you going to call? Not tech support, where she would have to wait on hold for 45 minutes before speaking with someone 10,000 miles away. She's been there, done that. Not some big-box retailer, who will ask her to disassemble the computer and bring it in. That's way too much work.

Not fortunate enough to have a friend of a friend whose brother-in-law knows something about computers, Richardson found herself with few options.

That's when she did what an increasing number of at-their-wit's-end PC owners are doing. She found a computer technician who makes house calls. It's 2005, and no longer can we get a physician to come to our house. We have little use for the Maytag repairman. But for about $100, we can get a computer geek to show up within 24 hours and quickly heal our PCs.

Beginning around 2001, in the wake of massive layoffs at Massachusetts high-tech companies, a few out-of-work network administrators, systems engineers, and IT staffers from the user-help desks found a new way to make a living. With their severance packages dwindling and scant prospects for new employment, these folks were forced to create their own jobs. Many have become the 21st century's TV repairmen. Because the industry is fledgling, it's hard to come by the number of computer techs who make house calls. But it's growing.

''These companies are popping up more and more in conversation," said Joyce Plotkin, president of the Massachusetts Software Council. ''There's obviously a need and they're filling it."

Some of these technicians and companies can be found in newspaper classified sections. One company, Merrimac-based Visiting Geeks, whose logo features nerdy-looking techs wearing short-sleeved dress shirts and oversized glasses, stuffs fliers in newspapers and uses direct-mail campaigns.

Another, Lexington-based Geek Housecalls Inc., whose technicians wear the requisite geek uniform -- a denim shirt with plastic pocket protector -- began to advertise its business in 2001 by plastering fliers in storefronts up and down Mass. Ave. Today, they're running a radio commercial, complete with jingle.

National retailer Best Buy also offers an in-home computer repair service.

These traveling technicians promise to quickly, inexpensively, and conveniently fix whatever ails your computer. Because of the proliferation of high-speed Internet connections, particularly via cable modem and digital subscriber lines, most of the house calls are to remove spyware, viruses, pop-up ads, and other cyber parasites that cause computers to run slowly, erratically, or not at all.  

More recently, companies such as PlumChoice of Bedford and Digiticians of Waltham have been fixing computers remotely, logging into a consumer's computer without leaving the office. However, users must be able to access the Internet in order to use the service.

Some consumers, including Richardson and Linda Sahovey of Marblehead, want the technician to fix the problem at their home and without their involvement.

Most computer users now know that viruses come primarily from infected e-mail attachments, have installed antivirus software and are cautious about opening e-mail from unknown senders. But spyware -- the hidden programs that track movements on your computer -- is becoming as widespread and troublesome as infected e-mail was.

Once the consequence of visiting porn sites, music file sharing sites, and other entertainment websites, spyware is now launched from most general commercial sites.

Some of the spyware comes in the form of a pop-up ad that warns users that their computer contains spyware and offers a software program to remove it. If the user downloads the program, it places even more spyware on the computer.

''There's a form of high-tech extortion going on," said Andy Trask, co-owner of Geek Housecalls.

Richardson tried everything she could think of to solve her computer problems before turning to Visiting Geeks. ''I'm a fairly experienced computer user," said Richardson. ''I thought I had myself fairly well covered in terms of computer protection."

What she had was a load of spyware that was wreaking havoc with her computer, slowing it down, freezing it, and hijacking her home page to the point that she couldn't log on without hitting the porn site. Two days and $150 later, a Visiting Geeks technician had her back in business.

''I thought it was very affordable," said Richardson. ''I'm a very busy woman. . . . I could have either spent 50 hours to figure this out or have them do it for $150."

Sahovey, a psychiatric clinician at Tufts New England Medical Center and part-time teacher at Endicott College in Beverly, relies on her computer to prepare lessons, catch up on her e-mail, and pay bills.

She reached the end of her rope last month when spyware took control of her computer. The most she could do was push the power button.

After that, there was a barrage of pop-up ads and error messages. When she went onto the Internet, spyware would decide which home page would load and she couldn't change it.

''It's driving me crazy," she told her technician on a recent call. ''I get these warnings and error messages and it makes me nervous. I don't know what to do. I just shut it off."

In less than an hour, technician Lance Arnold of Visiting Geeks had her computer working like the day it came out of the box, at a cost of $133. ''That's really reasonable," said Sahovey. ''It's less than my plumber cost me a couple of weeks ago."

When frustrated computer users call a traveling tech with details of their problem, they're usually able to schedule an appointment within 24 hours. When the technician arrives, he gets right to work, maneuvering the mouse with the dexterity of a magician.

In the technician's bag of tricks is spyware removal software that he loads and runs for about 10 minutes. The software examines nearly all of the data in the computer, identifying and destroying unwanted garbage.

In the meantime, the tech is removing software programs that have inadvertently or maliciously become installed in the computer.

In most cases, a technician can clean up the computer and get it running smoothly in 30 to 45 minutes. Before he leaves, he installs some proven spyware removal programs and shows the user how it works. Typically the cost of such a visit is around $100.

In rare instances, when spyware and other parasites have rendered a computer nearly useless, a technician will have to perform a ''system rebuild," essentially erasing the hard drive and reinstalling all of the software that came with the computer when it was new. This can take up to three hours and may cost $200 to $300.

Steve Nicholson, 39, a former manufacturing engineer for Honeywell in Lexington, was repairing computers as a side job when he decided to give it a go full time four years ago. Today, the owner of PC Wizard of Amesbury said he and his staff of five traveling geeks are handling eight or nine jobs a day and are looking to expand.

Trask, 43, and Dave Ehlke, 66, co-owners of Geek Housecalls, one of the largest companies of its kind in New England, started their business in 2001 and have built it from 100 customers to 6,000 today. They serve about 80 new customers a week, with plans to continue expanding throughout New England. They employ more than 50 geeks, who cover Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and southern New Hampshire. According to Trask there are some 2 million households in his service area, and 1.5 million have computers.

Because the company is privately held, Trask wouldn't disclose revenue and profits but offered this: ''It's pretty glamorous being a geek."

As more and more laid-off workers became self-employed consultants, they created a demand for PC techs who could make house calls, said Harold Belbin, 43, a longtime systems engineer who started Visiting Geeks with Sharron Senter almost two years ago. ''These are people who were used to picking up the phone and getting the IT department to come up to their offices and fix things," said Belbin. ''If you are a work-at-home person, there's really not a lot of places you can go for that kind of help. That's where we come in."

Today, the company employs five technicians and has served about 1,000 customers. About 70 percent are individual clients working from home and another 30 percent are small businesses, typically professional offices such as doctors, dentists, and lawyers. Technicians, who often work flexible schedules, are paid $15 to $40 per hour. Some full-time techs earn about $50,000 a year, Belbin said.

While fixing computers is the technicians' most frequent kind of work, they're also called for other chores that are sometimes daunting for the average user, including setting up a new computer, transferring data from an old computer to a new one, or installing a wireless network for two or more computers in the same house.

''One time this guy asked me to set up his VCR," Arnold recalled with a chuckle. ''I did it. Why not? Wasn't a big deal."

Phil Santoro can be reached at psantoro@globe.com.