A harrowing experience with malware this past weekend has got me thinking about tech support and how very important it is to what we do both within and outside the insurance enterprise.

As I was merrily surfing the Web a few days back, I got a popup that portended trouble. The popup warned that my computer had been infected with a variety of nasty viruses and spyware, and that I immediately needed to download certain software in order to get rid of said malware. The only problem was that the application about which it was warning me was not an app that was resident on my machine either now or in the past.

In fact, the message was itself the malware, and a particularly nasty piece of work at that. Being a tech “expert,” I was aware that such nefarious programs existed, but it did me little good. Despite the fact that I didn’t O.K. the download, the offending app took up residence on my machine and proceeded to lock down Windows to the point where nothing would move. Rebooting by shutting down the computer manually only brought me back to the frozen state; the computer wouldn’t even allow me to open Windows in safe mode, telling me that damage had been done and that Windows was shutting down to prevent further carnage. This meant my computer was completely useless.

Using my administrator privileges, I managed to boot up through the diagnostic mode. A long, frenzied and unfruitful series of scans with multiple malware detectors failed to produce results; the resident evil was evidently protecting itself. At long last I unearthed some apps that didn’t look familiar and incinerated them, but that still left me with the damage to Windows XP, which still would not boot in normal mode. What to do? “I’ll just backup my files and reinstall Windows from the disks that came with my PC,” I thought.

That went fine until it came time for me to type in the product code from my machine. Lo and behold, the software refused to accept the code as valid, thus I could not boot Windows from my computer at all, even from safe mode. A call to Microsoft tech support yielded the response (automated, of course) that my retailer must have slapped the wrong product code label on the machine, and that I should contact my retailer to get it straightened out. My call to the Geek Squad (at the retailer) was equally frustrating, since they insisted that Microsoft had made the mistake and that the only way to solve matters was to bring my machine in for (costly) examination and repairs. “Have a nice day, sir,” was all the answer I could get from the smarmy tech.

I had already been without computing power for a day, but luckily for my consulting business, it had occurred on the weekend. Being the top IT guy at my one-man business, I was running out of options. Then a last-minute desperation pass from deep in my own territory miraculously connected. Instead of trying to reinstall Windows XP, I installed Windows Vista, which also had come with the computer, but was not originally installed. No product code was required! A few tweaks and driver downloads later, I was back in business, except of course for the onerous task of reinstalling all my software. To all those who trash Vista, I say humbug!

Here’s the point, though. If I were a 500 or 10,000-person operation and my business systems were down for two days, this could have been a total disaster. When our systems are running smoothly, we are tempted to discount the importance of things like competent tech support. Imagine my problem on an enterprisewide scale, and you can appreciate the necessity of having good backup resources in place. A single nasty app brought my small business to a standstill; the same could happen on a much larger scale.

Whether you’re a carrier, broker or agent, when you’re looking at next year’s IT budget and trying to figure out where you can trim fat, don’t even think about taking it from tech support—either internal or external. Don’t consider going on the cheap, either, because as a relative of mine used to say: “You buy cheap, you got cheap!” Competent 24/7 tech support from folks who know their stuff and speak English clearly is a lot like insurance; you hope you’ll never have to use it, but you’re mighty glad it’s there when disaster strikes.

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