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SMB - Computer-generated horror stories

Work without pay, flaming iPods, spammers in Hell

The words "horror," "Hell," and "torture" have popped up in headlines more often than one might think. Since it's Halloween week, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on just how scary computers can be.

Work without pay would no doubt be the definition of Hell to many people. That's likely the word (prefaced by "bloody") uttered in March by 400,000 workers in the United Kingdom who didn't get paid because of database problems with the Bacs payment clearing system. Bacs provides a central clearing house for automated payments and clears 30 million a day.

The glitch, which slowed the IP-based Bacstel communications channel, was discovered when batch processing that should have been completed on Wednesday failed to clear, causing payments due on Friday to be delayed until the following Monday. Officials say a technical problem caused the communication channel to run slowly, so submissions weren't completed.

In the past year, computer glitches have also been responsible for Medicare taking extra money from its beneficiaries' Social Security checks, a Skype outage, and extra charges to donors of American Idol's "Idol Gives Back" charity drive, among others.

Spammers in Hell

Speaking of Hell, that's where at least one spammer is going.

"Ed," a 22-year-old retired spammer, built a considerable fortune sending e-mails that promoted pills, porn and casinos. At the peak of his power, Ed -- also known as Spammer X -- says he pulled in US$10,000 to US$15,000 a week, and made US$480,000 his last year of spamming.

"Yes, I know I'm going to hell," said Ed, who spoke in London during a July event hosted by IronPort Systems, a security vendor now owned by Cisco. "I'm actually a really nice guy. Trust me."

He says he got out of the business because, in part, he realized his pharmaceutical-related spam was helping addicts score. Since then he's written a book, Inside the Spam Cartel: Trade Secrets from the Dark Side, which he said has had some take-up in law enforcement circles eager to learn more about the spam business, which he projects will only get worse.

Ed won't be the only spammer in Hell. Another, apparently trying to appeal to recipients' sympathetic sides, in August sent a spam blast in which he threatened to kill himself and eat his dog (in that order) if the drug prices at a certain Web site weren't great. Maybe he can compare drug prices with Ed in the Underworld.

Zombies and Halloween go great together. Thanks to the Storm malware that's been massively circulated the past few months, there are more computer zombies lurking on the Internet than ever before; researchers say this Trojan horse alone is responsible for one million of them.

iPod aflame

Fire can be scary. Especially when it's in your pocket.

Earlier this month an Atlanta man said his iPod Nano caught fire in his pants. The nearly two-year-old iPod caught fire in the pocket of Danny Williams at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where he is employed. The flames lasted 15 seconds and fire reached up to his chest; glossy paper in his pocket may have shielded him from getting burned by the fire.

The iPod contains a lithium-ion battery, which has a history of catching fire in laptops. Since December 2005 these batteries have been blamed for meltdowns and fires in several computers. Last year several manufacturers, including Apple, Dell, and Lenovo Group were forced to recall millions of the batteries.

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Not so friendly skies

There are few things in life more frustrating than delayed plane flights. But what's truly horrific to discover is that a computer is responsible for a night spent sleeping in an airport lounge.

Such was the case in May, when hundreds of domestic flights in Japan were cancelled or delayed as a result of a glitch in All Nippon Airways (ANA)'s computer system.

The problem hit data flowing between the airline's main reservations host computer and intermediate computers that handled downstream connections to terminals in airports, according to an ANA spokesman. Information flow between the intermediate computers and host computer was slowed by the glitch leading to a backlog of data that eventually clogged the system. The slowdown eventually caused 130 cancellations and delays of more than an hour for 306 flights. Around 69,300 passengers were affected.

ANA isn't the only airline with a recent computer horror story. Those self-serve kiosks that airlines have moved to expedite check-in backfired on US Airways in March, with glitches that caused long lines and delayed flights.

The glitches were tied to the integration of reservation systems with America West Airlines, which US Airways acquired in 2005. When 7 million reservations were transferred from one system to the other, 1.5 million of them didn't sync correctly and had to be hand-processed, which bogged down the system, explained a US Airways official.

In June, United Air Lines was forced to cancel 24 domestic flights when the computers it uses to dispatch flights failed. The outage caused about 268 domestic and international flights to be delayed, United said, with an average delay time of an hour and a half. The airline at the time said it didn't know what caused the outage.

Also in June, one of the two systems used by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to manage flight plans failed, causing flight delays and cancellations across the country.

Calling Jack Bauer

And then there's torture. In what could easily have been a story line straight out of "24," one of our editors in September spent endless tortured hours at the Gateway to Hell when he attempted to get a little something called tech support for the Gateway desktop PC he purchased.

No horror story would be complete without mention of data breaches. The mummy of them all, TJX, has become the symbol of data breach, much like the jack-o'-lantern is for Halloween.

Other notable data leaks of late include those that occurred at Monster.com, ExxonMobile and dozens more.

Almost as frightening as the breaches themselves are the companies' attempts to apologize to the people whose data was lost.