Do you ever help a user with his home computer?

There's a person working at our firm who asked me for some advice concerning his home computer - his wife's computer, actually. For some context, I'll say that he's a retired gentleman, a World War II veteran, a Purple Heart recipient, and an absolutely wonderful human being with a huge heart and a lot of idle time on his hands. He works for us as a part-time courier; he comes into the office in the early afternoon to pick up whatever might have to be delivered, and spends a few hours delivering and picking up items to and from our clients.

He's not very computer literate, but his wife uses a computer for e-mail and to help her with a home business that she dabbles in. Her knowledge of computing might be best described as limited, being able to do the basic stuff, but if one little thing is out of place or goes awry, she's pretty lost.

He approached me the other day and asked if I had any ideas of what might be wrong with his wife's computer. It appears that their son, when visiting not too long ago, used the computer to check his e-mail, and ever since their own e-mail hasn't worked. In addition, they cannot check their online banking information. At least those are the two symptoms I was told. He speculated that perhaps the passwords somehow became corrupt and/or they became infected with a virus. They called someone to come into their home to fix it (presumably a qualified computer contractor), who, after two hours, couldn't fix the problem. This technician also checked Google to see if they had any recommendations, but still couldn’t figure it out.

By the way, when I said “…..checked Google to see if they had any recommendations .. and .. speculated that the passwords somehow became corrupt and/or they became infected with a virus …..” that was his description, which is why I phrased it as I did -- it shows a huge disconnect and lack of understanding, and falls under the category of listening to what he meant, not necessarily what he said.

In the end, this technician didn't fix anything, the computer still had the problems, and he charged them $150 for two hours of his time trying to figure it out, only to tell them that he didn't know what was wrong. Sorry, I can’t fix your problem -- $150 please. (I know what I would have told him what he could do with the bill, but that's beside the point.)

I went on to explain that whenever I was faced with a perplexing problem whose solution remained elusive for more than around 30 minutes, the worst-tcase scenario was that I simply reformatted the drive and reinstalled everything -- a task that might take only a couple of hours, more or less, in and of itself. I wondered out loud why this technician didn't suggest that as a solution, to which shrugged shoulders was about the only answer. Maybe he thought the computer just wasn't worth the expense, the gentleman said. He then asked if I had any older computers that I didn't need anymore lying around. (He knows that we often offer older computers, parts, and pieces to employees.)

Well, I'm going to break my long-standing rule of not getting involved in helping people with their home computers. I think I'll have him bring the computer into the office, and I'll take a look at it after hours; or maybe I'll go over to his house to fix it. (The only person I've ever made a house call for was my brother!) Either way, I'll probably fix it with my worst-case scenario solution, reformatting and reinstalling. I'm sure I have an extra hard drive lying around here that I can use so I can get a clean install on a drive without having to worry about the original data. After it's up and going again, I can transfer the data over later.

After I fix it, maybe I'll get the name and number of the guy who jilted them out of $150, and shame him into giving them a refund. Or maybe I can come up with a creative idea to get him to waste several hours of his time. I don't know how other independent technicians might operate, but if I wasn't able to fix a problem such as this, I wouldn't have the nerve to charge them for it.