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Be Careful What You Click

The internet can be a scary and dangerous place these days. Dangers include malware, viruses, trojans, phishing, and more. All of these are attempts by criminals to steal from you. In real life, we know about this kind of thing and take precautions such as locking doors and not opening the door to strangers. There are things we can do on the internet that are equally protective there, too.
Some of the protective measures everyone should use include anti-virus software, password managers and virtual private networks (VPNs), with good backups as insurance. Here, I’d like to talk about email hygiene – being careful what you click on.
Probably the most common way the bad guys try to bilk you is through email. Just about everyone has received suspicious messages. Here are some ways to recognize them and to avoid being fooled by them.

  1. Look at the actual address an email is sent from. How you do this is different with each email system, but they all let you do this. Compare the name of the sender to the email address in the message. If they don’t appear to match, go no further. For instance, if the sender shows up as “Amazon Customer Service” but the email address might be jtxxpq@gmail.com, you know it’s not legitimate.
  2. Look for misspelled words. It’s amazing how many criminals don’t use spell-check before they send out their bait. In part, this may be because many scammers are located outside the US in countries where the native language is not English.
  3. If the message is asking for any personal information, it is almost certainly not legit. Legitimate organizations do not ask for information such as passwords, account numbers, phone numbers, etc.
  4. Do not click on any links or buttons in an email unless you are certain the email is genuine. If the message says something like “click here to update your account,” don’t do it. Even if you think it is valid, it’s better to go directly to that organization’s website to do whatever you need to do. If the request is real, then this will be possible.
  5. An email from a friend or family member requesting money or a gift card is almost certainly bogus. If it’s somebody you know, pick up the phone and call them to verify. If you don’t know them, forget it.
    In all these cases, the remedy is to delete the offending message.
    These are just a few thoughts on how to keep safe online. Please contact us if we can help.

Ransomware – What it is and how to protect yourself

By now you probably know about the disastrous ransomware attack that started in the UK last week and currently impacts millions of computers worldwide. This brief explains what’s going on and how to avoid being affected yourself.

Ransomware is an insidious form of malware (bad software) that encrypts all the files on your computer and makes you pay hackers a ransom to unlock them. If you do not pay the money, you will never be able access any of your files.

The current form of ransomware that has swept the world is called “WannaCry.” No one knows where it came from or why it was unleashed. The good news is that a young security researcher in England appears to have deactivated it. However, that doesn’t mean you should breathe a sigh a relief. This class of malware is here to stay and is likely to proliferate in the future.

In this particular case, the ransomware only affects Microsoft Windows systems. If you have a Mac, you are safe from this one, as are users running Windows 10. The virus is based on a bug in older Windows software, which Microsoft fixed in March 2017. Users of older software whose computers were affected had not run Microsoft updates.

To protect from this and future malware, we suggest doing the following.

  1. Run updates for your software, if you haven’t done so already. Set up your system to run updates automatically – for all systems, including Mac. Mac software hasn’t suffered one of these attacks yet, but almost certainly will be vulnerable in the future. Incidentally, you should do this for your phones and tablets as well.
  2. Upgrade to a current operating system if you are on an old one. The newer systems are more secure and, moreover, vendors are no longer issuing security updates for older software. In the Windows world, this includes Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, and anything older.
  3. Install a current anti-malware/anti-virus package and make sure that the program updates itself regularly with new data on malware.
  4. Back up your device and continue to run regular backups. If you do suffer an attack, it is easier and less expensive to reinstall your operating system and restore your files from backup than to pay ransom and risk running a contaminated machine.
  5. Do not open emails from sources you don’t know. Even if an email is from someone you know, do not open attachments unless you are expecting them. Similarly, don’t click on links in emails unless you are confident they are legitimate. This is the main way malware of all kinds is propagated these days, so this step is crucial.

These are things everyone should have been doing anyway, but with the current scare about ransomware, remembering and practicing these simple steps is vital to avoiding future problems.

If you are interested in the technical details about this and other malware, go to https://www.us-cert.gov/ . This is the website of the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), which is part of the US Department of Homeland Security.

What about Windows XP?

Microsoft discontinued support for Windows XP on April 8, 2014. We will explore the consequences of this and examine possible responses for those of you still running Windows XP.

What does this mean for me? Do I have a problem and how bad is it?

For starters, there is no cause to panic. Now that the deadline has passed, you’ll notice that your computer still works and nothing truly bad has happened, yet. By discontinuing support, Microsoft will no longer fix problems that might arise with XP. Given that Windows XP was first released in 2001, it is pretty solid by now. Windows XP is the most successful operating system in Microsoft’s history. At the beginning of April, it still is being used on 29% of computers out there.

What you need to be concerned about is that Microsoft has stopped fixing security-related problems. With such a substantial number of XP systems still out there, they become increasingly attractive to people who write and propagate malware (viruses, trojans and other nefarious programs) given Microsoft’s future lack of support. It is likely that some of the security software companies will continue to support XP for awhile, but any issues that require patching the operating system won’t be addressed.

Another consequence is that newer software may not run on Windows XP. This would include not only applications but also support for devices like printers.

What are possible responses for those of us who still use Windows XP?

If you bought a system that came with XP, it is already pretty old. The successor to XP was Windows Vista, which first shipped in January 2007, over 7 years ago. While XP machines were still being sold after that, its likely that your XP computer is 5 or more years old. In the world of technology, that’s ancient. When something goes wrong in the future, it will not be cost effective to fix such an old computer.

Here are some possible options:

  1. Keep using this machine until it dies or it gets hit with a security problem.
  2. Upgrade the operating system on the old computer.
  3. Buy a new computer.

I submit the option 1 is penny wise and pound foolish. While saving money in the short run, it is simply deferring the inevitable, with possibly unpleasant consequences. The cost of recovering your data from a malware infestation or – much worse – dealing with a security compromise is much greater than doing something now. Especially if the security problem leads to identity theft or someone breaking into your financial data or accounts.

It makes little sense to upgrade your old computer to a more current version of Windows. At this writing, the cost of a copy of WIndows 8 software is $100 or more, depending on the version you choose. Given that a brand new laptop running WIndows 8 can cost as little as $400, upgrading is false economy, even if the newer software will run on your old hardware.

The third option of buying a new computer makes the most sense. I have discussed this option in detail here and won’t expand on it here. There is one big question to consider: which operating system to get? Even though the latest version of Windows is 8.1, there are still some new computers for sale with WIndows 7. Why would you want to buy a Windows 7 machine? Basically because Windows 7 is more like XP than Windows 8, which means it might be easier to learn to use it. Secondarily, the Windows 7 machines are somewhat older, and likely to be a little be less expensive.

Learning any new software is going to present challenges. As it turns out, Windows 8.1 (the latest version) is not much different from Windows 7. You will have to “bite the bullet” and learn some new things, but they are not difficult. Most of it will build off what you already know about Windows XP. Since you are already running a machine that is over 5 years old, it’s likely that you will keep your next computer that long as well. Windows 7 is already long in the tooth, with its full support scheduled to end in 2015. So 5 years from now, you will be in the same situation. If you start with a computer running Windows 8.1, it will still be reasonably current and supported in 5 years or more.

Bottom line

My advice is to replace your old Windows XP computer with a new one running Windows 8/8.1 As noted in my earlier article, there are lots of options available, including many at quite affordable prices. Indeed, the new machine you buy today will cost less than you paid for the old one, but will be faster and better.

The Cloud

“The cloud refers to computers and data that reside in computers you don’t control, all accessible via the Internet. When you do a search on Google or Bing, all the data and the programs that process it are in the cloud. Your computer, tablet or phone is just being used as a “client” to request the search and to receive the results. All that you ever see on your device is the results.

There is a lot of good stuff available this way. For instance, the movies you watch streaming on Netflix, Amazon Instant Video or YouTube are all in the cloud. All you do with your computer is play them. The entire movie itself is never stored there. If you use email from Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail, all the messages and mechanism are in the cloud. You see only the actual emails themselves. In some cases, they are never on your computer other than to see.

Another example is Google Docs, a service that lets you create, edit and store documents. it works just like the familiar Microsoft Office, but you don’t have to install anything on your computer and the documents are all saved in the cloud. There are backup services like Carbonite or Crashplan that save your data to the cloud in case your computer fails. SImilar services like Box, Dropbox, SkyDrive or Google Drive let you store documents, photos and music in the cloud.

The advantage of cloud services is that they extend the power of your devices without requiring you to buy more hardware or software. With your data in the cloud, you can get at them from any of your devices, not just the one you used for creation. And if your device dies or is lost, your data are safe.

Potential downsides of cloud services are the risk of loss of your data in case the host company goes out of business, as well as possible risks of privacy if your data are not adequately protected. And of course, you have to be connected to the Internet to use cloud services.

The cloud is an important part of today’s technology world, touching our computers, tablets and smart phones.

How to Buy a Computer

Buying a computer today is more complicated than it has ever been. The array of choices, not to mention the range of prices, is staggering. It’s little wonder that an impending computer purchase is often anxiety-ridden. In this short discussion, we will try to take some of the mystery and angst out of the computer-purchasing process by asking a few simple questions.

Who is it for?

There are lots of different ways to address this question, but for our purposes, let’s look at some major groups of potential users: students, adult home users, businesses and gamers. For starters, let’s eliminate gamers. They generally need the biggest, fastest and, not surprisingly, most expensive machines. Most gamers are also technically adept and so are beyond the scope of this article.

Students generally need a machine that is portable, reasonably powerful, sturdy and – ideally – covered by a good warranty or maintenance contract. Businesses have more complex issues to consider including standardization, security, software and support. These are also beyond the scope of this discussion and are best addressed with an IT expert. Home users — keep reading.

What do you want to do?

Most home users want to do email and web access, at a minimum. For many people, that’s most of what they will do on the computer. Other uses include organizing and editing pictures, watching movies, listening to music and working at home. Any of these applications can be done well with just about any computer on the market today. It’s only when you are doing compute-intensive work such as editing video or sophisticated photo editing that you need more power. Similarly for students, you don’t need a great deal of computer power unless you work in engineering or other scientific areas that require heavy-duty computing. An exception is people whose applications, such as editing and retouching photos, need a screen with lots of resolution.

Laptops vs. Desktops vs. Tablets

This is largely a lifestyle decision. First, “normal” computer or tablet? If most of what you do is watch videos or movies, play games and listen to music, and use the web, with a little email, a tablet might be right for you. They are highly portable and are great for these purposes. Where they are not as good as a mainstream computer is for creating content. If you do a lot of writing, create spreadsheets or presentations, or edit photos, a tablet isn’t much fun unless you get an external keyboard. At that point, you lose much of the convenience of a tablet and might as well consider a laptop computer.

Consider a desktop computer if you need a large screen and if you never work anywhere except your desk. Otherwise, a laptop is the way to go. Today’s laptops are as powerful as all but the most powerful desktops, don’t cost much more and they are more convenient. You can use your laptop in any room of your home or office and you can take it with you when you travel. For most people, a laptop computer provides the ideal mix of convenience, power and usefulness.

Windows (PC) vs. Mac (Apple)

While this choice is seen by some people as a theological one, in fact both choices are very similar. They do the same thing, just slightly differently. My best advice is to go with what you know. If you have been using Windows for years, it will be difficult to switch to Mac and vice-versa. If everyone in your office or school has a Mac, stick with that. It will be easier to get help than if you buy something different. For students, choose the system that the school uses and recommends, as that will make life a lot simpler. If you are a computer newcomer (are there any left?) many people think Apple is easier to pick up.

Another way to decide between Mac and Windows is price. Apple computers are more expensive than Windows computers. Actually in a comparison of machines with similar specifications, the premium for Apple is not enormous. On the other hand, there is a much wider choice of WIndows machines, and as noted below, there are many more choices at the low-cost end.

Price

For a lot of people, this may be the major determinant. Unless your needs are more particular, you will find that there is a wide choice of mainstream computers available for quite reasonable prices. As I write this, Best Buy lists 3 new laptops under $300 and 18 under $400. This is consistent with prices from other major retailers. These are for machines from major brands like HP, Dell, Lenovo, ASUS, Gateway and Acer. For general use, especially at the lower cost end of the spectrum, there is not a lot of difference between the brands in terms of quality or value. If you are concerned about price, pick a price point you’re comfortable with and see what’s available at your favorite store.

So why are some computers so expensive, you might ask? You will pay a premium for things like faster processors (which most people don’t need and won’t notice anyway), larger or higher resolution screens, larger memory and larger disks. In laptops there is a premium for thin and light machines as well. You will always pay more for the absolutely latest models, kind of like buying a car. Many of the less expensive machines today are older models (e.g. 6-12 months!) and so are priced lower.

Accessories

Once you pick out a computer, what else do you need? The main accessory most people need is a printer, since there are still times you need paper. For laptops, you might want a case or protective sleeve. Desktop computers almost always come with a keyboard and mouse, though you might want to buy your own replacements if you have particular preferences. Also, most desktops do not include a monitor, so you will have to buy that separately. A surge protector is a good idea for desktop computers, but you don’t need one for laptops or tablets.

Software

Software is what makes the world go around, so you will need some to be able to do much. On tablets it’s call apps. There is plenty of really good free software, so you don’t have to spend a fortune. On the other hand, if you are doing any kind of business work, you will probably want to buy Microsoft Office, which is pretty much the standard used in most organizations. Beyond that, you can download just about anything you need. Plus, there is more and more software available in the “cloud” where you don’t have to actually install anything on your computer. Much of it is free.

One Last Thought

One last thought: computer technology continues to evolve quickly. Don’t expect a new computer to have the lifetime of a new dishwasher or refrigerator. Figure the you will want to replace your new purchase 3-5 years from now. While this may be frustrating, given the cost of computers, consider also that you will be able to improve on your choice in a few years!

Conclusion

Buying a computer doesn’t have to be a difficult task. You can find decent equipment for under $400-500. If you have particular needs, talk to an expert to help you find the system that is ideal for you.

 

Cut the Cord – Cancel Cable

Are you spending too much on cable and not getting enough out of it? I’m not talking about all the premium channels. If you really watch a lot of those, then you can skip the rest of this article. This is for people who watch occasional TV as well as enjoy movies and series. You CAN get rid of cable without missing much, while gaining even more. I can assure you that this approach works great because we have done it.

What’s the secret? The secret is the Internet. These days there is a tidal wave of material available online, much of it free, including many of the shows you watch on TV. On top of that, there is still good old broadcast television, available by adding an antenna to your TV set. The trick here is to know how to get the Internet-hosted programs to show on the big-screen TV in your living room.

Where the programs are There are literally hundreds of websites that provide programming over the Internet. One of the best known is Hulu, which has a huge selection of TV shows and movies. For movies there are Netflix, Amazon and Vudu, to name a few. Beyond these there are lots of special interest “channels” including MLB TV (baseball), Snag Films (indie movies), TED (TED talks), Wall Street Journal, AccuWeather and YouTube.

How to do it. To play Internet content on your television, you need a way to connect the two. There are multiple options: Newer TV sets can connect directly to the Internet, making this process really easy. For older sets, you can add a device that does this. Several of these are available and cost around $100 or so. Roku is one of the best known, as are Apple TV and Google TV. Some game consoles such as XBox 360 and Playstation 3 can also serve this purpose. Another solution is that newer DVD players have built-in Internet. If you have an old computer lying around, you can even connect it to your TV. In order to be able to watch broadcast TV, add an antenna. Today’s antennas are small and discreet, not like the rabbit ears of your youth. Nowadays with all-digital television, there is no such thing as a bad signal, snow or ghosting. Television shows look just like DVDs.

What’s the next step? If eliminating the cost and hassle of cable interests you, you should be able to make the switch easily if you are comfortable with electronics and can follow badly-written instructions. If not, call an expert for help in deciding how to go about doing it and then to install things in your house.