And Now for Something Completely Different

Check out this photography blog from Karl Greeson, one of my best friends from Wake Forest University.

After graduation, every time I saw Karl he had a camera in his hand.  Where I have become a decent point-and-shoot “hack” over the years, Karl has developed a keen eye for capturing great shots. Plus, I really enjoy his commentary on the site.

Take a look and share your thoughts.

http://karlgreeson.com/

Backups Made Easy (even your mother-in-law can do it)

I realize that people like discussing computer backups about as much as they enjoy preparing for a colonoscopy (hey, at my age that’s a reality of life!).  Stay with me on this one because it’s a lot easier than it used to be and might even be free!

I frequently work with home users and small businesses that either have no backup policy or an ineffective one. Thus, their important photos, music and business documents are at risk in the event of a severe virus, hard drive crash or natural catastrophe.

I recently assisted the parents of a high school student whose PC had been infected by a nasty virus.  The infection’s bark was far worse than its bite:  To a casual user it appeared that all files and most programs had been deleted.  A look at the Start menu showed virtually no programs listed.  When the aspiring law student looked in her documents folders, years of academic writing were gone as were a variety of photos and other media. In a desperate attempt to rid the computer of malware, they restored the computer to factory settings.  In other words, the operating system was reinstalled and all user files were deleted.

The good news:  The malware was eliminated.

The bad news:  None of her data was backed up.

Fortunately, I was able to recover a majority of her documents and media files using a file recovery utility.  However, due to the destructive nature of a factory reset, many of her files were either overwritten or corrupted… A loss which could have been avoided by an automated backup.

Power supplies and hard drives are the two most common PC components to fail and are relatively inexpensive to replace:  A power supply runs about $30.  A hard drive costs about $65.  The photos, music, tax returns and other important documents on that same hard drive are often priceless.  Many users often don’t think about backing up until it’s too late.

Businesses have a lot more at stake.  According to a DTI/PriceWaterhouseCoopers study, 7 of 10 small businesses that suffer a major data loss go belly-up within one year of the crash. This is a sobering reminder of the need for some sort of backup strategy. That could be an automated tape or hard drive backup, a cloud-based backup or an employee that brings an external drive or tape into the office on a weekly basis.

The right backup solution for you or your organization depends on the amount of data you need to protect, the frequency of backups (how much data loss your home or business can tolerate) and how long you can be without your information following a meltdown.


For smaller data needs, my favorite solution is Dropbox.  Designed as a way to sync data across multiple computers, tablets and mobile devices, this app is a great solution for backing up your data. Once you create your DropBox folder and get in the habit of saving your files and folders there, you really don’t have to think about it.  Plus, if you regularly access your information on multiple devices (say, a home PC + a work PC) your Dropbox folder will automatically sync your files & folders on multiple machines, eliminating the need to email files to yourself. This last point was a life changer for me.  During the normal course of a day, I might work on one of about 3 computers.  I often grab one of two laptops as I run out the door to meetings.  Before Dropbox, I always had to pause for a second to make sure this particular laptop had all the files I needed. With Dropbox installed on all three PCs, the important files are always synced across all 3 machines. Plus, those files are accessible on other computers via Dropbox’s web interface. There are also Android and iPhone apps so that you can access your files on smart phones and tablets.

What about security? Dropbox uses the same encryption and security techniques used by banks.  All data is encrypted for transit across the web and it is also encrypted while parked on their servers.  However, it’s up to you to make sure your password is complex and difficult to guess. Accordingly, you should go to great links to come up with a long password or pass phrase that includes all of the elements discussed in my blog about passwords.

The entry-level Dropbox account provides 2GB of free storage.  Not enough?  Invite your friends through the website.  For every friend that accepts your invitation you each get an additional 500MB of space, up to a max of 16GB – that’s not too shabby!  If your storage needs are greater than a free account offers, you can purchase 50GB of cloud storage for $100/year or 100GB for $200/year.

So if you have not set up a backup strategy yet because it’s too much trouble, give Dropbox a try.  If it’s remote file access you want, you get that too. Dropbox brings you the best of both worlds in an easy-to-use application.  For most users it’s free too!

If you want to start off with an extra 500MB of storage space, leave a message here and I will send you an invite.

Need a little help understanding how it works?  Check out the tutorial videos on the Dropbox website. If you need even more assistance, drop me a note and I will help you set it up, create your folders and launch your space in the cloud.

Somebody’s Watching Me

Somebody’s Watching Me

If you listen to the 80s station on Sirius/XM, you’re undoubtedly getting tired of Rockwell’s sole hit, Somebody’s Watching Me.  Since Al Gore was still working out the kinks of the internet, I imagine that Rockwell was not singing about online security. Instead, he was probably more worried about paying off Michael Jackson for backup vocals on the song’s chorus, since there were no other hits on his debut album. 

On a completely different note, I recently attended a very informative presentation on social media in which the speaker discussed the risks and rewards of social media.  Since the audience consisted of parents of middle- and high school students, he focused on the risks facing children and teens and how to keep them safe online.

I walked away comforted that everyone in the room knew a little more about online risks and were better prepared to watch over their kids as they navigated the world of social media. However, I couldn’t help wondering who might be watching over the parents and their technology.  In other words, are folks taking appropriate precautions to protect their computers and networks?  So, I compiled a quick and dirty list of a few things you can do to stay safe on the world wide web.  Rather than going into detail on how to configure all of these options, I have tried to keep it brief. Feel free to post follow-up questions if you need further guidance. Look for follow-up articles in the future that address some of these options.

Secure your wireless network:

Without a secure wireless network, anyone within shouting distance of your house can access the internet using your connection to download whatever they want on *your* network IP address.  Further, with the right tools (which are widely available on the internet) they can “listen” in on your connection, and may even be able to access files on your computer(s).

Securing your wireless network is much easier than it used to be. Where it once required careful review of the Owners Manual, newer wireless routers can have you surfing securely with the push of a button. Always select the highest security offered by your router.  WEP can be quickly cracked by a determined intruder, so use WPA or WPA2 if your wireless router supports it.

Avoid Using Public Computers to Login to Your Secure Accounts:

Sure, we’ve all been in a pinch before and logged into email on a public computer. However, that was before I knew what I know now. There’s absolutely no way to tell if a public computer is infected with malware, has keyloggers installed or other methods which can steal your credentials.  Malware can grab user names & passwords and beam your information to the mother ship.  Likewise, keyloggers can track every keystroke you make and report back to a hacker. Thus, browse online news and weather on the hotel’s business center computer.  Save online shopping, banking, and even email until you get back to a safe connection.

Use Antivirus Software and Keep it Updated

This one is a no-brainer. If you have not been affected by viruses/malware in the past, you will eventually.  Fortunately, you don’t have to pull out your wallet to stay safe, as discussed in my post on free antivirus options. Use one of the packages that I recommend or choose one you like by reviewing AV-Test’s ratings.

Online Banking, Shopping and Secure Sites:

Ever notice how your address bar turns green, shows a padlock and/or the address changes from http:// to https:// when you login to your bank or shopping site?  This assures you that your connection is encrypted, that the identity of the website has been verified by a third party and that it’s safe to send sensitive information such as your username, password and credit card information over the internet.  In fact, if you click on the green portion in the address bar or the padlock, you will see that the website’s identity has been verified by VeriSign, Thawte or another certificate authority (“CA”).  So while it seems like you’re just connecting to a remote website, there’s actually a lot of stuff going on in the background to verify to your browser that the website is authentic, that your transmissions across the internet are encrypted and that it’s safe to do business.

But what if you attempt to log into a shopping or banking site that should be secure and it is not, in fact, safe?  If you don’t get the https://, the green bar/padlock or you receive warnings that the site’s certificate has problems, check the address that you typed.  If it’s correct, get out and try again later. It may be a temporary glitch with the site’s certificate or the CA.  It’s not worth compromising your security and identity to buy ABBA’s Greatest Hits on an unsafe connection.

Be Careful Using Public Wireless Networks

Free wireless offered by coffee shops and other retailers helps offset Starbucks’ exorbitant coffee prices, but be cautious with your browsing on public networks. This may seem a bit paranoid, but I never do online banking or shopping on a public wireless network, even from my own laptop. Yeah, I know that the connection to the bank or Amazon is encrypted, but I have no control over the coffee shop’s wireless security so I would rather be safe than sorry.

The kid in the corner booth with the AlienWare laptop may be listening in on your connection using a packet sniffer, which is freely available on the internet. Further, if your firewall is turned off, you have shared folders turned on, or your operating system has not been patched, a determined hacker can easily access the files on your PC.

Windows 7 and Vista both make it easier to stay safe on public networks than XP. When you connect to a new wireless network, the Set Network Location provides 3 choices of network location types:  Home, Work and Public.  Always choose Public when out and about.  This sets your firewall at its highest security settings, turns off Network Discovery and file sharing options, providing higher security when on a public network.  

As a follow-up, make sure your mail connection is encrypted (see https:// discussion above).  Many webmail systems are not encrypted by default, but offer this option.  If your email provider offers secure browser connections (thanks, Gmail!) always turn it on.  If you trust the network you’re using, it may be safe to disable.

Windows Updates:

This one is extremely important and super easy to do.  Probably 75% of the computers I sit down with have pending security updates for Windows, Adobe, Java, etc.  Hackers are constantly identifying and exploiting security vulnerabilities in a variety of popular applications. In some cases, they are able to exploit these holes and take control of your computer.  Make sure that Windows Update is enabled and that you’re applying the critical and important updates on a regular basis.  Also, be sure to apply updates to other programs that notify you in the system tray.  Adobe and Java have been particularly susceptible to security issues over the last few years, so make sure you’re keeping the patches applied.

Use Strong Passwords

This one warrants its own post, so take a look at my discussion on passwords.

Other Stuff:

There are plenty of other precautions you can take to stay safe, such as demoting your user account to Standard instead of Administrator, avoiding suspicious links in emails and Facebook, and periodically backing up your data.  However, all this talk about security is making me hungry.  Think I’ll grab a double latte and a scone.  Can someone watch my laptop while I wash up?

Stay safe out there!

 

Browser Wars Heat Up

Which browser should you use? Over the last several years, the field has become increasingly crowded, giving users a variety of choices.  Ten years ago, the answer was simple:  With a few exceptions, everyone used Internet Exploder (IE). In fact, according to WikiPedia, IE commanded 95% of the market share as recently as 2003. Since then, a variety of new players have entered the market:  Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari and Opera are the most popular alternatives to IE.

Firefox entered the scene in late 2004. Many users, fed up with IE’s performance and security issues, jumped on the Firefox bandwagon, driving its market share as high as 31% in 2010.  In fact, IBM asked all 400,000 employees to switch to Firefox as their default browser in 2010.

Google entered the fray with its Chrome browser four years later in 2008. Citing faster performance, better security and tabs that run independently, Chrome has rapidly gobbled up market share from IE and Firefox.

Safari, the default browser on Apple devices, holds fourth place in market share.

Market Share

Several organizations track market share, and the fine details differ from firm to firm.  For trends and updated metrics, take a look at NetMarketshare.

Firefox

IE has gotten hammered over the last few years, sliding from 68% of the market in 2008 to 49% in February, 2012. Firefox, which had a lock on the #2 spot, with 31% in 2010, is now going toe-to-toe with Chrome. The most recent report from NetMarketShare has Chrome jumping from 12% in April, 2011 to 17.5% in February, 2012 while Firefox slid from 22% to just over 19% during the same time period.

The Best

So which browser is best?  It depends on whom you ask.  They’re all freely downloadable on the internet, so cost is not an issue.  Factors to consider when evaluating a new browser include:

Performance – how fast do websites load?  This measure is heavily affected by the sites you’re browsing, your hardware, operating system, etc.  Speed is constantly assessed by many companies and rankings vary from shop to shop.

  1. Security – which browser keeps your information safe when shopping/banking online?  And which browsers protect you against malware?  A variety of features are available in each browser, including sandboxing, instant updates/patches, pop-up blockers, and private browsing.
  2. Add-ons are features that improve your web-browsing experience. Currently, Firefox boasts the most generous library of add-ons. While add-ons can customize your web browsing and make your browser far more useful, they can also slow down your browser’s performance.
  3. Stability – how often does the browser lock up or crash?  Chrome’s tabs all run independently. Thus, if a web page locks up, a plug-in crashes, or the tab otherwise becomes unresponsive, that tab can be closed without affecting your other tabs. Some browsers must be restarted when a single tab crashes.
  4. Ease of use – this one comes down to personal preference.  You should download 2 or 3 browsers and try each one for a few days to determine which one suits you best.  Most browsers have hidden toolbars and menus to maximize your viewing area. This is extremely helpful on small monitors.
  5. Other features include the ability to sync bookmarks with other computers, custom themes, RSS reader, etc.

The answers to many of these questions are available online.  PC World recently evaluated six browsers and crowned Chrome as the best overall in their April, 2012 issue. This, of course, can change over night with a new release from a competitor.

My personal favorite for the last few years has been Chrome.  I use Firefox on occasion, especially on my Linux computer.  When I run Firefox in Windows, it takes forever to open and crashes a lot, even when using the most recent version.  I use IE primarily when running Windows Update (since Microsoft doesn’t play well with others) and when I’m using someone else’s machine that has not seen the light.  Even Microsoft admits that IE (used to) stink(s) in this newly created Microsoft website.  I have used Safari on the rare occasion that I hop on my daughter’s school-issued MacBook, but have found no compelling reason to load it on my Windows machines.

I find that Chrome runs fast… really fast.  A good way to eek out even more speed from your web browser is to optimize your DNS settings, using NameBench.  Chrome is also more stable than the others, in my opinion.  On the rare occasion that a tab locks up or crashes, you can close the offending tab and preserve all other sessions.  Other cool features include ‘Pinned tabs’ and the ability to re-open the same tabs you were viewing in your last session.  For example, if you always have a half dozen web pages open on different tabs, you can set those to reopen every time you restart your computer and run Chrome.  I also like the fact that there’s no separate web search box, as in IE and Firefox.  Searches are entered in the address bar.  Further, the address bar turns green when you navigate to secure websites, assuring you that it’s safe to transmit sensitive information such as passwords and credit card data.

But this is just my opinion.  For another opinion, check out PC World’s assessment in their April, 2012 issue.  Alternatively, if you’re more enterprising and have a lot of time on your hands, run your own tests and let us know the results.

What’s the Password?

http://www.guitarplayerscenter.com/uncategorized/i-call-it-stealing/comment-page-1/#comment-213240
Used with permission: DANIEL R. LEHRMAN at www.guitarplayerscenter.com

I recently got a call from a friend whose Yahoo email account had been hacked.  He had just fielded several calls from friends, family and business associates that had received solicitations from him for Viagra and a variety of other goodies.  When we looked at the email account, his login history revealed that the account had been accessed from all over the world over the course of a few days. Somehow, his Yahoo mail password was compromised and someone or some ‘bot’ had logged into his account, taken indecent liberties with his address book and offered a variety of, err, “performance” enhancements to everyone he knew. We never determined when or how his password was compromised, but it was a frightening look at the importance of spending a little more brainpower to protect online accounts.

Security professionals recommend using different passwords for every site/application. You should also make a habit of changing your passwords periodically – best practices suggest every 40 days. Finally, make sure you’re creating strong passwords, especially for online accounts. I realize that you currently have a pile of passwords for various sites and there’s just no way that the name of your dearly beloved Fluffy will stop safeguarding your online banking, Amazon and Gmail accounts. If you read Paul Gilster’s article below and see some of the organizations, including the Department of Defense,  that have been hacked, you’ll want someone closer to Cujo protecting your sensitive data.

Here are some guidelines for creating strong passwords:

  1. Do not use your name, your user name, family names or familiar numbers, like your birthdate or home address.
  2. Avoid dictionary words.
  3. Use a passphrase instead of a password.
  4. Passwords should be at least 8 characters long.
  5. Employ characters from at least 3 of the 4 following groups:
  • Uppercase letters;
  • Lowercase letters;
  • Numbers;
  • Symbols;

While there’s no way to provide absolute protection over your account, employing these guidelines can certainly put up a few roadblocks.

I’m always surprised by the number of people that use simple ones like password123 or johnsmith. Even substituting numbers and symbols in dictionary words, such as Pa$$word is easily cracked. Simple passwords can be easily defeated by web bots and determined hackers.  In fact, there are widely available free tools on the web that will crack the login password on your computer.

If your brain cannot handle any more passwords or you’re constantly losing your password napkin, there are a variety of secure solutions, including KeePass.  Take a look at Paul Gilster’s 2011 article on this application. This is certainly not the only password manager available. LifeHacker recently reviewed 5 password managers in case you want other options.

If you need help evaluating the complexity of your password(s), plug it in at HowSecureIsMyPassword.net. This site evaluates your password strength by telling how long it would take a desktop PC to crack it. I evaluated one of my favorites on this site and it projected 423 million years to crack.  I think I can live with that!

Passwords are everywhere today, seemingly guarding every aspect of our lives. It’s time to give passwords a little more respect and thought.  Otherwise, you’ll spend a week on the phone with your bank and online retailers cleaning up a big mess that could’ve been easily avoided.

Stay safe out there!

Lions, Tigers and Malware – Oh My!

How may times have you stood in a checkout line, looked in the basket ahead of you and wanted to tell the person that they were overpaying for one or more items?  What if they could get comparable stuff for FREE without compromising quality?

This happened to me recently at my local office superstore. Earlier I had watched a lady poring over the antivirus (“AV”) software. She selected Norton Internet Security just like she probably had the last several years.  At $40+ per year, Symantec, McAfee and the other AV providers have built a massive revenue stream for folks that don’t know about free options that provide excellent protection.

I like free as much as the next guy  – my favorite brand of beer is Free… and Cold.  So why pay big bucks for something that you don’t have to pay for?

And it’s legal, too!

But if it’s free, then it must not be effective, right?

If you’re skeptical about protecting your important data, photos and music with free software, take a look at AV-Test’s website.  AV-Test is an independent lab that performs thousands of tests each year on a long list of AV software, and publishes quarterly rankings of these products.  Additionally, PCWorld and several other tech publications review commercial and free AV packages each year.  In all of these tests, many of the free options consistently perform as well as or better than their costly counterparts.  Maximum PC reviewed 10 software packages and ranked them in their 2011Holiday guide.

My personal favorite for the last several years is AVG.  A few things I like about AVG, compared to its competitors:

  1. It’s lightweight – AVG doesn’t bog down your system, which is especially important if you’re running old equipment;
  2. AVG runs quietly in the background unlike some of the pricey commercial alternatives that constantly generate pop ups to tell you all the great things they’re doing (yeah, Norton, I’m talking about you!)
  3. AVG consistently gets great reviews in independent lab tests as well as in commercial publications.  In fact, AVG outranked several expensive competitors, including McAfee, Symantec/Norton and Trend Micro in AV-Test’s 3rd quarter 2011 tests.
  4. AVG keeps itself updated with current definitions and allows you to set scanning schedules. Keeping the software and signature files updated is of utmost importance. Accordingly, make sure your software does this at least daily without your intervention.
  5. It’s FREE – you can download it right now, save a trip to your local office supply store and keep your wallet in your back pocket.

I hope I’m not jinxing myself by saying this, but I have been running free antivirus software on multiple personal and business machines for years without any type of infection.  This is partly due to judicious selection of the sites that I visit, the email attachments I open (or simply delete) and the 3rd party Facebook apps I choose to ignore.

In mostcases, keeping your computer free of viruses, spyware, malware and other undesirables is more about where you go and what you open than which security software you’re using.

Virus

Even if you’re running military-strength security software, once you click on a link and knowingly or inadvertently give it administrative permission to run, NO protection can prevent an infection. So if you receive an email from American Airlines with an itinerary for a flight you never booked, DO NOT click on the attachment or the link, John. If your preacher’s Facebook page has a link to “Shocking Photos” with a risqué photo, resist the urge to click the link – his or her Facebook account got hacked.  For a few “Best Practices” take a another look at the Maximum PC article linked above.  And don’t forget to apply all Windows Updates and patch applications such as Adobe and Java.  These simple practices are extremely important to keeping your system secure.

Finally, always make sure you’re buying the real thing.  There are a pile of fake/rogue antivirus scams out there.  Many of these arrive as pop-ups on web pages or on your desktop.  These “scareware” programs typically warn you that they have found hundreds of infections on your computer and offer to clean them off if you purchase the software. Clicking on the link will likely land your PC in the hospital or the morgue.  Worse yet, if you do enter your credit card info like a client recently did (TWICE) you will not only have a badly infected machine, but will have to cancel your credit card to avoid buying a 90 inch plasma 3D TV for Vladmir in Siberia.

I will cover these scams in a later topic.  For now, find free legitimate solutions at one of the following links:

AVG:     http://www.free.avg.com/

Avast:     http://www.avast.com/

Avira:     http://www.avira.com/free

Let me know about your experiences with free and paid software. I’m always looking for the next great find!

Back to the lady in the checkout line, I didn’t say anything and let her walk away with a shiny new $53.86 charge on her Visa.  Be on the lookout for her at Staples this time next year.

Ken

Hello World!

Welcome to my corner of the web.  Over the coming months, I plan to write on a variety of technical topics from computer security, to “how to” tips, to reviews of products and services.

My goal is to present technical topics in layman’s terms – language that your mother-in-law can understand. If an entry is too technical, too basic or completely misses the point, feel free to comment on the post or shoot me an email, and I will do my best to fix things.

I’ve never been accused of being a good writer, so please bear with me.  I have a tendency to ramble on in a stream of consciousness and veer off topic.  I also commit the occasional never-ending sentence and overuse certain words like “occasional”. A buddy of mine who is a journalist, newspaper editor and sometimes novelist once told me the way to become a better writer is simply to write.  So in the same manner that some train for a marathon, I will strive to become a better blogger.

I will admit to a couple of biases in advance.  First off, I love free stuff. I will frequently review and promote free/open source alternatives to the software that you’ve paid tons of money for over the years.  This includes office suites, antivirus & security software, photo organizers and even operating systems.  I will also talk about how to save money on hardware.  Your wireless router got blown out by a thunderstorm recently?  I can help you replace it for about 1/3 of what you paid for your last one. Don’t want to buy a brand new computer for the kids to surf the web, check/send email, play games and compose theme papers?  I will show you ways to recycle that old Windows 2000 machine to serve all their needs – securely and reliably.

My second bias is all things Google.  I’m a major fan and promoter of many of their products, from the Chrome browser to Gmail/Google Apps to Picasa photo software. So expect a lot of love for Google. I’ve even had clients accuse me of being on Google’s payroll (I wish!)

I hope to inform and entertain you along the way.  My best days in this business are when I sit down with a frustrated user at his/her wit’s end with a tech problem.  After listening to their complaints and concerns and showing them a solution that makes life easier, the ensuing “Ah Ha!” or “Yahoo!” moment is pretty magical. I never get tired of helping folks work through life’s technical annoyances.

So if you have questions, are running into roadblocks or simply want to tell me this blog stinks, please feel free to post a comment here or on my Facebook page or shoot me an email. I promise to address your questions as quickly as possible or let you know that it requires additional research. If we need to meet face-to-face or I need some desktop time,   we can arrange that as well.

Thanks again for dropping by. I hope we can learn something here, save some time and maybe even save some money.

 

About the Company

While Partner Technology Solutions (“Partner Techs”) was founded in 2011, it is backed by over 2 decades of experience in all things techie, from securing your wireless network to selecting, connecting and using that new Android phone or tablet, Blue Ray Player or UltraBook laptop. If we cannot help you solve a problem, we have created strategic alliances with database administrators, programmers, web developers, CPAs and other partners with whom we like to work.