CryptoLocker

If you saw me right now, you would probably ask if I had just seen a ghost.  After reading several articles about a new extremely dangerous and destructive form of ransomware, I feel like I’m facing Freddy Krueger!

This is the kind of attack that keeps IT professionals up at night.

Most viruses, rootkits, and malware are annoyances and can be removed by tools that are readily available on the internet.  While some can be removed pretty quickly with killer apps like MalwareBytes, others may be more tenacious and require a recovery of your files and reinstallation of your operating system, a process that will take hours or days and cost a pretty penny. However, at the end of the day, all of your files can be safely restored either from your hard drive or a recent backup (you ARE backing up right?)  

This one is different.  It’s called CryptoLocker and it will ruin your day.  Here’s what it does:

CryptoLocker is a ransomware program that was released around the beginning of September 2013. This infection will encrypt certain files using a mixture of RSA & AES encryption. When it has finished encrypting your files, it will display a CryptoLocker payment program that prompts you to send a ransom of either $100 or $300 in order to decrypt the files. This screen will also display a timer stating that you have 96 hours, or 4 days, to pay the ransom or it will delete your encryption key and you will not have any way to decrypt your files. This ransom must be paid using MoneyPak vouchers or Bitcoins. Once you send the payment and it is verified, the program will decrypt the files that it encrypted. (thanks to Lawrence Abrams on BleepingComputer.com for this summary)

How do you become infected with CrptoLocker:

Currently, the infection is spread through emails pretending to be customer support notices from Fedex, UPS, DHL, etc. and the attachment is typically named Form_102213.pdf or Form_102213.pdf.exe (or some variant of these), but might also be disguised as a ZIP or other file type.

What if you get infected:

The first thing to do is disconnect your computer from the internet – this will prevent encryption of additional files.  If you’re working wirelessly, disable wireless on your PC.  If connected via Ethernet cable, pull the plug. Next call your IT pro and start deciding how important your encrypted files are to you. Also, figure out where your most recent backup is and how recently it was completed.  Most cloud-based backup services provide file versioning for a period of time.  For example, Carbonite saves previous versions of files for 3 months which could be your saving grace.

Removal of the malware seems to be straightforward according to the articles.  However, without the decryption keys it is absolutely impossible to decrypt your files. Thus, if you cannot recover the files from a recent backup and need them restored, your only option is to act quickly and send the ransom money. There is currently no tool available (or IT Pro) that can decrypt your files.

How to protect yourself:

1.      Be vigilant about opening email attachments – never open an attachment originating from unknown/unexpected sources (i.e. if you’re not traveling anywhere, don’t open a travel itinerary from Delta!).  Also, be careful when opening unusual attachments from trusted sources as their email may have been hacked.

2.      Be very careful about free software you download from the internet.

3.      Backup to an external hard drive ($85 for 1TB) and disconnect it from your computer or use an online service that provides versioning.

4.      Keep all programs updated and Windows Updates applied.

5.      Make sure you’re running System Restore on your PC.  This can help recover previous versions of files that have been encrypted.

6.      Apply the Software Restriction Policies outlined in this article using Local Security Policy or Group Policy (domain computers) to disable the malware’s ability to execute on your system.  This is fairly advanced, so please let me know if you want assistance applying these policies to your PC.  Also, keep in mind that these policies will block the malware in its current form. If the hackers modify the code to install from another location on your computer, these policies will not protect you.

The above tips can help mitigate the risk but the best tip is not to open suspicious files.  Tip #6 is the best available protection in the event that you accidentally open a file and obtain the infection in its current form.

One last comment on updates:  Don’t forget that Microsoft is ending support for Windows XP in April, 2014.  Expect threats like this on XP machines to heat up following the support sunset.

If you want to geek out on more technical details about the threat, take a look at these articles posted on BleepingComputer.com, MalwareBytes and Microsoft.

Stay safe out there!

 

Shop Safely This Holiday Season!

BREAKING NEWS FLASH:  Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Has a Security Flaw! 

As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s déjà vu all over again”.

This is not the first time and certainly will not be the last that Microsoft issues critical security bulletins and patches. This warning is particularly timely in light of the upcoming holiday shopping season.  According to comScore, online purchases during the 2011 holiday season topped $37 billion, a 15% increase over the previous year.  Forecasters are projecting growth of 12% or more in 2012.

One of the security bulletins released on November’s Patch Tuesday addressed multiple vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer (IE). For those of you who have not followed my recommendation to dump IE in favor of Google’s Chrome browser, it is absolutely critical to apply this update as soon as possible.   This is even more urgent if you plan to shop online next week and enter your credit card information.

To make sure that Windows (and IE) is completely up to date, take a look at my September post.  It outlines the steps to verify whether Windows Updates are current and how to ensure they are installed automatically going forward.

While you’re at it, take a look at my March 2012 blog post about staying safe online. There I touch on public wireless networks, antivirus software, applying Windows Updates and utilizing strong passwords.  I also discuss the importance of ensuring that a website is secure (https://) before entering credit card information.

If you want more details on the current batch of Microsoft Updates (or simply need help sleeping), take a look at the article in PC World or Microsoft’s Security Bulletins.

Stay safe out there.  Please contact me if you need assistance securing your system.

The Problems with Free Email

You finally made the jump from DSL to your cable internet service provider (ISP) and they offered a pile of “free” email addresses.  Awesome, right? Not so fast!

Before changing your address to billybob@coyotecable.com, there are a few things you should consider.

I work and communicate with a lot of people who took advantage of free email addresses provided by their ISP.  I always wonder what they will do when they decide to switch ISPs again to save a few bucks, improve their TV channel line up or escape a bad customer service situation.

Most of the free addresses in my area are with Time Warner Cable (TWC) or Bellsouth / AT&T.  In the last few years, AT&T’s U-Verse (TV/Internet/phone) has made a big splash in our market and lured away many long time cable and DSL customers.  So what happens with your Roadrunner email address when you jump ship?  I called the cable company to find out.  Unfortunately for cable customers, the email address goes away when you cancel cable.  Suddenly those free email addresses don’t look so free anymore!

Here are a few good reasons that using your provider’s free addresses is a bad idea:

  1. Portablility – as mentioned above, you frequently cannot take your email address with you when you leave the cable company for a new ISP.  A buddy of mine has moved from Chicago to New Orleans to California.  Each time he moves, his email address changes to the local cable company. I never know where to find him.
  2. POP – most cable companies offer very basic POP3 services.  In its most basic setup, any messages downloaded to Outlook or Outlook Express are removed from the email server.  Thus, if you want to look at your messages from another computer (at work) then you’re out of luck.
  3. Lack of features – many cable services offer email only.  While they have limited contact management features on their webmail portal, contacts don’t sync up well with Outlook or other mail clients. In the unlikely event that an online calendar is offered, it’s not very robust.
  4. SPAM – keep your email address long enough and you will eventually get so much spam that it’s tempting to abandon the account.
  5. Capacity – while some ISPs now offer larger email boxes, they have traditionally not provided a whole lot of capacity.  I recently looked at a business-class client whose ISP only allocated 100 MB to each mailbox.  That’s only about 20-25 photos of your newborn niece.
  6. Cost – “free” addresses are included in your monthly internet service bill.  However, if you jump ship to another company, be prepared to pay a monthly fee to maintain your old email address so friends, family and online retailers can find you. This, of course, assumes that you can keep your address at all. This happened to me when I left Mindspring a few years back.  I was able to keep the address for a monthly fee.
  7. Relay – Have you ever taken your laptop to a coffee shop or hotel and tried using Outlook or Windows Live Mail to answer your emails?  Incoming messages work fine. However, outgoing messages get stuck in your outbox and cannot send until you’re back at home.  This is because many POP3 accounts require authentication when a user is connected to a network outside of their home network.  This can be fixed with the right configuration.  Good luck setting it up so that it works right every time.

Back in the early days of the internet and email, I signed up for new dial up services every few months depending on who sent me floppy disks and a free trial.  I jumped from AOL to Prodigy to Infinet to CompuServe to WorldCom… It wasn’t a big deal because no one used email for important correspondence – just for forwarding jokes.

Changing your email address is not so easy today.  When you change your address, you not only have to notify friends and family, but also your customer accounts with Amazon, iTunes, ABC Bank, etc.  Changing addresses and logins tied to an email address can be a monumental hassle. As such, plan to transition to a new address over the course of several months.

What to use?

There are a variety of web-based email providers that are not tied to your physical connection.  Players include Gmail, Hotmail (now Outlook.com), Yahoo!, Netscape, AOL, Netzero, MSN, etc., etc., etc.  These are all free and will not change when you jump internet providers.

 Folks that know me and my love for all things Google will not be surprised to hear me recommend Gmail. There are a variety of reasons that I recommend Gmail including:

  1. Portability – since Gmail is web-based and not tied to your physical connection, there’s no need to change if you move your internet service.
  2. Web/cloud based – while it is possible to use an email client such as Outlook or Outlook Express, there’s no compelling reason to install anything onto your PC. Simply launch your browser and navigate to Gmail.com. If your hard drive crashes, there’s no need to worry about losing years of email, hundreds of contacts or your calendar. All of this information is stored safely in the cloud.
  3. Features – Gmail includes your email platform (complete with folder capabilities), a robust calendar system (allows multiple calendars and shared calendars) and a good contact manager. Additionally, Google Docs provides a web-based alternative to costly MS Office applications (Word & Excel).
  4. SPAM Filters – Google’s SPAM filters are phenomenal.  I have seen Yahoo accounts that receive SPAM 5:1 over legitimate messages.  On the rare occasion that SPAM gets through Google’s filters, I can flag it as SPAM and Google learns and prevents it in the future.
  5. Large capacity – the standard free account now offers 10GB of space – FREE.  That’s tremendous capacity.  I have used my Gmail account for almost 5 years and have only filled 31% of their generous allocation.  If that’s not enough space, purchase Google Apps for $50/year. They give you 25GB of space and a few other bells & whistles.
  6. FREE – yes, that’s correct.  It costs nothing.
  7. Relay – since Gmail is web-based you never have to worry about outgoing messages getting stuck in your outbox when you’re away from your home network.
  8. Mobile Sync – if you’re using an Android phone or tablet, simply link your device to your Google account and your email, calendar, contacts, cloud documents, etc. all seamlessly sync between Google’s cloud and your device. Apple’s devices sync well with your Google account too, once you configure the account properly.  Plus, when you delete or file messages on your portable device, they are synced with your inbox back at the computer and vice versa.  Blackberry?  Maybe.  Google has cooled to the BB platform, so support may be lean going forward.
One last thing to consider: Several free providers, including Yahoo and AOL, are tired of losing accounts to Gmail and have made it difficult to walk away from your account.  The most notable methods they use is to disable forwarding to another address and disable POP3 access.  This removes your safety net, since many people would simply keep the old account and forward it to the new account indefinitely. Yahoo will enable forwarding and POP3 if you pay them $20/year for a Premium account.

If you have an existing ISP email address and are thinking about jumping to another internet provider, it’s probably a good time to begin the process of closing your existing account and migrating to a new online account. I usually advise 3 months.

If your business is seeking branded email, we can help set that up as well.

Ready to make the jump but unsure where to start? Contact PartnerTechs for guidance and we will launch you painlessly into the 21st century.

 

Ready for Big Time Productivity?

In the past month, I have set up dual monitors for several clients.  A couple of these users had seen multiple monitors used by others and were ready to make the jump.  One user did not know it was possible, but has been blown away by his increased productivity.  In most cases, the users were non-technical and thought that multiple monitors were either costly to purchase and setup, beyond the capabilities of their existing equipment, or too difficult to use.  After experiencing their expanded screen real estate for a few days, they’re hooked for life.  

I have used dual monitors for almost a decade.  Not only does it reduce constant toggling between open applications (Alt+Tab), it also saves on paper usage.  Just think of all the times you have printed a document simply to transfer information from one page into a spreadsheet or document.  Imagine eliminating the printed page(s) and transcribing (or copying/pasting) from one screen to another.  I typically keep email/calendar open on the left (smaller) screen and spreadsheets or web sessions on the right (wide) screen.

Researchers are divided on whether productivity actually increases with extra monitors. A New York Times article cites several studies and academic opinions on the topic. Some academics think that multitasking kills productivity, while others laud the benefits of extra screens. At the end of the day it comes down to the type of work you’re doing, your work habits and your ability to efficiently juggle multiple tasks.

VGA and DVI PortsMost desktop computers include dual video ports – an analog VGA (blue) and digital DVI (white).  Laptops generally have a video port that supports an external monitor, although some Ultrabooks do not include external video ports.  Be sure you look at the ports available on your PC to make sure the display that you select matches up. Some monitors have both VGA and DVI connections, although the cheaper models will have only one.  Before you carry it out of the store make sure the box contains the appropriate video cable, otherwise you will have to make another trip.

Also, be aware that installing a second monitor can adversely affect your PC’s performance, especially if the graphics adapter is embedded on your motherboard.  When this is the case, the computer’s processor and system memory have to carry the load of two displays, so less memory is available for the operating system and programs to use.  You can avoid this performance hit by installing a graphics card with its own processor and memory.

Installing an extra monitor is usually as simple as connecting to the appropriate port on your computer.  Once the monitor is connected, you will need to enable multiple monitors in Windows, tweak the resolution settings for the new monitor and turn on Clear Type in order to smooth the fonts.  Instructions for these tasks are beyond the scope of this article but can be found here.   Installing a graphics card is a bit more complicated and beyond the scope of this article. Windows 7 display settings

Computer monitor costs have plummeted dramatically over the last few years.  Once a high cost item, a 20” monitor can now be had for about $100. In fact, CompUSA is currently advertising a 20” monitor for $79.97.  Larger 21” – 23” displays are available for $100 – $125.  When displays were expensive I used to get caught up on name brands.  At today’s prices who cares if you buy a monitor manufactured by Joe’s Computers and Hair Products?  If you cruise the monitor aisle at Best Buy, CompUSA, or Amazon you will notice that the big names like Samsung command premium prices.  However, to save money, look at brands you’ve never heard of such as AOC, Planar, and Hannspree.  At $99 for a 22” device, it’s not too painful if you only get 3 years out of it. And don’t waste your money on an extended warranty.  This is just a ploy for retailers to squeeze out a little more profit margin.

If you’re ready to make the jump but concerned about fouling something up, give us a call.  In most cases this add-on can be setup and configured in less than an hour.

Once you’ve installed the desktop expansion and had a few weeks to play with it, post a reply and tell us what you’re doing with all your new found spare time!

Microsoft Issues Critical Update for Internet Explorer

In case you missed my Facebook and LinkedIn posts over the weekend, Microsoft issued a Critical Security Bulletin on Friday to address vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer.  The security hole may allow remote hackers to access your computer and execute code on it. In other words: NOT GOOD.

If you regularly use Internet Explorer (IE) you should install the Microsoft patch without delay. If you don’t use IE you should update anyway. Either way, you should always make sure you apply all Windows Updates as well as updates for troublesome apps such as Adobe and Java.

If your computer is set to automatically install updates, you’re probably fine.  However, it’s worthwhile to check your system tray (bottom right hand corner of the screen) to make sure you don’t have any pending Windows Updates.

For more geeky details and analysis, take a look at this article in Information Week.

ADD ON:

After sending out this post, I received several responses asking how to verify that Windows Updates are up to date.  Here’s the easiest way to check and also set them to install automatically so you won’t have to worry:

Windows 7:

1. Start>All programs>Windows Update

2. At the top left of the Windows Update page click on Check for Updates

(this will take a few minutes)

 

 3. Once it’s complete, look for ‘Important Updates’.  If any are listed, click the ‘Install Updates’ button.  If there are none, you’re fine.  It will probably list Optional Updates, but I would not install those.

To make sure your updates are applied automatically in the future:

1. On the same page as above, click on ‘Change Settings’.

2. Under Important Updates, change to ‘Install Updates Automatically’.

 

Windows XP:

1. Start>All Programs>Windows Update

2. A web browser will open and navigate to the following page:

3. Click on Express and Windows will check for updates.  Once the scan is complete, choose Install Updates.  Once this is complete, the machine will likely require a restart.

4. To make sure that Updates are applied automatically going forward:

Start > Control Panel > Security Center > Windows Updates (select Automatic)

That’s it.

Stay safe out there!

Ken

 

6.5 Million LinkedIn Passwords Breached

This just in:  6.5 Million LinkedIn Passwords Were Breached

You may be thinking “what’s the risk?”  Big deal if some Russian hacker adds a Ph.D. to my name or a NASA internship to my resume.

But there might just be a big risk. If you’re one of those people that uses the same password for everything from online banking to your email account, then now is a great time to change your LinkedIn passwords.  If you haven’t changed passwords for other accounts containing sensitive data, there’s no time like the present to do so.

Take a look at the following article for details on the breach as well as some best practices for creating and managing passwords.

http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/06/linkedin-was-breached-now-what/

For more information on passwords, you can also take a look at my article on the topic.

http://partnertechs.com/2012/03/15/whats-the-password/

 

 

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.

The Loitering Theory: How Facebook Generates B2B Leads

Are businesses really making money on Facebook or is it simply a platform for keeping up with friends and family? Matt Ferraguto discusses the staggering amount of time that we spend on Facebook and suggests that it is a powerful tool for generating business.

http://www.eandvgroup.com/2012/04/the-loitering-theory-how-facebook-generates-b2b-leads/