Cryptolocker: Why Modern Computer Viruses Are More Dangerous Than Ever

crypt-messageToday’s computer viruses go beyond mere annoyance. How does holding your data for ransom sound? What about spying on you through your webcam, tracking your physical location, recording every keystroke you make? Welcome to the modern generation of computer threats, where infection means real-world consequences.

The latest virus making the rounds is Cryptolocker, a textbook example of all the truly nasty ways in which a modern computer virus can ruin your day. Cryptolocker encrypts your data with a one-way algorithm which mathematically cannot be reversed. If you don’t pay the ransom within the timeframe, the only key to your data is gone, kaput, goodbye.

You can’t restore your data by removing Cryptolocker, because removing the virus doesn’t decrypt the data. No tech support person in the world can decrypt it for you because it’s simply not possible without the key. Even police departments have paid the ransom, even as they recommend that consumers not do so.

Here are some resources on Cryptolocker so you can keep it from digging its sharp claws into your computer.

Cryptolocker started its initial spread via email attachments, which are fairly easy to avoid. But now it’s morphing into variants that can be transmitted via USB drive, and luring victims with fake software activation codes. Although it’s a Windows virus, like all viruses it can be transmitted via Macs and mobile devices. Following in the steps of other viruses, soon Cryptolocker will evolve into spreading via social media sites.

And this is just the start.

There are other viruses out there that can activate webcams – and yes, they can bypass the green light that tells you the webcam is on. They can listen through microphones. They can track your location via your mobile device. They can listen in on your conversations on social media.

Now, more than ever, it’s vital to protect yourself from computer viruses. Here are some Tech Tips resources to help:

Have you run into Cryptolocker or other similarly destructive viruses? Share in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

 

A Parent’s Guide To Protecting Your Kids Online

kidsIt’s hard to protect kids online, because parents and educators often have a hard time finding resources that can help them understand the latest risks and recommendations. I’ve gathered a variety of information in one place so you can learn about antivirus, parental controls, and protecting your kids while using mobile devices and video games.

Kids’ computers are among the most vulnerable to security threats. That’s not to say your kids are doing anything wrong. On the contrary, they’re the victims. Not only do virus-writers like to booby-trap kids with malicious web sites, they also like to infiltrate legitimate ones. Kids are also at much at risk of identity theft as any Internet user. More so, because cyberbullying has become such a deadly and devastating menace.

These are resources every parent needs to know about how computer viruses and Internet threats work. If you have questions, please feel free to comment. You can also subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

Antivirus And Security

Mobile Devices

Video Games

Cyberbullying And Harassment

 

Hands-On With The Samsung Galaxy S4, Plus Antivirus For Android

galaxy-s4I recently had the opportunity to test-drive the Samsung Galaxy S4 from Verizon. If you’re looking for a powerful smart phone with some of the features of a tablet, this might be the device for you.

Related article: Galaxy S4: Vivid Color, Vibrant Performance by Triona Guidry (The Northwest Herald)

The Galaxy S4 looks similar to the Galaxy Note II, which I previously reviewed. In the hand it feels light and lively, matched by smooth performance when you use it. The 1080p Super AMOLED screen is unbelievably vivid even in sunlight, just the thing for entertainment on the go.

The S Apps are interesting, but I don’t know anyone who buys a device solely for the manufacturer’s add-on apps. If you want them they’re there, but as a recent article in Forbes asked, do people actually use these brand-name features? If you do, I’m curious to hear how you like them.

The Galaxy S4 is an Android device so you’ll get the full performance of Android 4.2 Jelly Bean plus the features available in the Google Play store. Just watch out for bad apps! Android is notorious for malware. You should run an antivirus program on any mobile device you use. For Android I am fond of Sophos’s Android security app. It’s free so there’s no excuse not to protect yourself.

Verizon is promoting its VZ Security service, which gives you antivirus plus SiteAdvisor for free, or antivirus, SiteAdvisor, and some other goodies for $1.99/month. Whether you pick Sophos, Verizon, or another product, please make sure you are running legitimate antivirus. Fake antivirus is skyrocketing on Android along with other malware.

Have you tried the Samsung Galaxy series? What do you think? Share in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

 Disclaimer: Samsung Galaxy S4 provided by Verizon; this is an unpaid review.

 

 

Six Things Every PC User Needs To Know About Windows 8.1

Windows81The new Windows 8.1 affects you, even if you’re still using previous versions of Windows. Here’s what you need to know about the upgrade.

First Rule of Windows 8.1: There Is No Start Menu
Microsoft’s been shouting it from the rooftops: “The Start button’s back! The Start button’s back!” Except that doesn’t mean what you think it means.

What Windows 8.1 does is stick a Start button in the lower left corner, which brings up the new Start screen – not to be confused with the old Start menu you’re probably looking for. Dizzy yet? To make matters worse, not all applications will support the returned Start button, meaning it’s less of a fix than a kludge. A Start button that isn’t always present is as confusing as a Start button that’s missing entirely, if not more so.

Second Rule Of Windows 8.1: The New Look Is Here To Stay
Regardless of what they’ve done with the Start buttonmenuscreen, the Windows 8 interface (which I would call “Metro” except Microsoft says we’re not supposed to call it that anymore) is the future of Windows. So don’t expect Windows 8.1, or any other update, to restore your computer to yesteryear. The new look and feel is here to stay, and it’s time to get used to it if you intend to stay in the Microsoft world.

Third Rule Of Windows 8.1: Say Goodbye To Your Keyboard And Mouse
Windows 8 is made for tablets. In fact, many of us are still trying to figure out why Microsoft thinks a tablet interface is a good idea in a PC environment. If you don’t have a touch interface, it’s klunky to use – in other words if you’re one of the 99.99999% who still have a keyboard and mouse, which is SO 2012, PEOPLE.

Fourth Rule Of Windows 8.1: You Need It, Unless You Like Viruses
If history is any indication, expect Windows 8.1 to become the only acceptable version of Windows as far as being able to fix problems or install updates. Doesn’t matter if you want it or not, eventually you’ll have to install it or your computer is guaranteed to become a writhing infestation of identity-stealing viruses and malware.

This means you, Windows XP people – you need to upgrade. Now. I don’t care if you go Win7 or Win8, either is better than what you’re using now. Don’t wait until your computer is unusable, your financial data stolen, your accounts hacked, and your personal information spread across the Internet.

Fifth Rule Of Windows 8.1: It’s Not That Bad And In Some Ways Good
If it weren’t for the klunky interface and the lack of training for the average consumer (you know, the people for whom it’s purportedly designed), I would like Windows 8.

It’s fast. It’s powerful. It doesn’t take up a ton of memory (looking at YOU, WinME), doesn’t throttle your processor (Windows Vista), doesn’t cause incompatibilities with every single piece of hardware you own (Windows 95).

So, yes, it’s a technically superior operating system. So was OS/2 Warp, only it wasn’t widely used because it was hamstrung by a lack of apps and a failure to educate people on how to use it. Ironic that Microsoft may be following the same road to ruin decades later.

Sixth Rule Of Windows 8.1: You’re On Your Own Learning It (But I’ll Help!)
Microsoft has information online, but you have to hunt for it – using an unfamiliar touch-swipe interface, unless you happen to have another device handy, and doesn’t that eliminate the point? It’s no wonder many businesses have decided to hold off on upgrading. I don’t know why Microsoft has such blinders on when it comes to understanding that your average, everyday person needs to be able to use this without spending the entire morning trying to figure out how to accomplish a task.

To that end, here are some resources to get you started with Windows 8:

And don’t forget to follow Tech Tips for the latest on Windows 8, Mac, and more:

Once again we come to the age-old dilemma: Do you put up with the new features for the sake of security? If I were you, I would either a) get on Windows 7 ASAP, b) get on Windows 8 ASAP, or c) pick another platform (Mac? tablet? phablet?) because the Windows 8 train has left the station and anybody who didn’t jump on board is going to get run over eventually by viruses, malware, and other Internet scum.

What do you think about Windows 8? Love it? Hate it? Cowering in a corner hugging your Timex-Sinclair and dreaming of punchcards? Share in the comments!

 

How To Avoid Keyloggers, Ransomware, And Rootkits

keyThe most advanced threats to your computer – keyloggers, ransomware, and rootkits – are also the most insidious. The best way to deal with them is to avoid them entirely.

Keyloggers come in hardware form, but are usually software viruses that secretly record everything you type. Ransomware holds your computer and its data hostage until you pay. Rootkits allow hackers to remote-control your computer, and are often used to introduce other types of malware.

Related article: Advanced Threats Target Your Computer (The Northwest Herald)

So why should you fear these threats?

  • They bypass your security.
  • They steal your money and your identity.
  • They force your computer to infect still more computers.
  • They turn your computer into a spam-generating cog in the hackers’ profit-driven machine.

In the tech industry we say you’re rooted or pwned (like owned with a p – “powned”). In other words, the hackers own you. They own your accounts, your passwords, your address, your finances… your life.

Related Tech Tips article: What To Do If You Get A Computer Virus

Fake Antivirus Software
In particular, watch out for fake software scams. I’ve spoken of these before. Fake antivirus software tricks you into installing it, then bypasses your protections and invites its malware friends in to play. It’s devilishly hard to get rid of, as anyone who’s been infected can tell you. Usually you’re looking at a reinstall. And the darn stuff actually makes you pay to be infected! Talk about a scam.

This is why you don’t want to do a web search for “Windows antivirus” and start clicking on random links – many of them are poisoned results that lead you straight to the lookalike fakes.

Related Tech Tips articles: Is Your Security Software Real Or Rogue?How To Spot Bad Web Links

Rootkits And Remote Admin
Concerning rootkits – those backdoor programs that allow hackers remote control of your computer – I’d like to point out that these are not the same as the built-in remote admin tools on your computer. A rootkit, by its nature, is designed to be stealthy. Remote admin programs are supposed to be used to maintain computers for legitimate purposes (say, if you are performing tech support on machines in a remote office). But it can also be exploited just like a rootkit if a hacker convinces you to turn it on. Check out this article on telephone tech support scams for an example.

Related articles: Tech Support Phone Scams Hit HomeHow To Kill Computer Keyloggers

Drive Imagers
Fortunately, you can make it easier to recover your computer if you do have to reinstall it – by imaging the drive while it’s still clean. This, combined with regular backups of your everyday data, will let you restore your computer quickly.

Windows Drive Imagers

Mac Drive Imagers

Have you encountered keyloggers, ransomware, or rootkits? Share in the comments, and don’t forget to subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Cyber Attacks Spell Trouble For Consumers

padlock-phoneDo you know what to do if your account is swept up in a cyber attack? In the last year many popular sites, including LinkedIn, Twitter, and Evernote, have been attacked and consumer information stolen. What can you do to protect yourself?

As I said in my tech column in this month’s The Northwest Herald:

Cybercriminals attack big companies for the big prize: user account information. With email addresses and passwords in hand, they go on an account-cracking spree across the Internet, hoping that some of the users in their massive heist are using the same weak passwords on multiple sites. Itʼs likely some of your accounts have already been swept up in data breaches like this.

There are a number of things you can do to reduce the possibility of being hacked. Here are my recommendations plus related Tech Tips articles to help you with each step.

If your account has been hacked, you need to reset it. Here is information on account security and resetting hijacked accounts for some of the major sites:

And here is information on the recent breaches I mentioned:

For the latest news on data breaches (something a little more reliable than mass media articles), try these IT security sites.

Do you have questions about cyber attacks and hijacked accounts? Ask in the comments!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Your Webcam Can Be Used Against You

webcamSmile! Your private life might be streaming live on the Internet!

Did you know hackers use viruses to commandeer the webcam on your computer, tablet, or smart phone? Makes you think about all the places you take these devices, and what they could be recording. In this month’s The Northwest Herald I talk about the dangers of unsecured webcams and microphones:

It’s not just your devices, but those of the people around you as well. Chances are, you’ve had a phone or tablet nearby during a private conversation with a lawyer, a doctor, a friend. What if someone else was watching and listening through that device?

Cameras can be hijacked in a number of ways. Cybercriminals can commandeer them with viruses, then extort you by demanding money for the deletion of potentially embarrassing photos and videos. Sometimes they have the nerve to imitate law enforcement, claiming that you have illegal content on your computer and will go to jail if you don’t pay their fee.

I’m fond of taping over the webcam unless you need to use it regularly – in which case a purse or pocket provides a lovely view of lint, should someone try to sneak a peek. That doesn’t help with microphones, of course, which is why it makes sense to store your mobile devices where they’re less likely to overhear private conversations.

I also strongly recommend to my fellow parents – get the computers and camera-equipped game consoles out of your kids’ bedrooms, NOW. There are some scary new statistics about the increase in predatory sexploitation which will make you want to take a hammer to every camera in the house.

Here are some articles about webcam security you might find interesting:

What are your concerns about webcam and microphone security? Share in the comments!

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Readers Ask: Should I Buy Windows 7, Windows 8, Or Mac?

My recent post about why people hate Windows 8 sparked a lively discussion on the merits of Windows 7, Windows 8, and Mac. In the commentsFr. Jack Sweeley asked a number of questions that epitomize what everyone wants to know. You can read the previous post and comments here: Dear Microsoft: Why Your Customers Hate Windows 8.

Let’s start with Fr. Jack’s letter.

Dear Triona,

I need to get a new computer and have heard the hype about Windows 8 as well as how many tech people hate it because it is obtuse and does not really add anything new for home and small business users. Also, I have read to use the features on Windows 8, I will need to buy a new touch screen monitor.

However, as the hype goes, Windows versions below Windows 8 will become obsolete re: security updates and new software will eventually be incompatible with Windows versions below Windows 8. So, if I don’t want to be up the creek I need to get Windows 8 now and suffer through the learning curve.

So, I am in a quandary. My old computer keeps sending me “low memory” messages, if I have too many windows open the page fades and locks up, and sometimes I have to shut down the computer and restart it just to keep working.

Yet, I am by far the world’s worst technophobe, squeak by using WORD, and have no idea how an operating system works–and yes, I got sucked into VISTA because I needed a new computer when VISTA came out.

I am on the computer 10-12 hours per day. Much of the time I am doing research becasue I am a writer and need to have many Websites open at the same time. I currently have 8 completed manuscripts on my hard drive as well as 3 more I am working on. I also have about 300 commentaries I have written and over 1,000 photos I have downloaded from the Web.

Basically, I use the computer for my work, email, my 2 websites, and am building another website for my artwork. I am also planning to create a series of videos for Youtube.

What I am looking for in a computer is a hard drive big enough to hold my work with a lot left over and the fastest speed I can get for opening Websites and downloading material from the Web. Also, a desk top because I have tried my wife’s laptop and type like I have fumble fingers on it.

I have no idea about computer prices but hopefully can find something between 700-1,000 dollars.

That said, I don’t know anyone who uses an Apple-Mac–at least they haven’t told me they do–but given the already bad reputation of Windows 8 can getting an Apple-Mac be any worse of a learning curve?

So, my question is, “What are my options?”

– Fr. Jack Sweeley

Many people are in the same boat. You just want a working computer but you’re not sure which way to go.

Computer Crossroads
I have a question in return: What do you envision as your computer future?

We’re standing at a computer crossroads. Ahead lie three paths: Windows 7, Windows 8, and “Something Else”. Down the “Something Else” path you can barely make out a few more signposts: “Mac” and “Mobile” are the only ones you can read. Which path do you take? You’ll have to make some decisions.


Path Of Least Resistance: Stay On Windows 7

If you are a Windows user and want to stick with the closest thing to what you have now, consider Windows 7 – with a few caveats.

Bear in mind this is a dead-end operating system. Microsoft has dedicated its not-inconsiderable resources toward pushing Windows 8, to the point of discontinuing Service Packs for Win7. That’s a bad sign.

Also, there’s still a learning curve to Win7, although not as bad as Windows 8′s. Given that Win8 is the future whether we like it or not, you have to ask yourself whether it makes sense to learn something that you know is going away in the near future.

Learning Curve: Upgrade To Windows 8
Let’s say you’ve decided you’re riding this thing out at Microsoft’s side, no matter what. In that case you are committed to learning Windows 8.

The interface is designed for touchy-swipey and not the traditional keyboard-mouse. I’m interested to hear how that’s working out, for better or for worse. My anecdotal evidence so far indicates that Windows 8 is awesome on tablets but kludgey on standard PCs.

Windows 8 will take considerably more effort to learn than Win7, but Microsoft has promised big rewards for those who take the plunge. We’ll have to see if the results match the hype.

Gearshift: Move To A Mac
Some people think I’m a rabid Mac fangirl because of my Mac tech support experience. Actually I think you have to use the right tool for the right job, and sometimes that ends up being a PC.

But not this time. Given Windows 8′s uncertainty, I see no reason why every consumer out there shouldn’t go get themselves a Mac. It’s either that or wait around for Microsoft to figure out how this whole Win8 thing is supposed to work in the real world. Want to be a guinea pig? By all means – but if you want to know why Steve Jobs used to say “it just works”, get a Mac.

Are Macs are more expensive? Not in the long run. The lowest-end Mac costs significantly more than the lowest-end PC BUT – and I am basing this on 20+ years of PC and Mac experience – Macs last at least twice the lifespan of most PCs.

Worried about the learning curve? Don’t be. Apple has some nice starter guides for those moving from Windows to Mac (much better, in my opinion, than what Microsoft has offered for Win8). You should also read my advice about Mac antivirus: How To Remove A Virus From Your Mac.

Off The Beaten Path: Move To A Tablet
Some people have found that they can do the majority of their work (surfing the Web, checking email) with an iPad or other tablet. If you choose Microsoft’s Surface you’ll still be using Windows, of course, but there are a variety of options including tablets like iPad and Android and e-book readers like Kindle and nook (now partnered with Microsoft).

If you want to see my experiments with this, read my previous post: How To Ditch Your Computer For An iPad.

Pros And Cons By Task
Still not sure which path to take? Let’s go back to Fr. Jack and see if we can find the right choice for him. I’ve broken down the needs he mentioned into five basic categories.

  • EASE OF USE
    Winner: Windows 7, Runner-Up: Mac
    If you are a previous Windows user and want a reduced learning curve, Win7 is the closest to what you have now, and it comes with drawbacks as explained above. Hanging onto an old interface doesn’t seem like the best option to me, and Mac seems easier to learn than Windows 8.
  • WORD PROCESSING
    Winner: All
    There isn’t a computer out there you can’t use for word processing. If you want stunning-looking software go for Apple’s Pages app for Mac, but otherwise word processors have similar functionality across the board.
  • SECURITY
    Winner: Mac, Runner-Up: Windows 8
    Windows 7′s days are numbered. Security-wise it will eventually fall by the wayside and you’ll have to use Windows 8 for the best cyber-safety. The Mac is not immune to viruses (read my advice on Mac antivirus). But, in my experience, it has far less security troubles than Windows as long as you keep up with basic maintenance.
  • WEB DESIGN
    Winner: Mac, Runner-Up: Windows 7
    There’s a reason Mac is the standard in the design world. I am going to call Windows 7 as the runner-up because of the current lack of applications for Windows 8. I expect this to evolve in Win8′s future favor, however.
  • PHOTO AND VIDEO
    Winner: Mac, Runner-Up: None
    Hands down, what you want for this purpose is a Mac. Photo and video can be done on a PC, but what most people want is something that’s easy to use and produces gorgeous results. That’s where the Mac really shines.

Conclusion
For Fr. Jack, I suggest either Windows 8 or a Mac depending on whether he wants to stay in the Microsoft world or not. Personally I would go for the Mac. He can meet his target budget with a low end model, but I would bump up the budget to about $1,500 for additional processor and memory.

Stay Tuned For Part 2!
I sent the previous post to Fr. Jack, who had a number of questions based on my analysis. Next week I’ll post Part 2 where we’ll discuss word processing compatibility, hardware specs, and available Mac models. Want to stay tuned to Tech Tips? Subscribe by email, find Tech Tips on Facebook, or follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

What’s your experience? Do you have questions about whether to switch to Windows 7, Windows 8, or Mac? Ask in the comments!

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why Hackers Attack Your Computer – And What You Can Do About It

“Why would a hacker try to get into my computer? I don’t have anything they’d want!”

As an expert in small business and consumer security, this is the number-one question I’m asked. The answer? Money.

Earning Big Bucks The Hacker Way
Cybercrime is a multibillion-dollar business. Hackers can earn up to $100,000 per day with these scams. That kind of money certainly sounds tempting, doesn’t it? Poor economic conditions and high unemployment make hacking an attractive, if illegal, option both in the U.S. and abroad.

Installing viruses on your computer, stealing your password, hijacking your accounts – all these things bring in some seriously big bucks.

So how do hackers earn their ill-gotten gains? By taking advantage of you in two ways:

1. Commandeering your computer
Installing viruses on your computer allows criminals to control it. They can do everything from redirecting your web searches to capturing your passwords and credit card numbers. They may also install adware from which they get a kickback.

Why do they want to control your computer? Because it’s far more useful to command an army of ten thousand computers than it is to do their dirty work with one. It also creates layers of confusion between hackers and law enforcement.

Even better, they can sell access to their thousand-bot army to other scammers who might want to pull off fake pharmaceuticals, pay-per-click surveys, or 419 scams.

Plus, it gives them ammunition for…

2. Stealing your online identity
If you receive a message from Joe Neverheardofhim, you’re unlikely to click the link or attachment. But if you get a message from your best friend who says she’s stuck overseas and got mugged and desperately needs you to wire money, you might do it.

That’s a real-life scam, by the way. See the Snopes article here.

People are more likely to click on links from people they know. Hackers take advantage of that by breaking into legitimate accounts: email, Facebook, Twitter. If you see a weird message from a friend, hesitate before you click – they may have been hijacked.

Hijacking accounts feeds back into commandeering computers, which leads to hijacking accounts. It’s a perfect world for the hackers, in which their every action can have multiple lucrative rewards.

How To Protect Your Computer
The best way to prevent yourself from becoming a victim is to protect your computer. Here are some more Tech Tips to get you started:

Do you have questions about how to protect your computer from hackers? Ask in the comments! You can also subscribe free to Tech Tips by email for more computer news, security tips and social media advice!

Tools To Protect Your Smartphone From Malware

Do you run antivirus on your smartphone? This month in The Northwest Herald, I talk about the exponential increase in malware on smartphones and what you can do to protect yourself. From the article:

Yet if I were to ask if you run antivirus on your phone, you would probably say no. Nobody mentions malware when you buy a phone, they’re too busy extolling the fancy features. All those cool apps are fine until you realize some virus has been silently snooping on your activities.

Here are links to the latest options for mobile antivirus. The available options are changing all the time as new devices and systems are introduced. I’ve also included links to some of my previous Tech Tips articles which can help you secure your smartphone.

Tech Tips articles on smartphone security

 Mobile Antivirus Options

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