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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Stop Integrating My Computer With Social Media!

Tech companies need to remember that consumers are people with brains and don’t need to be force-fed technology through the virtual equivalent of a baby spoon. Mountain Lion, Apple’s latest operating system for Mac (OS X 10.8), boasts improved Facebook integration. In my mind that’s not a feature, it’s a reason to stay away.

I DON’T want my operating system to be integrated with social media. The operating system is the brains of my computer. It doesn’t need to check into Facebook or Twitter. I may run apps on top of it that do need to check into Facebook or Twitter, but that’s my decision. I don’t want my system software making that decision for me.

I want my system software stupid. I don’t want it to know a damn thing about the Internet except how to connect to it. To put it in IT terms, I don’t want my OS thinking past the lowest layers of the OSI model. I certainly don’t want it making decisions at the presentation and application layers. Let it merrily chat away via TCP/IP without bothering to look inside those data packets, and let the programs I choose do that work.

I could say the same for my iDevices. I don’t want to use iCloud. I don’t want to use FourSquare. I don’t want to check in every five seconds. As I said in a previous rant er… post, I certainly don’t want all my data syncing to some unknown datacenter when all it needs to do is go two inches from device to computer.

There’s such a thing as too much integration. Everything doesn’t need to work seamlessly with everything else. If I wanted an operating system based on Facebook I would do all my work with Facebook apps. If I wanted to use cloud computing I would sign up for cloud computing. But if all I want is to work locally on my own computer, I should be able to do that too.

What I want is an operating system I can secure with third party tools (sayonara, Windows RT!), upon which I can run the programs of my choosing.

Of course, I could always run Mountain Lion and simply not give it my Facebook credentials, but that’s not the point. The point is that the capability of integration is there. The point is that if something happens – if I input my password in the wrong dialog box, if a virus presents me with a malicious login, if one of Apple’s preferences “accidentally” gets switched on – then suddenly I am sharing a whole lot of data with the world that really shouldn’t be shared.

As a computer expert, I know the best ways to avoid that. But most people don’t. The average person, right now, is streaming data to Facebook, Twitter, iCloud, and who knows what else, without even being aware of it. And that’s BEFORE the latest integrations between social media and our system software.

Stop sacrificing security for convenience, because it’s not the tech companies that pay the price, it’s the consumers. We’re the ones who get our bank accounts hacked, our email hijacked, our identities stolen, our lives ruined. That’s not exaggeration, that’s the result of a multi-billion-dollar cybercrime industry.

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Ten Ways To Tell If Your Computer Is Infected With A Virus

Ever get that sinking feeling that something’s wrong with your computer? Here are ten ways to tell if your computer is infected with a virus.

Run a virus scan
A bit obvious, isn’t it? While you’re at it, make sure your antivirus program has been updated recently. If you haven’t bought a new version in a few years, now’s the time.

Run a second virus scan with a different program
Antivirus programs sometimes come up with different results. It’s a good idea to scan with a second program to pick up anything the first one left behind. However, you shouldn’t try to run two antivirus programs concurrently; they’ll conflict with each other. I like free programs Malwarebytes for PC and Sophos Antivirus for Mac.

Watch your computer’s behavior
Is it slower than usual, crashing, having a hard time redrawing the screen? These can all be signs that viruses are running in the background.

Monitor active programs
If a virus is running in the background, it may show up in the list of active programs. You can then click on it and End Task (Windows) or Force Quit (Mac). Bear in mind, though, most viruses will restart on reboot, and some will even regenerate on the spot no matter how many times you quit them.

  • Windows XP
    Ctrl-Alt-Delete, then click Task Manager
  • Windows Vista/7
    Ctrl-Shift-Esc
    or right-click the taskbar and click Start Task Manager
  • Mac OS X
    Option-Cmd-Escape (the Force Quit menu)
    or open a Terminal window and type ps -aef

Check your Web browser extensions
Browser extensions provide additional functionality on the Web. Some are terrific tools while others are sneaky little devils that serve you ads, slurp your data, and otherwise spy on you. Here’s how you can check your browser extensions.

Check your Sent folder
If your email is spewing spam, it may show up in your Sent Items folder. Viruses often commandeer email accounts to send spam.

Check your Facebook and Twitter
If there are all sorts of weird links on your Facebook wall that you didn’t post, your account may have been hijacked. And if that’s the case, it may have happened through a virus infection on your computer.

Start in Safe Mode
If your computer is so confused it won’t work properly, you can boot into Safe Mode which may allow you to diagnose the problem.

  • Windows XP, Vista, 7
    Hold down F8 at reboot (before the Windows logo)
  • Mac OS X
    Hold down Shift at reboot

Ask the Internet
Fortunately we don’t have to compute in a vacuum. If you think you’re infected with a particular virus, do a Web search on it. You’ll often find removal instructions and links to tools (just make sure those tools are legit and not themselves viruses in disguise).

Inspect your other computers
If one is infected, it’s likely the others are, too. You need to keep all your computers secure, even if they’re old or you don’t use them often.

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How To Delete Your Old Email Accounts

Did you know your old email account may be spewing spam and malware? In today’s The Northwest Herald I talk about the importance of deleting old accounts:

It happens all the time. You move to a new email address but leave the old one intact; you set up a Yahoo! or Gmail account but never get around to using it. We assume these accounts wait patiently for us. On the contrary, they cower, helpless, waiting for the first hacker who can figure out the passwords.

Unfortunately many people use weak passwords, especially for throwaway accounts. We’ve seen examples of this with a rash of recent security breaches at Yahoo!, LinkedIn, and eHarmony, among others.

These breaches reveal that many people use simple, plain-text phrases like “linkedin”, “mypassword”, and “123456”. People also use the same two or three passwords in rotation. What are the chances some old account of yours uses a password you’ve reused elsewhere?

Here are the additional resources I mentioned in the article. You might find these related Tech Tips articles helpful:

Here are links from some of the more common email providers about how to delete accounts. Note that these links may change without notice, and that account deletion policies vary by provider. Consult the individual site for more information. I’m providing the exact URLs so you can see where you’re going.

And, some social media ones:

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The DNSChanger Virus Wasn’t Hype, It Was Success

Yesterday the media was freaking out about the DNSChanger virus. Today they’re saying it was a big bust. But the fact that DNSChanger was a whimper instead of a bang doesn’t mean it was all hype, it means we succeeded in averting the problem.

While some are comparing this to the Y2K fizzle, both are examples of good IT at work. As IT professionals, it’s our job to explain technical topics to the average person. More specifically, it’s our job to explain to the average person why they should care.

With DNSChanger, the IT industry explained that it was a particularly icky virus, and that necessary public safety measures meant people could lose Internet access if infected. The DNS Changer Working Group (DCWG) was set up with an easy test for infection. Word spread. The news media picked it up and, although their coverage sometimes tended towards hysteria, at least the facts were there.

Obviously this doesn’t happen for every virus. It doesn’t necessarily happen even for the important ones. Some viruses get news coverage because they infected a lot of large organizations, or were particularly widespread. Some get coverage solely because they sound scary and it’s a slow news day.

As I said in my post about the Mac virus Flashback, I worry less about the viruses we hear about than the ones we don’t. And I don’t worry at all about the hype, because it means people are talking computer security and that is a good thing.

What would have happened if we hadn’t been warned about DNSChanger? Maybe nothing. Maybe chaos. I certainly don’t think it would have TAKEN THE WHOLE INTERNET DOWN!!! as some news outlets were claiming. (Which can happen, but the honor’s reserved for nasty things like attacks against the DNS infrastructure itself.)  If nothing else, without notification DNSChanger probably would have made life unhappy for a lot more people.

The thing that concerns me about assuming it was all hype is that people might not pay attention the next time. And there will be a next time. The impact will largely depend on whether people use good security practices in between the big virus scares. That’s one story you’re not as likely to see in the news.

What did you think of the DNSChanger coverage? Share in the comments!

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Basics About DNSChanger, The Virus That Could Knock You Off The Internet

Everyone’s talking about this virus that’s going to hit on Monday, July 9, 2012, but a lot of the articles are too technical. Here are the bare-bones basics you need to know.

What is DNSChanger?
A particularly obnoxious virus that affects Windows and Mac computers, and can be transmitted by other types of computers and mobile devices. It can also affect routers.

What does it do?
Changes your Internet settings so cybercriminals can serve you ads, steal your login information, and monitor everything you do online.

Gruesome technical details (optional)
DNSChanger alters your computer’s DNS settings. DNS servers translate ugly network numbers like 127.0.0.1 into nice human-friendly addresses like www.sophos.com. Normally your computer looks to your Internet provider’s DNS servers for these translations. DNSChanger redirects your computer to cybercriminal DNS servers, so everything you do on the Internet silently passes through their servers en route to its actual destination.

What could happen on July 9, 2012?
If your computer is infected with the DNSChanger virus, as of Monday, July 9, 2012, you may not be able to access the Internet. Because of the severity of DNSChanger, Internet providers worldwide decreed that July 9, 2012 was the last day the hacker servers would be allowed to stay online. After that, they pull the plug. If you’re infected and can’t get online, it’s probably because your Internet provider is blocking your computer as a public safety measure.

What do I need to do?

1. Check to see if you are infected.
Visit the DNSChanger Working Group (DCWG) website to see if you are infected. If you are, continue below.

2. Remove the virus from your computer
Most popular antivirus programs will remove DNSChanger. Be sure you are using legitimate antivirus and not lookalike scamwareDCWG has tips on what to do if you are infected.

These Tech Tips articles may also help:

Additional Resources

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net