Ransomware Spreads Across The Globe: How To Protect Your Computer

A ransomware worm is rapidly taking over computers around the world. Here’s what you need to know to protect your computers and networks.

This particular worm, known by several names including WannaCry and WCry, is a type of computer virus called ransomware. Ransomware, as regular Tech Tips readers know, is especially nasty because it hijacks your computer and encrypts your data, then demands a ransom to decrypt it. A worm is a virus that worms its way through computer networks. Therefore, as you can imagine, a ransomware worm has the potential to wreak havoc worldwide. And that’s exactly what WannaCry and its variants are doing.

Your best protection is prevention. While this virus can be removed, the data it encrypts CANNOT be decrypted. Experts typically recommend not paying the ransom, as there is no guarantee you will recover your data even if you do. A current offline backup is the only way to preserve your information in the event of a ransomware attack.

Windows users, update NOW. If you’re on an old version of Windows and can’t update (anything except Win7, Win8.1, and Win10), this is your wake-up call to upgrade to a newer version. Yes, they released an XP patch. No, that doesn’t mean XP is safe. It means they had to patch XP because it’s used so widely in critical environments like hospitals. And that was an unprecedented move, as Microsoft had previously declared that XP would receive no further security updates. That indicates how serious the situation is. Microsoft has more information about supported versions of Windows on their Windows end-of-support page.

And, everyone – BACK UP YOUR DATA. Seriously. Back it up. Right now. Mac users, you too, you’re not immune to ransomware. Everybody BACK UP YOUR DATA ON A SEPARATE NON-NETWORKED DRIVE AND KEEP IT OFFLINE.

RIGHT. NOW. (Here’s my latest Tech Tips article on backups for Windows and Mac.)

Spread the word. Tell everyone: business associates, friends, family, neighbors, random strangers. Send them a link to this article and remind them to back up and update their computers immediately.

If you’ve already been affected by the WannaCry worm, here’s some information that can help.

How To Prepare For A Windows 10 Upgrade

win10Microsoft’s expiration of their free Windows 10 upgrade has PC users asking: Is it time to upgrade?

Many people have delayed upgrading. That is to say, they’ve tried to delay upgrading… but Microsoft’s aggressive marketing tactics have gone from displaying incessant reminders, to downloading gigabytes worth of upgrade files without the user’s consent, to performing upgrades in the middle of users’ workdays.

Recently I was sitting in a waiting room when I realized the computer in the office across from me had switched to Windows 10’s “Upgrading… 1%….” window. The woman in the office told me it suddenly began the upgrade while she was in the middle of another task, despite repeatedly answering “no” to Microsoft’s continual upgrade reminders. When I left an hour later, it was at 72% and she and her co-worker were attempting to run business from a single machine… which had autoupgraded itself to Windows 10 a few days earlier. (You can read more tales of Win10 autoupgrade woes in this article on The Register.)

If you rely on a Windows world, you’ll be faced with Windows 10 sooner or later. Windows XP and Vista users can no longer run current antivirus, so it’s past time for you to make the move. Win7 and Win8 are currently still supported but will eventually face the same fate. But you should learn more about Windows 10’s shortcomings and what you’ll need to do before you upgrade, or before it upgrades itself.

First, I recommend you review Windows 10’s notorious privacy issues, so that you know what configuration changes you’ll need to make. Here’s more information on how to change Win10’s security settings as well as other information to help with your upgrade.

Next, you’ll want to check your existing computer against Microsoft’s Win10 system requirements. If you’re already on Win7 or Win8, it’s likely your hardware is compatible.

And, of course, you should back up your computer before upgrading. Don’t just rely on a cloud-based backup; take the opportunity to protect yourself from ransomware by creating an offline backup to an external hard drive.

Here are additional articles about Windows 10 that may help with your upgrade.

Security Basics For Windows Users

Windows81With Windows malware on the rise, now seems like a good time for a refresher on basic security advice for Windows users.

First, the bad news. If you are using Windows XP or Windows Vista, you need to upgrade as soon as possible for your own safety. Your computer can no longer run current antivirus software, nor does it receive security updates. Even longstanding programs like Google Chrome now consider WinXP and Vista obsolete. Below you’ll find resources on how to plan your upgrade.

As with any computer, the best defense for Windows users is prevention, including reliable backups and solid security software. Equally important, you also need to know how to recognize and avoid common Internet threats.

If you’d like to know more about Windows security, stay tuned to Tech Tips via Facebook and RSS, or subscribe by email.

Windows Antivirus Programs
Good security starts with a quality antivirus program. You can use the freebies, but I strongly recommend that you invest in a commercial security suite. It’s money well spent.

Upgrading From Windows XP and Windows Vista

Tech Tips – Recommended Advice For Windows Users

 

How To Back Up Your Computer (For Windows And Mac)

backuprestoreWhen was the last time you backed up your computer? If you have automatic backups set, do you check them on a regular basis? Have you ever tested your backups by trying to restore some of your files?

It’s not enough to set your backups and forget them. You would not believe the number of times I’ve encountered backups that were “definitely” good, only to discover they were blank or missing or had never run in the first place. Don’t wait for an emergency to find out your backups don’t work!

I recommend that you make extra backup copies to keep in a secure offsite location. If you use a cloud-based backup, you should also keep a current local copy of your data in case of emergencies. The following resources will help you configure and maintain your backups.

Get computer help straight to your inbox! Sign up to receive Tech Tips by email, and follow Tech Tips on Facebook for more tech support advice for Windows and Mac.

How To Backup And Restore Files On Your PC Or Mac

backuprestoreEveryone knows you’re supposed to make backups, but choosing a method can be confusing. Here’s a rundown of your choices for Windows and Mac.

Built-In Backups
All modern computers come with utilities which you can use to back up to an external hard drive. The hard drives themselves often come with user-friendly utilities as well.

Third-Party Backups
If you don’t like the built-in options you can choose a third party backup – but watch out for lookalike viruses that pretend to be backup or “computer cleaner” programs. Your best bet is a solution from a reliable software vendor.

Cloud-Based Backups
Cloud backups are convenient because all you have to do is let the utility lurk in the background. Your backups are always current because the software is always running, always backing up changed files.

The danger with cloud backups is that you don’t know who has access to them behind the scenes, or whether the backups will remain available to you if the service goes down or bankrupt. If you’re going to store backups on the Internet, make sure you keep a copy on a local hard drive.

Encrypting Backups
The best way to secure your data when using cloud backups is to encrypt it. Mac users, there’s an easy trick you can pull with Disk Utility: creating a protected disk image.

Windows users, you’ll have to find a third party utility like TrueCrypt. But bear in mind, most encryption utilities were developed for tech professionals so they’re not always the most user-friendly. Also, any utility that works with files at a fundamental level runs the risk of damaging those files. Run your encryption on copies, not originals. I also recommend against encrypting your entire hard drive unless you really know what you’re doing.

Testing And Restoring Backups
Backups don’t do much good if you can’t restore the data on them. You should periodically run a test restore, to make sure you can before an emergency strikes. You should also maintain multiple backups in case one backup device fails.

Another way you can back up your files is with a drive imaging program that takes a snapshot of your entire disk. I’ll post about that in a separate article. Want a head’s up? Subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Five Essentials Every Computer Needs

Whether you use your computer at home or work, some essentials are universal. Here are resources for your PC or Mac that can help you out of a crisis.

Related article: Five Essentials Every Computer Needs (The Northwest Herald)

Security

Alternate Web Browser

Easy Backups

Microsoft Office Files

PDF Creation

Don’t forget to subscribe to Tech Tips by email and follow on Facebook. You can also follow @trionaguidry on Twitter.

Top Five Computer Nightmares, And How To Fix Them

Since the 1980s I’ve been fixing computers that won’t start up, won’t print, or can’t find files. The Internet adds an extra level of complexity, but we’re still facing the same basic tech support problems.

1. Your computer won’t start up.
There are three possibilities: your computer isn’t getting any power, it can’t find the hard drive, or there’s something wrong with your system software. The latter is by far the most common, and may be the result of a virus, a program conflict, or just bad luck.

First, try powering your computer down. If it doesn’t start up, follow the prompts on the screen. But don’t expect your PC to work properly in Safe Mode, which is meant as a diagnostic tool only. Once you’re in you need to find what caused the error and fix it. Likely suspects are new programs or devices. Run your virus scanner not just once, but several times. If your startup failure is caused by a virus you may need a tool like Malwarebytes to get rid of it completely. Reboot several times to make sure things are working, and make an immediate backup (but don’t overwrite the old one in case you still need it).

2. You can’t print.
Once again, three possibilities: the printer has no power, it’s not connected to the computer, or there’s a software error. Let’s assume you’ve tried rebooting and you’ve checked the cables. If you’ve printed successfully in the past, then it’s probably a problem with the software or file. Try a different file as well as a different program. You can look up any error messages or misbehavior on the printer’s support site. As a last resort you can unplug your printer, remove its software, and reinstall according to manufacturer instructions.

3. Your data is missing.
The default directory for Windows XP files is My Documents. In Vista and Windows 7 it’s Documents, as it is for Mac users. But this is just the default location; files can be saved almost anywhere. If your file or folder isn’t where you expect, try searching for it by name or date.

What if all your data is gone? If your desktop also looks different, you may be logged in under the wrong account. Check under the Start menu in Windows or the Apple menu on a Mac to see your login name.

In the previous case the data was simply misplaced. What if it really is gone? The sooner you try to recover a file, the better your chances of success, although it’s far easier to recover from a backup. In truly grim situations you might have to send your drive to a data recovery service.

4. You can’t get on the Internet.
Sometimes it’s not your Internet connection, just one specific program. But if none of your Internet applications are working and a reboot doesn’t help, it’s time for some diagnostics.

First, check your cables and the lights on our router and/or DSL modem. As I explained in a previous article, you should familiarize yourself with what “normal” looks like for your setup so you know what “not normal” looks like. Power everything off and back on, wait a few moments, and try again.

If it’s a wireless problem you may be able to connect with a wire, and this is a good way to determine if it’s just the wireless or the whole network.

5. You can’t open an attachment.
This almost always means your computer doesn’t know which program to use. You should be able to open anything with a common file type: TXT, DOC, PDF, JPG. But you might receive an attachment created in a program you don’t have. One common example of this is receiving a DOCX file, the new Word format that replaced DOC. If you can’t open DOCX files you either need a plug-in for your word processing program (typically free to download) or the person who created the file needs to resave as DOC.

Once you get the hang of common tech support problems, they waste less of your time.

 

Fake Cleaning Software Leaves You In The Lurch

My article in today’s Northwest Herald talks about fake computer cleaning software scams. Like fake antivirus software, fake cleaning programs are scams trying to trick you into installing them on your computer. They show up in search engine results and are advertised via television, radio, and spam emails. You might even get a phone call urging you to purchase a fake software product. I encourage you to avoid any computer cleaning software unless you are positive it is legitimate.

My two favorite tools are CCleaner for Windows and Snow Leopard Cache Cleaner for Mac (which, despite the name, also works on previous versions of the Mac OS as well). I’m particularly fond of these programs because they work by giving you a convenient way to run the tools already built into your Windows or Mac computer. That makes them safe and reliable.

Of course, before you run any utility that might change your computer system, you should always make at least one backup (preferably two or three to different backup devices). These cleaning programs don’t run all the time like your antivirus software, but you can run them whenever you think your computer might be getting a little slow.

Subscribe free to Tech Tips and receive bonus tips, tricks and product reviews. Click here to subscribe or send email to techtips-request-at-guidryconsulting-dot-com, subject “subscribe”.

Caring For Your New Computer

How can you keep your new computer running as smoothly as it did when you took it out of the box?

The very first thing you should do is install a good security program. As I’ve mentioned, the freebies are no longer enough. You need a robust software suite that includes antivirus, anti-spyware and a firewall. See here for my antivirus recommendations for Windows and Mac.

Next, make sure your computer software is updated to the latest version. Even out of the box, there may be new updates available. For Windows computers, visit update.microsoft.com. Mac users should run Software Updates under the Apple menu.

Windows users should strongly consider installing a browser other than Internet Explorer, such as Mozilla Firefox. You can still use Internet Explorer if you have to, but the alternate should be your default. This will help keep you safe from viruses and spyware.

While you’re setting up your new computer, configure backups at the same time. You can use an external hard drive (most come with automatic backup software) or choose an online option. See here for more information on backups.

Don’t forget to fill out the warranty card for your new computer. Should you buy the extended warranty? That’s up to you. Personally I don’t think it makes sense to spend a lot of money on a warranty for a computer that cost less than $500, but I’d want to protect a more expensive investment.

And, finally, have fun with your new computer!

Subscribe free to Tech Tips and receive bonus tips, tricks and product reviews. Click here to subscribe or send email to techtips-request-at-guidryconsulting-dot-com, subject “subscribe”.

Developing A Disaster Recovery Plan

Are you prepared for a disaster? This checklist will help you assess your plans for home and business.

1) Critical resources
What are your most important resources, and which ones can you do without in a crisis?

2) Backups
What is your backup strategy? Where are your off-site backups located? Do you test your backups to make sure they are valid?

3) Inventory
Do you have a complete and current list of all hardware and software, including serial numbers and documentation?

4) Network and Internet
Do you understand the layout of your network? What is the impact if your connection goes down? Consider alternate options for use in the event of an emergency.

5) Remote Access
Can you work from somewhere other than your primary location? What resources would you need to do so? Evaluate various options to find one that works best for you.

6) Security
What would you do if you had a security incident, such as a virus infection, loss of data, or identity theft? Develop a plan, including resources that can help you.

7) Fire Drills
Test your strategies to verify that they will work in a real-world situation.

Subscribe free to Tech Tips and receive bonus tips, tricks and product reviews. Click here to subscribe or send email to techtips-request-at-guidryconsulting-dot-com, subject “subscribe”.