Seven Ways To Fix A Slow Computer

Does your Windows or Mac computer seem to get slower every day? Try these seven techniques to speed up your system.

Reboot your computer
Most people know that rebooting can fix computer problems. What you may not know is that turning off the power by shutting down (called a cold boot) does a better job than simply using the restart command (a warm boot). If you hibernate your computer, you should give it a reboot now and then to clear any sleep-related snafus.

Scan for viruses and malware
Your next troubleshooting step should be to scan for viruses and malware using your usual antivirus program. Remember, some viruses can sneak past your computer’s defenses, which is why it’s important to watch what you click. Preventing viruses is easier than trying to remove them.

Run a cleanup utility
Cleanup utilities take care of little problems before they become big ones. Two of my favorites are CCleaner for Windows and Sierra Cache Cleaner for Mac. Watch out for computer viruses masquerading as cleaning utilities.

Reboot your network
If other devices are also slow, your network may be the culprit. Try rebooting by turning your router and/or modem off, then on again.

Install software updates
Updates fix bugs that can cause computers to slow down or crash. Keeping your computer updated helps to avoid these software bugs and keeps your computer more secure.

Quit apps when not in use
You should always quit apps when you’re not using them. Many people simply click out of the active window but leave the app running, which uses up extra memory and slows down your computer.

Add more memory
You may be able to add more memory to your computer. Check your manufacturer’s web site for configuration options.

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Clean Up Your Computer With These Utilities

ttt-logoEvery computer needs a tune-up now and then. Unfortunately computer viruses often disguise themselves as cleaning programs and other utilities. You think you’re downloading a legitimate program, but you end up infecting your computer instead.

Here are some of my favorite bona fide utilities to help you keep your computer in top condition. I’ve included the full address for each product as a reminder that links, even on a benevolent site like this one, can be hijacked by hackers in order to lead you to malware-infected sites. Always visit the manufacturer’s site or app store directly to download programs, and remember that you use these utilities at your own risk.

Also make sure you are running a reliable antivirus program, that you have current updates for your system installed, and that you have a recent backup. See each utility’s site for more information and support.

Useful Utilities For Windows

  • CCleaner from Piriform
    https://www.piriform.com/ccleaner/download
    This program offers an easy way to clean out temporary files and other cached data. It also has options for optimizing your computer.
  • Malwarebytes
    https://www.malwarebytes.com/
    One of the top products for virus and malware removal. Your regular antivirus program offers routine protection, but Malwarebytes can help you remove the sneakies that manage to infiltrate those defenses.
  • Personal Software Inspector from Flexera Software (formerly Secunia)
    http://www.flexerasoftware.com/enterprise/products/software-vulnerability-management/personal-software-inspector/
    If you’ve been looking for a convenient way to make sure all of your Windows programs are up to date, look no further. PSI scans your system and lets you know which programs need updates or are obsolete. No more wondering if you have the latest versions!

Useful Utilities For Mac

  • El Capitan Cache Cleaner from Northern Softworks
    http://www.northernsoftworks.com/elcapitancachecleaner.html
    This little gem lets Mac users clear out caches and other miscellaneous junk. You can also use it to repair permissions, which can help to mitigate problems, as well as run other optimization routines. Despite the name it also works with previous versions of Mac OS.
  • Apple Diagnostics (Apple Hardware Test) from Apple
    https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT202731
    This hardware testing program is built into your Mac. Restart your Mac, then hold down the D key until the Apple Diagnostics window appears.
  • Disk Utility from Apple
    https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201639
    This is another built-in tool that helps you diagnose and repair hard drive problems. You’ll find it in the Utilities folder in the Applications folder on your Macintosh HD.

 

Ransomware: A Dangerous Threat To Your Computer

Computer SecurityRansomware is a particularly nasty form of computer virus that encrypts your data, then demands an electronic ransom for the encryption key. Why is ransomware so hazardous, and how can you remove it?

Ransomware is vicious because it doesn’t just render your computer unusable. It encrypts all of your files, including those on networked computers, removable drives, and server volumes. To get the key to unlock the encryption, cyber-criminals demand that you pay. Ransomware has decimated businesses and consumers alike. It’s been around on Windows for ages (see my writeup of Cryptolocker from a few years ago), but recently the first Mac-based ransomware has appeared in the wild.

Should You Pay?
There’s some debate amongst computer security experts as to whether it is better to pay the ransom or not. Sophos’ Naked Security blog has a good overview of the discussion. They also have an excellent article on what you can do if you are infected by ransomware.

How To Avoid Ransomware
You are far better off avoiding ransomware in the first place. Start by making sure you have multiple sets of known good backups. A clean backup is one of your best protections against ransomware and other viruses. Below you’ll find my guide on backup options for Windows and Mac, including how to test your backups to make sure they work when you need them.

All of my usual security recommendations apply as well. Use a top-quality antivirus program, and keep your computer up to date. If you’re on an obsolete version of Windows or Mac, now’s the time to upgrade. Check your default security settings, and use strong, unique passwords on every site.

Here are some Tech Tips articles to help. You can also sign up to receive Tech Tips by email and follow Tech Tips on Facebook for the latest tech support advice for Windows and Mac.

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

How To Create Strong Passwords (2016 Edition)

How To Configure Security Settings For Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android

Security Basics For Mac Users

How To Protect Your Web Browser

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.

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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

 

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

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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What To Do If Your Computer Is Hacked

A hacked computer is an IT nightmare come to life. What would you do if your computer was hacked? What should you do?

Step 0: Is Your Computer Really Hacked?
This article describes what to do if your computer is hacked – infiltrated by a virus or overcome by scam software. But it might not be your computer that was hacked.

  • If people are getting weird emails from you, then your email is hacked. Here’s what to do if your email account is hijacked.
  • If you can’t get into a certain account (email, Facebook, Twitter) then either there’s something wrong with your password, or possibly that account has been hacked – see above.
  • If your computer is misbehaving, it may simply be having a temper tantrum. (They do. Trust me.) That’s not a hack attempt, it’s a tech support problem. Here are some suggestions.

Let’s assume it really is your computer that’s been hacked. Now what?

Step 1: How Badly Were You Hacked?
Define “hacked.” Your computer could have been infiltrated by a virus, a worm, a Trojan horse, a keylogger, a rootkit, scareware, malware, adware… These are all different types of attacks with different purposes, meaning there are greater and lesser degrees of infection.

When I see a computer that has a couple of pieces of adware on it, I don’t worry. I clean it up, make sure there’s decent antivirus installed and all the software is current, and call it a good day.

When I see a computer infected by a program that is monitoring every single keystroke, I back up the data, reformat the computer, and start from scratch. I don’t like keyloggers. I don’t like viruses that stealth around in the background. I don’t like unwanted programs that call home with MY data.

Step 2: Damage Control
Run scans, starting with your usual antivirus program. Windows users also want to run free Malwarebytes which can catch anything your antivirus misses. Mac users, give the free Sophos Mac Antivirus a try.

What you do in Step 4 will depend on what your scans find. In the meantime…

Step 3: Find Your Backups
I didn’t say make a backup. It’s too late for that; the backup will be infected. Don’t bother unless you have live data on the infected computer that you absolutely can’t afford to lose. (And if you’re in this unfortunate position, you’ll never fail to have a current backup again.)

Step 4: Removal
By now your scans from Step 2 are done and you have an idea what’s happening. From a UNinfected device, do a Web search on some of the viruses that have been identified. This will tell you where they rank on a scale from minor inconvenience to major calamity.

There is no way to confirm if a computer is free of viruses. I don’t care what any virus removal tool says. You can be 99% confident, but not 100%. When in doubt, reformat. It’s a pain but better than having a computer that keeps reinfecting itself. Remember, a virus can regenerate if even the tiniest portion of itself is left behind.

You can do a Web search if you need a removal tool for a particular virus – but remember, viruses often hide behind malicious links to fake removal tools for those same viruses. Sneaky, huh?

Step 5: Keep Watch
By now you should be relatively confident that your computer isn’t hacked anymore – but you have to keep watch to make sure.

Sometimes computers have problems after being infected, even if the viruses have been removed. Viruses can cause legitimate programs on your computer to crash – after all, it’s not like the virus-writers care if their software is compatible. Viruses often corrupt your system software, another reason why reformatting is often the best option.

If you didn’t reformat but your computer won’t behave, you may have to go through with the refomat after all. It’s the only way to get a clean copy of your operating system.

This same process applies to any hacked device, from servers to iPads: assess the threat, then either choose cleanup or start from scratch.

Ever had your computer hacked? What’s the one thing you wish you had known? Share in the comments!

 

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.

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