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.

 

How To Protect Your Privacy On Social Media Sites Like Facebook And Twitter

socialmediaWhen was the last time you checked the privacy settings on your social media accounts? Once? Twice? Never? If you don’t check periodically, you run the risk of having your account hijacked by hackers.

Related article: Strong passwords key to social media privacy by Triona Guidry (The Northwest Herald)

What do you mean by “social media”?

Sites primarily used as a means of mass communication: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr… You could also think of them as virtual communities, each with different rules and tendencies.

Why should I bother securing my social media accounts?

Because having your account hijacked stinks. At best, it’s inconvenient to reset your passwords and notify your friends. At worst, it results in data loss, identity theft, and financial ruin.

But aren’t these sites private?

Nope. They have privacy settings, most of which aren’t on by default. But anyone can sign up on these sites, and anyone can pretend to be anyone else on them. They’re designed to share information, not keep it private. Which is why the idea of people sharing their entire life stories and that of their kids gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies. Social media sites aren’t private photo albums and diaries. They’re publicly-accessible news sites (and data aggregators for advertisers).

Why do hackers want to hijack me?

In short: money. Cybercrime is a multi-billion dollar global industry. With economies tanking and people out of work, the idea of making tons of cash through Internet scams is hard to resist. Through commandeering your account, cybercriminals sell everything from Internet pharmaceuticals to fake antivirus programs to Twitter followers using your hijacked identity. It’s the go-to crime of the 21st Century.

Should everyone protect their social media accounts?

Yes. Absolutely. There’s no excuse not to.

How can I protect my social media accounts?

Use strong passwords that are unique on every site

Double-check your privacy settings

Report fake followers and inappropriate content

Verify links before sharing

Do you have questions about securing your social media account? Ask 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.

 

How To Secure Your Web Browser

Did you know that most viruses sneak onto your computer through your Web browser? Here’s how you can secure your Internet surfing experience.

First, some basic safety tips. You’ll want to look through these before you proceed.

Then, take a look at your Web browser(s) with the following advice in mind.

Related Article: Eight Tips For Safer Web Browser Searching by Triona Guidry (The Northwest Herald)

How To Clear Your Web Browser’s Cache

How To Activate Your Web Browser’s Privacy Controls

Do you have questions about securing your Web browser? Ask 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

 

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

 

Adobe’s Moved Creative Suite Exclusively To The Cloud. Is This Good Or Bad?

cc-toolsAdobe has announced that, from now on, the only way to get Creative Suite is via the cloud. That’s right, no more boxed versions of CS – you get it via the Internet or no Photoshop or Illustrator for you. Many people are wondering how this is going to work in the real world, myself included.

Related article: The Register: Adobe kills Creative Suite – all future features online only

I’ll preface this by noting that I’ve worked with graphic designers throughout my career, and do web design myself. These are tools I use, so I’m more than a little concerned about what this is going to entail. I have my doubts as to whether making CS exclusively cloud is such a great idea.

I can’t help but think of all the graphic designers I know who are still using older versions of CS, either because they can’t afford to upgrade their computers or because they have client requirements that can only be met with older versions.

Bear in mind, a graphic designer’s computer is not a $500 PC. (Or, it shouldn’t be.) Most of them use Macs because it’s the standard in graphic design. Yes, Macs are more expensive, but in my experience they last longer than those bargain basement PCs. Those who use PCs use the super-high-end models. Why? Because that’s the kind of processing power you need if you’re doing 3D rendering or serious layout.

But graphic designers are poor sods like the rest of us who can’t afford to buy a new computer every five seconds. This means there are a ton of graphic designers out there with slightly or more-than-slightly obsolete computers using old versions of Adobe CS to make a living.

They need those boxed versions of CS. If their computers die, they can’t just go buy a new one. Maybe they have to scrape up the money for a new hard drive and pray the computer holds together until they get paid for their current gig. Maybe they have this one client who absolutely refuses to use anything but Photoshop 6 and insists upon files in that format – and they’d love to tell this particular client to jump out a window only it’s their most lucrative contract and they need to pay rent.

Similarly, I know a lot of graphic designers whose Internet connections are far from always-on. Have you heard about the PR gaffe about Microsoft Xbox and the always-on connection? I happen to live relatively near Janesville, Wisconsin (the town mentioned in Microsoft’s PR gaffe) and there are plenty of people around here who do not have reliable Internet access.

If Adobe CS is cloud-only, what happens to graphic designers if their Internet connection dies? Because right now, if their Internet connections are down they can still Photoshop all they like and send files to their clients on CD, if it really comes down to it.

Now, if you read Adobe’s FAQ they make it clear you can use your software offline. But personally, I don’t trust that. They don’t even call it Creative Suite anymore – it’s Creative Cloud. What if there’s some special filter you need that they decide to make online only? What if your licensing gets screwed up and you need the connection to re-enable the software? I’m sure the graphic designers out there can tell you the number of times they’ve had to contact Adobe to fix licensing issues. Let me put it this way… it’s enough of a problem that Adobe has a Licensing Repair Tool.

I can tell you what it’s like to have software that requires the Internet for full functionality because, putting on my gamer hat for a moment, I have a video game I play (Might & Magic Heroes VI) that Ubisoft REALLY REALLY wants you to play online. You can play it offline, but you’re prohibited from using certain spells or abilities. In other words if you want to play offline you have to put up with a limited version. This could quite easily happen to Creative Suite, if it hasn’t already.

(May I note that Ubisoft just had a major outage that prevented Might & Magic Heroes VI fans from using the program? Didn’t affect me. I play offline.)

I’m also concerned about costs of Creative Suite… er, Cloud. On the face of it, $50 a month seems reasonable compared to $1,500-$3,000+ for upgrades or new versions, right? Well… maybe, until they start upselling. How soon does this become like in-app purchases? You get the basic game free but if you want to be able to play more than a crippled edition you have to buy the in-game purchases. Will $50 a month become $50 a month plus $20 for these filters and $15 for those filters and $25 to be able to export to a particular file type?

Okay, my graphic design peeps, sing out: What do you think of Adobe’s decision to move CS exclusively to the cloud? Will you be grabbing a boxed copy of CS6 while they last? Reply 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.

 

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

Hands-On With The BlackBerry Z10

z10I recently spent some quality time with the new BlackBerry Z10. The Z10 is a lightweight, keyboardless smart phone… wait, a keyboardless BlackBerry? How does that work? Let’s find out.

The Z10 has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor with 2GB of RAM and a 4.2-inch 1,280-by-768 LCD display at 356 pixels per inch. It’s sized about the same as an iPhone, 5.1 by 2.6 by .35 inches, weighing 4.8 ounces.

Related article: Review: Will the new Z10 save BlackBerry? by Triona Guidry (The Northwest Herald)

The Unboxing

First, we have to install the battery. Fortunately the Z10′s case is a snap to open, no finger-mashing required. Once that’s done the unit launches into a setup wizard that talks you through a brief configuration process. It also gives you the basics of the Z10′s swipes and gestures.

I like to evaluate new products from the perspective of a brand-new user. How do you figure out how it works? What resources are available to help? In the case of the Z10, the learning curve is short and sweet. Swipe to the Hub for notifications, swipe to your apps to launch them. The Z10 reminds you with helpful glowing arrows if, for example, you forget you have to swipe from the bottom up to unlock your phone.

The Z10′s Software Keyboard

Instead of physical keyboard, the Z10 comes with a software keyboard which is responsive enough that you might forget it’s not physical. Predictive completion learns as you type, so your phone quickly becomes customized to your preferences. In other words, it’s still a BlackBerry even with a software keyboard. Weird but true.

BlackBerry 10

The Z10 runs BlackBerry’s signature BlackBerry 10 software, which has received rare accolades from the tech industry. It’s not hard to see why. BB10 is sleek and intuitive, giving you a no-frills environment that lets you get the job done with minimal interference. However, that easy of use comes at the cost of customization. This isn’t Android; you can’t just arrange your icons any old way you like. But die-hard BlackBerry fans will be pleased.

Features, Functions, And Apps

Unfortunately you’re not going to find as many apps for BlackBerry as for iOS and Android. BlackBerry’s app store simply hasn’t been around long enough yet, so you might find yourself waiting (and wondering) if your favorite apps will be released for it.

The Z10′s Help section rocks. It’s well-organized and helps you find everything you need to know, which is vital considering that this phone is brand new to the market. I especially liked the prominent Passwords & Security section which can help you protect your phone.

Related article: Tools To Protect Your Smart Phone From Malware

Conclusions

The Z10 is a decent entry into the smart phone arena, but BlackBerry has a steep climb ahead as it struggles to catch up to its competitors.

What do you think? Can BlackBerry woo its CrackBerry addicts back into the fold or has the company lost too much momentum? 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.

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