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 Create Strong Passwords (2017 Edition)

It’s more important than ever to make sure you’re using strong, unique passwords. Passwords are one of your main defenses against computer viruses, account hijacking, and other Internet threats.

Several major sites have experienced security incidents over the last year. Hacks from years ago are still having repercussions in the present because people keep re-using old passwords. Never re-use passwords! Create passphrases that are at least 12 characters long and different on every site. Use two-factor authentication where available. You’ll find more details on this below.

Why You Need Strong, Unique Passwords

Many people say to me, “I don’t need a secure password. I don’t have anything sensitive on my computer, so I don’t care if a hacker gets in.” You, my friends, are a hacker’s dream. Because it’s not necessarily your personal information they want, although they’ll happily steal your credit card info if they can. No, what they really want is control of your computer, your email address, your Facebook page… anything and everything that will let them do their dirty work from behind a smokescreen.

Selling account details can be a lucrative business. Don’t let complacency make you a target.

Strong passwords must be:

  • Not in use on any other system
    This is perhaps the biggest no-no in the password rulebook. When hackers nab passwords, they try the same account/password combinations on popular sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter. If you’re using the same password you just let them in. Do not ever, ever, ever use the same password anywhere. Before you despair, keep reading. There are tools to make it easier.
  • Changed regularly
    Yes, you have to change your passwords. And yes, they still have to be different everywhere. In fact this is one of the best things you can do to secure your passwords. Use a password management tool if you need help keeping track of everything (see below).
  • 12 characters or longer
    Think passphrase rather than password. The longer and more complex a password is, the less likely it can be cracked. A few sites may not let you use a password as long as 12 characters, so use the longest password you can.
  • A mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols
    Some systems won’t allow you to use a range of characters in your password, in which case I suggest you reconsider using that site. Do you really trust someone who isn’t going to allow you to secure your account properly? Makes you wonder how secure everything else on the site is.
  • Not common words or proper nouns found in a dictionary
    Here’s a list of the 25 worst passwords, updated for 2016. If your passwords sound like these, change them now.
  • Not the names of your spouse, kids, pets, or other personally identifying information
    Don’t create passwords out of information that can be gleaned about you, and don’t share information that can be used to guess security questions. For example, if you have pictures of your dog Fido on Facebook, and you also answer your bank’s security question “What’s your dog’s name?” with “Fido,” guess what? You have just given a hacker potential access to your bank account.

Examples of good and bad passwords

Good passwords (but don’t use these!)

AP@ssw0rdIJustMADE!UP!4U
Here’sAnOtHeR1FOR$You

Bad passwords

password
password1
password!
123456
<blank>
mypassword
spouse’s name
pet’s name

Password Don’ts…

  • Don’t rotate between the same two or three passwords. It’s just as bad as using the same password everywhere.
  • Don’t send passwords via sites like email, Facebook, Twitter. Use another means like text message, which goes directly to the recipient. Or even better, a phone call.
  • Don’t stick passwords on Post-It notes. Whether it’s under the keyboard or on a bulletin board, it’s exposed. Be like Gandalf: Keep it secret, keep it safe.
  • Don’t share passwords and accounts. This is especially prevalent in small businesses. Don’t create one account then share the password; create multiple accounts for each person who needs access. More time consuming? Sure. More secure? You bet.

Tools to manage your secure passwords

With a password management tool such as 1PasswordLastPass, or KeePass, all you have to remember is one master password and the software takes care of the rest. You can use the same password management tool on your computer and on your mobile devices.

Unfortunately any company can be breached by hackers and password management firms are no exception, as was demonstrated by a recent LastPass breach. In other words, passwords stored in management tools can be swept up in data breaches just like any other kind of data.

The good news is that most password managers encrypt your data, so even if hackers get hold of it, they will hopefully be hard-pressed to recover your actual passwords. That being said, you need to safeguard your master password with more vigilance than any other password you use. Please do NOT re-use your master password anywhere else! And be sure to keep another copy of your passwords somewhere safe in case you lose access to your password management tool.

Two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication (2FA) uses a password plus another unique identifier, like a passcode messaged to your phone. This is much safer than a password alone because the second identifier is constantly changing, making it much harder to break into an account. If a site offers 2FA, you should consider using it.

However, 2FA does not make a weak password safe. Your best bet is 2FA plus an excellent password. As with a password manager’s master password, you need to make absolutely sure you have copies of your 2FA backup codes, because that’s what’s going to get you into your account if you have trouble.

Password harvesting scams

Password harvesters are everywhere. For example, you might get a spam email saying you need to update your account. This message contains links to a page that looks like the real login, but it’s really just a fake designed to steal your credentials. Similarly, password-harvesting scams can be distributed via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. When in doubt, type the address for the site into your Web browser manually rather than clicking on a link.

Why not take this opportunity to change your passwords? It’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself against identity theft and cybercrime.

[Originally posted in 2010 as How To Create Secure Passwords. This version has been updated with the latest advice on secure passwords.]

 

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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How To Prepare Your Computer For Reuse, Recycling, Or Donation

ttt-logoWe all need to take responsibility for disposing of our old computers properly. Instead of throwing out old electronics, please consider reusing, donating, or recycling them.

Old computers can have a lot of life left, especially if the hardware is good. However, if the computer can’t run current antivirus or software updates, it’s not suitable for reuse. Many people assume that if they never connect the computer to a network, it will never become infected. But I have seen plenty of “offline” computers that became infected anyway. One quick little login or infected flash drive and it’s all over. Don’t say it won’t happen because it certainly can.

Today’s viruses are so aggressive, it’s not worth the risk to use old computers that can’t be adequately protected. See my Tech Tips article on ransomware to learn more about the increased risks posed by modern viruses.

Before donating your computer, either wipe the drive or reset it to factory defaults following the instructions on your manufacturer’s website. Microsoft and Apple have advice on how to prepare your computer for donation.

Although recycling is far better than throwing your computer in the garbage, the e-waste recycling industry itself has its downsides (see these articles by National Geographic here and here for examples). When recycling your equipment, ask the recycler for more information about where and how they recycle.

Check your local city, village, or county for information on local electronics recycling events. Some manufacturers and resellers also accept old computers for recycling.

Thanks for doing your part to help minimize the problem of electronics waste!

Quick Internet Safety Tips For Kids, Parents, And Teachers

ttt-logoTalking with your child about Internet safety can seem overwhelming, but there are some excellent resources available to help. Here are some of the tools I use when teaching kids, parents, and schools about online safety.

Basic Internet Safety

For Kids (up to age 12)

For Tweens And Teens (ages 12-18)

For Parents

For Teachers And Educators

 

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.

 

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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Security Basics For Mac Users

appleIf you’re not protecting your Mac from Internet threats, your computer can easily be overcome by viruses and malware. But running antivirus isn’t enough. Mac users also need to be just as aware of scams, fake apps, and other Internet dangers as their Windows counterparts. Here are some resources to get you started.

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

Mac Antivirus Programs

Mac Security Help

Tech Tips – Recommended Advice For Mac Users

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

androidWhen was the last time you checked the security preferences on your computer, tablet, or smart phone? Unfortunately, the default security settings for most devices are woefully inadequate, leaving you vulnerable to viruses, malware, and hacking attempts. Here’s more information on how to configure the security and privacy settings for Windows, Mac, iOS (iPhone and iPad), and Android.

(Related article: Don’t Trust The Default Security Settings by Triona Guidry, The Northwest Herald)

Windows 7

Windows 8

Windows 10

Mac (Yosemite aka Mac OS X 10.10)

iOS (iPhone, iPad)

Android

Don’t forget to follow Tech Tips on Facebook and @trionaguidry on Twitter for more computer help for PC and Mac.

How To Protect Your Web Browser

browserYour Web browser lets you access Internet sites, but it can also be a gateway for viruses, malware, and more. Here’s how to keep your browser protected and secure.

(Don’t miss my latest article for The Northwest Herald – Protect Your Window To The Internet by Triona Guidry)

Remember that it’s vital to keep your browser up to date. If you can’t run an updated browser, you may need to consider an alternate browser or even a computer upgrade. Old computers running outdated browsers are holy grails to hackers and virus-writers because they’re so easy to infect. The US-CERT web site has detailed information about how and why you need to protect your Web browser.

Your computer’s default Web browser is Internet Explorer for Windows, and Safari for Mac. Here’s some information about how to secure them. Bear in mind that software manufacturers don’t provide security updates for outdated versions of their browsers, which may be why you don’t see yours here.

Internet Explorer (Microsoft)

Safari (Apple)

Alternate browsers include Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Opera, among others.

Do you have questions about securing your Web browser? Ask in the comments, and don’t forget to follow Tech Tips on Facebook and @trionaguidry on Twitter.