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 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

 

Six Things Every PC User Needs To Know About Windows 8.1

Windows81The new Windows 8.1 affects you, even if you’re still using previous versions of Windows. Here’s what you need to know about the upgrade.

First Rule of Windows 8.1: There Is No Start Menu
Microsoft’s been shouting it from the rooftops: “The Start button’s back! The Start button’s back!” Except that doesn’t mean what you think it means.

What Windows 8.1 does is stick a Start button in the lower left corner, which brings up the new Start screen – not to be confused with the old Start menu you’re probably looking for. Dizzy yet? To make matters worse, not all applications will support the returned Start button, meaning it’s less of a fix than a kludge. A Start button that isn’t always present is as confusing as a Start button that’s missing entirely, if not more so.

Second Rule Of Windows 8.1: The New Look Is Here To Stay
Regardless of what they’ve done with the Start buttonmenuscreen, the Windows 8 interface (which I would call “Metro” except Microsoft says we’re not supposed to call it that anymore) is the future of Windows. So don’t expect Windows 8.1, or any other update, to restore your computer to yesteryear. The new look and feel is here to stay, and it’s time to get used to it if you intend to stay in the Microsoft world.

Third Rule Of Windows 8.1: Say Goodbye To Your Keyboard And Mouse
Windows 8 is made for tablets. In fact, many of us are still trying to figure out why Microsoft thinks a tablet interface is a good idea in a PC environment. If you don’t have a touch interface, it’s klunky to use – in other words if you’re one of the 99.99999% who still have a keyboard and mouse, which is SO 2012, PEOPLE.

Fourth Rule Of Windows 8.1: You Need It, Unless You Like Viruses
If history is any indication, expect Windows 8.1 to become the only acceptable version of Windows as far as being able to fix problems or install updates. Doesn’t matter if you want it or not, eventually you’ll have to install it or your computer is guaranteed to become a writhing infestation of identity-stealing viruses and malware.

This means you, Windows XP people – you need to upgrade. Now. I don’t care if you go Win7 or Win8, either is better than what you’re using now. Don’t wait until your computer is unusable, your financial data stolen, your accounts hacked, and your personal information spread across the Internet.

Fifth Rule Of Windows 8.1: It’s Not That Bad And In Some Ways Good
If it weren’t for the klunky interface and the lack of training for the average consumer (you know, the people for whom it’s purportedly designed), I would like Windows 8.

It’s fast. It’s powerful. It doesn’t take up a ton of memory (looking at YOU, WinME), doesn’t throttle your processor (Windows Vista), doesn’t cause incompatibilities with every single piece of hardware you own (Windows 95).

So, yes, it’s a technically superior operating system. So was OS/2 Warp, only it wasn’t widely used because it was hamstrung by a lack of apps and a failure to educate people on how to use it. Ironic that Microsoft may be following the same road to ruin decades later.

Sixth Rule Of Windows 8.1: You’re On Your Own Learning It (But I’ll Help!)
Microsoft has information online, but you have to hunt for it – using an unfamiliar touch-swipe interface, unless you happen to have another device handy, and doesn’t that eliminate the point? It’s no wonder many businesses have decided to hold off on upgrading. I don’t know why Microsoft has such blinders on when it comes to understanding that your average, everyday person needs to be able to use this without spending the entire morning trying to figure out how to accomplish a task.

To that end, here are some resources to get you started with Windows 8:

And don’t forget to follow Tech Tips for the latest on Windows 8, Mac, and more:

Once again we come to the age-old dilemma: Do you put up with the new features for the sake of security? If I were you, I would either a) get on Windows 7 ASAP, b) get on Windows 8 ASAP, or c) pick another platform (Mac? tablet? phablet?) because the Windows 8 train has left the station and anybody who didn’t jump on board is going to get run over eventually by viruses, malware, and other Internet scum.

What do you think about Windows 8? Love it? Hate it? Cowering in a corner hugging your Timex-Sinclair and dreaming of punchcards? Share in the comments!

 

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

How To Prepare Your Computer For Recycling Or Donation

computer-recycleIf you have old computers and cell phones lying around, you’re not alone. Many of us hang onto old devices because we don’t know what to do with them. Sure, we want to donate or recycle, but what about the data?

Here’s how to erase your computers, cell phones, and tablets prior to donation or recycling. Don’t forget printers, copiers, and fax machines too! You can find more details on e-waste and e-cycling on the EPA’s web site.

Warning: This article presumes that you’ve either backed up or don’t need the data on the device. Make sure you have everything you need before you do this!

Computers

If you’re recycling you can simply format the drive. Try DBAN for Windows to erase your hard drive thoroughly. Mac users can use their Apple system software utilities.

If you’re donating, presumably you want to present a usable computer with an operating system on it. In that case you’ll want to do a factory reinstall from the original disks or hard drive partition. Check your manufacturer’s instructions for details on how to restore to the original factory software. This turns your computer back into what it was when you bought it, without your personal data.

When in doubt, you can always remove the hard drive and smash it to pieces.

Smart phones and tablets

First, delete all contact, calendar, and other private data. For both tablets and smart phones, perform a factory reset to zap any remaining data. If it’s a phone, remove the SIM card (check your manufacturer’s instructions).

Printers, scanners, copiers, and fax machines

Computers and phones aren’t the only devices that keep a record of your data. Fax machines and copiers do too, and even some printers and scanners (usually the big fancy ones). Check the manufacturer’s instructions on how to perform a power reset or factory reset. Afterwards go into the printer’s configuration settings and make sure no private data remains.

Where can I donate or recycle?

The EPA has a web site with information on where you can recycle or donate your used equipment. Check with your local schools, libraries, and charitable organizations. You never know if your used computer might fill a need right in your own community.

Bear in mind that these techniques may still result in recoverable data, if someone tries hard enough. It’s always best to double-check. You can also reformat multiple times to reduce this risk.

Do you have questions about how to recycle or donate your computer? Ask in the comments, and 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

Tech Support Phone Scams Hit Home

cybercrime-laptopWhat would you do if a stranger called out of the blue and offered to fix your computer over the Internet – for a price?

I hope your scam detector’s going off because cybercriminals don’t limit themselves to online methods of duping their victims. In my tech column in this month’s The Northwest Herald I talk about tech support phone scams, in which the bad guys pretend to be Microsoft or other reputable companies. From the article:

 My neighbor was lucky. This particular scammer was clumsy on the bait and switch, but you can’t always count on that. Some scammers are so slick they’ll convince you that you’re talking to your own mother. They take advantage of those who aren’t tech savvy by using jargon and playing into our fears.

Tech support scams aren’t new. Con artists will try everything from pop-up windows to spam emails to fake search engine ads, but they also employ offline methods like phone calls, snail mail, and faxes. Everyone is a target, as this random call to my neighbor shows.

If you’re interested, here are a couple of articles from Ars Technica about tech support phone scams, which will give you a feel for how the scammers operate.

If you need tech support, go directly to the source, whether it’s Microsoft or Apple or Dell or HP or whoever. And of course you can always come over to Tech Tips if you have computer questions. Here are some other Tech Tips articles that might help if you’re in a crisis:

Have you gotten a phony tech support call? What did you do? 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 chanpipat / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Readers Ask: Sending DOCX Files To Macs, Troubleshooting Slow Web Sites, Choosing New Computer Hardware

computer-booksI’ve been talking with Fr. Jack Sweeley about whether he should move to Windows 7, Windows 8, or a Mac. After our initial discussion, he had some followup questions, which I am posting with his permission:

Thank you so much, Triona. This is very helpful. However, I have a few questions.

1. As I stated, I have several books written and others in process as well a hundreds of commentaries all written with Word using VISTA. Will I be able to open and edit these on a Mac?

2. From time-to-time I have sent documents I have written to someone who at that time had a Mac and they told me they could not open what I sent written in WORD on a PC. Is this still the case?

3. Contrarily, will I be able to open documents sent to me in WORD using a Windows PC on a Mac?

4. RE Macs: Could you give me comparisons between hard drive space on a Mac v. PC (is a gig a gig on both), for processing speeds what are the terms used and are they the same for a Mac and a PC, what are the terms used for memory and are they the same for a Mac and a PC?

5. What amount of HD space, processing speed, and memory do I need to do what I described in my original letter? I am impatient and go crazy having to wait for Websites to load especially when I have 8-10 sites open at the same time.

6. I know a little about the landscape of PCs and once I know what parameters I am looking for I can find one. However, I have never even looked at a Mac to say nothing about being able to compare them. So, could you cite different kinds of Macs–with their price ranges for what I need–and the pros and cons of each.

Let’s look at Fr. Jack’s needs and see how we can help him.

Opening Word For Windows .DOC and .DOCX Files On Macs

wordmacYes, you can open Word documents, both .doc and .docx, on a Mac. Apple’s word processor Pages (paid; via App Store) can open both but saves in its own proprietary .pages format. NeoOffice (donationware, www.neooffice.org) can also open both .doc and .docx but again, it saves in its own .odt format. You can spring for Microsoft Office for Mac (paid; via Microsoft), which is the most expensive option but can handle Word .doc and .docx files without conversion.

The person to whom you sent the Word file may not have had a recent Mac word processing program, or did not have Microsoft’s free .docx converter installed. You can either make sure all Word files are saved as .doc and not .docx (.docx is default from Word 2007 onwards), or make sure the recipient can convert .docx. Don’t go looking online for free converters, use the genuine ones from Microsoft to avoid viruses.

For the most part, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files can be used interchangably between PCs and Macs. The main exception is if you have code in Visual Basic (VBA) or custom macros not supported by the Mac. Everyday documents work fine, and on the rare occasions they don’t, the one-time installation of a converter tool usually fixes the problem.

Now, if you have print-ready files, a Word document just is not a proper layout tool. Better to save final drafts to PDF which will keep the pagination you want. Professionals do document layout with industry standard tools like Adobe InDesign and Quark.

When it comes to file types and permanent storage – as in, stuff you want to keep longer than the software program that created it – I am a fan of good old RTF, or rich text format. It’s a universal file type that allows formatting like bold and italic but can still be opened by nearly every word processor past, present, and likely future.

Choosing A New PC Or Mac

question-computerA gig is a gig is a gig – 1,024 megabytes, sometimes rounded off as 1,000MB. So yes, hard drive sizes are consistent across Mac and PC hardware. Processing speeds are harder to compare. You can go digging across the Internet for all sorts of bench tests, but you’re better off comparing PCs to PCs and Apples to, well, Apples.

Typically a sub-$500 PC is not going to be worth the cost. In my experience they fail more quickly and catastrophically than more expensive models. A midline PC, in the $700-1,000 range, offers better and faster hardware. Laptops will be more expensive than desktops, and bear in mind that if you choose Windows 8, you’re going to want a screen with touchy-swipey capability for the best experience. That is, assuming you can find one; it’s not available for every model.

Macs may cost more, but in my experience they also make up for the price difference by outlasting their PC counterparts in the long run.

Troubleshooting Slow Web Sites

slowWaiting for web sites to load may be a function of your network connection and not your computer. Or, if your computer is gummed up with adware and malware, you’ll notice the drag particularly when using the Internet. For optimum speed you need to use a modern operating system – Windows 8, Mac, or Windows 7 as long as Microsoft deigns to support it – because you need to use a modern browser.

Your web browser is your window to the Internet. That means it’s also a vulnerable point. If your software is out of date, your connection will seem slow or you’ll be unable to load pages or images. The older the browser, the slower the connection, until you finally throw your hands in the air and buy a new computer. This is another reason it’s good to keep your software up to date, it’ll stave off that new computer moment as long as possible.

If you don’t know which browser you use, you’re probably using the default for your system. Common browsers as of this writing are as follows, but this information changes rapidly. Your best bet is to use the “check for updates” feature of the program to find the current version for your computer.

Windows 7 and 8

Mac

Note: there is no current Internet Explorer for Mac. If you’re still using the old versions, switch now!

Choosing A Mac Model

choose-appleThe easiest way to see the available Macs is to pop over to the Apple store: store.apple.com. They have a clickable list in the Mac section which shows the Mac model options.

In my experience, you are almost always better off opting for an iMac or a Macbook Pro than trying to cut corners with a Mac Mini. For one thing, you have to factor in the cost of the screen, and for another the Mini really doesn’t have the oomph for what most people want. You don’t have to go nuts on one of those bigger, expensive tower Macs. Those are usually purchased by designers and video experts who need the extra processing power and expandability.

When configuring a Mac using the Apple Store tool, get the fastest processor and best graphics you can for the model you want. You can always add more memory or a larger hard drive later, but with an iMac or Macbook you’re stuck with whatever processor and graphics card it has. You can go Macbook Air instead of Macbook Pro but remember you’re sacrificing processor speed for a lightweight form factor.

Apple Store has a nice comparison tool to help you make the choice.

Finding Discounts On Macs

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention you can look for discounts on warrantied refurbished Macs on Apple’s site. You can also find discounts at Mac retailers like Mac Mall and OWC. A good time to buy is right after Apple announces new hardware; you can get a discount on older models that still have solid tech specs. (Insider’s tip: Apple usually has events in the spring and fall; the next one will be in March 2013.) If you’re an educator or student, be sure to check out Apple’s education discount. Many colleges and universities have deals through the campus computer store.

Ask Your Computer Questions On Tech Tips!

Do you have a computer problem? Leave a comment and let the Tech Tips community help. Your question could appear in a future Tech Tips article!

Image courtesy of (1) ddpavumba (2) Danilo Rizzuti (3) Idea go (4) Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net