Internet Safety Resources For Parents And Kids

ttt-logoTalking with your child about Internet safety can seem overwhelming, but there are some excellent resources available to help.

Remember, protecting your kids online starts with protecting your computer from viruses and malware. Teach your kids to use strong, unique passwords, and to avoid oversharing photos and personal information. Monitor the sites your kids visit and the apps and devices they use. Create family rules concerning online time. Encourage your kids to tell you if they encounter anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, such as cyberbullying or inappropriate content.

Here are some of the tools I use when teaching families and schools about online safety.

Basic Computer Security Tips

Parental Controls

Internet Safety For Kids

Internet Safety For Teens

Cyberbullying

Social Media Safety

Cell Phone Safety

More Internet Safety Information For Parents

 

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.

Don’t forget to 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 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!

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 Prevent Or Remove The Windows 10 Upgrade

Just when you think Microsoft won’t stoop any lower in forcing Windows 10 upgrades on its customers, now they’ve started changing the way your computer behaves in order to trick you into accepting the upgrade.

I’m referring to the X or close box in the upper corner of a computer’s dialog window, which is used in many operating systems (not just Windows) to indicate “close” or “cancel”. Until now, that is. Microsoft doesn’t want people to exit out of its overly-persistent Windows 10 upgrade reminder, so it has changed the X in the corner to indicate “accept” instead of “cancel”. You’ll find more details in this article from PC Magazine and this one from Computerworld, and more about Microsoft’s aggressive stance on Windows 10 in Tech Tips posts here and here.

In effect, Microsoft has made it next to impossible for the average nontechnical user to avoid Windows 10.

Please Don’t Turn Off Automatic Updates
As a tech professional I’m appalled that Microsoft would change such a fundamental part of a long-established interface in order to foist its latest operating system onto an unsuspecting public. It goes against all principles of information technology, not to mention customer service.

However, I’m equally concerned that people are turning off automatic updates to avoid Windows 10. I understand why – no one likes having their computer upgraded unexpectedly, without even the chance to make a backup. But turning off your updates also turns off necessary security updates that you need to prevent computer viruses. And, given Microsoft’s tactics, this may not hold Win10 at bay anyhow.

Tools To Prevent Windows 10 From Installing
Fortunately there are tools that can help keep Windows 10 off your computer. The two most popular are GWX Control Panel and Never 10. As always, use any third-party utility at your own risk, and make sure you have a full backup on an external hard drive (not the cloud) before you proceed.

GWX Control Panel offers a wide variety of features including disabling the Windows 10 upgrade notice, preventing the Win10 install, and removing downloaded installer files. Never 10 is ideal for the novice user, providing an easy-to-use interface that uses Microsoft’s own tools to prevent Windows 10 from installing.

Please don’t use some random utility you find in a web search. There are plenty of viruses out there that would love to trick you into downloading them by pretending to be something useful. Always be cautious of malicious lookalike apps!

What To Do If Your Computer Has Already Upgraded To Windows 10
If you find yourself already upgraded to Windows 10, Microsoft offers a one-month window during which you may revert back to Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. You’ll find their instructions here. Again, I recommend making a backup before trying to make any major changes to your computer – you may not want Windows 10, but you probably want your data back if something goes wrong with the downgrade.

If you’re outside that one-month window, you could back up your computer, restore it to its Win7 or Win8.1 factory defaults according to your manufacturer’s instructions, and then install one of the Win10 blockers so it doesn’t try to upgrade again. This may be best done with the help of a tech professional who can guide you through the process or offer other solutions for your specific situation.

This Is Only Delaying The Inevitable
Bear in mind, if you choose to live in a Windows universe, you’ll have to upgrade to the latest version eventually. After a Windows version reaches end of life, it can no longer receive security or antivirus updates and therefore cannot be protected from viruses and Internet threats. Microsoft has information on their end-of-life cycle for Windows here.

More Information On Windows 10 From Tech Tips

What You Need To Know About Windows 10

How To Prepare For A Windows 10 Upgrade

Microsoft Alienates Customers With Forced Windows 10 Upgrades

Security Basics For Windows Users

How To Prepare For A Windows 10 Upgrade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security Basics For Windows Users

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

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

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

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

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

Upgrading From Windows XP and Windows Vista

Tech Tips – Recommended Advice For Windows Users

 

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