Ways To Improve Your Wireless Network Signal

ttt-logoIf you’ve ever suffered from slow WiFi, you’re not alone. But there are a number of easy things you can do to try to speed up your wireless network.

The most common wireless problem I encounter is poor access point placement. Wireless access points should be placed as high as possible, such as on a bookshelf, and away from sources of interference like speakers and landline phones.

Building construction is also a factor. Try moving your computer in relation to the access point. If possible, line-of-sight gives best performance.

If you have an older wireless router, consider replacing it. The newer devices have improved speeds and are better at resisting interference. Similarly, older computers will be slower on wireless networks.

Make sure it’s a wireless problem and not an overall network problem. If you’re still experiencing slowness when you plug in your computer manually, it’s not just the wireless. Try rebooting your router and/or modem according to your Internet provider’s instructions. Using a surge protector will prevent equipment damage due to brownouts or blackouts.

If there is a virus infestation on your network, this can also cause a slowdown as the virus tries to call home to its command servers. Run antivirus scans on all computers, and be especially wary of ransomware.


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

Top Five Computer Nightmares, And How To Fix Them

Since the 1980s I’ve been fixing computers that won’t start up, won’t print, or can’t find files. The Internet adds an extra level of complexity, but we’re still facing the same basic tech support problems.

1. Your computer won’t start up.
There are three possibilities: your computer isn’t getting any power, it can’t find the hard drive, or there’s something wrong with your system software. The latter is by far the most common, and may be the result of a virus, a program conflict, or just bad luck.

First, try powering your computer down. If it doesn’t start up, follow the prompts on the screen. But don’t expect your PC to work properly in Safe Mode, which is meant as a diagnostic tool only. Once you’re in you need to find what caused the error and fix it. Likely suspects are new programs or devices. Run your virus scanner not just once, but several times. If your startup failure is caused by a virus you may need a tool like Malwarebytes to get rid of it completely. Reboot several times to make sure things are working, and make an immediate backup (but don’t overwrite the old one in case you still need it).

2. You can’t print.
Once again, three possibilities: the printer has no power, it’s not connected to the computer, or there’s a software error. Let’s assume you’ve tried rebooting and you’ve checked the cables. If you’ve printed successfully in the past, then it’s probably a problem with the software or file. Try a different file as well as a different program. You can look up any error messages or misbehavior on the printer’s support site. As a last resort you can unplug your printer, remove its software, and reinstall according to manufacturer instructions.

3. Your data is missing.
The default directory for Windows XP files is My Documents. In Vista and Windows 7 it’s Documents, as it is for Mac users. But this is just the default location; files can be saved almost anywhere. If your file or folder isn’t where you expect, try searching for it by name or date.

What if all your data is gone? If your desktop also looks different, you may be logged in under the wrong account. Check under the Start menu in Windows or the Apple menu on a Mac to see your login name.

In the previous case the data was simply misplaced. What if it really is gone? The sooner you try to recover a file, the better your chances of success, although it’s far easier to recover from a backup. In truly grim situations you might have to send your drive to a data recovery service.

4. You can’t get on the Internet.
Sometimes it’s not your Internet connection, just one specific program. But if none of your Internet applications are working and a reboot doesn’t help, it’s time for some diagnostics.

First, check your cables and the lights on our router and/or DSL modem. As I explained in a previous article, you should familiarize yourself with what “normal” looks like for your setup so you know what “not normal” looks like. Power everything off and back on, wait a few moments, and try again.

If it’s a wireless problem you may be able to connect with a wire, and this is a good way to determine if it’s just the wireless or the whole network.

5. You can’t open an attachment.
This almost always means your computer doesn’t know which program to use. You should be able to open anything with a common file type: TXT, DOC, PDF, JPG. But you might receive an attachment created in a program you don’t have. One common example of this is receiving a DOCX file, the new Word format that replaced DOC. If you can’t open DOCX files you either need a plug-in for your word processing program (typically free to download) or the person who created the file needs to resave as DOC.

Once you get the hang of common tech support problems, they waste less of your time.


Five Ways To Fix Your Internet Connection

We’ve all been there. You’ve got something vital to do, you click on your Web browser and… nothing. Hourglass. Spinning beachball. Page Not Found.

Never fear, many Internet problems are easily repaired. Here are my top five ways to fix your Internet connection.

  1. Reboot your computer. It’s possible your computer is simply misbehaving itself, in which case a reboot will clear up the problem. This is especially true if other computers on your network are still able to see the Internet.
  2. Reboot your network. Turn off your computer(s), your router, and your DSL or cable modem. Leave them off about thirty seconds, then turn them back on in reverse order waiting a minute or two between devices.
  3. Examine the blinky lights. The lights on modems and routers give you lots of good info. You should jot down what they look like when they’re working so you can recognize when they’re not. Typically you’ll have a steady green Power light, a flickering Activity or LAN light, and a green light for the Internet (might be called WAN or DSL). You may have other lights depending on your device. Check your manufacturer’s Web site for manuals that will explain which lights should be steady, which should flicker, and which may turn amber or red if there’s an error.
  4. Check the cables. You’d be surprised the number of times a simple loose wire is the culprit. Shut down your computer and check all the cords coming out of it, as well as all the cords coming out of your router and modem. Unplug each and plug it back in, but be sure to put it back in the same place!
  5. Is the Internet light out? If the Internet or DSL light is out, the problem is likely with your service provider. You should contact their support and have them test to see if your connection is active.

If you like I can help you document your setup on my next service visit. I’ll show you what the lights on your router represent, and I’ll label your wires in case you need to unplug them in the future.

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Solve Problems By Replacing Your Old Router

routerIf your Internet connection is slow or unreliable, it may be due to an old router.

Routers that are more than a few years old predate current network technologies. While these old routers may still work, they often don’t work at peak efficiency, and may even make your connection so intermittent as to be unusable. Replacing them can be an inexpensive way to improve your Internet performance.

I have also seen this problem with old cable and DSL modems. If you contact your Internet provider they will tell you if your modem is still supported. The trick is, you have to ask; they will not be proactive in contacting you to let you know your modem is out of date, and they may not recognize the cause if you call to report problems.

A new router can also improve your network security, as the latest consumer devices now include firewall technologies previously available only on more expensive business-class models. If you have an older wireless router (wireless B or G), upgrading to a wireless N device can boost your speed. While you’re at it, you should check your network cables to make sure they’re still good quality.

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Smart Phone Security

We’re all familiar with computer security, but when was the last time you thought about security for your smart phone? With the amount of confidential data carried on these devices, security is something to consider.

Viruses can and do propagate via smart phones, although the effect is mitigated because viruses usually can’t travel between different types of phones. Even so, you might want to consider antivirus software for your phone.

Physical security is another concern. You should use your phone’s options to set passwords to protect your data. Some phones come with encryption features. It goes without saying that you should always have a backup of any data on your phone in case it is lost, stolen or broken.

Other ways you can protect your phone include turning off Bluetooth and/or WiFi when you’re not using them, to prevent unauthorized access. Bear in mind that using a unsecured public WiFi hotspot from your phone is just as risky as doing so from your computer.

Most phones allow you to clear memory and cache of potentially sensitive data. Some also have a setting that will erase all data after a specified number of incorrect password attempts. While no security measures are perfect, these tips will help you reduce the risks.

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Troubleshooting Wireless Networks

We’ve all experienced wireless networking hell. Connections that come and go, passwords that don’t work… what’s a poor computer user to do? Here’s how to troubleshoot your wireless connection.
If you’re having trouble with signal strength, check for interference. Something as simple as a monitor, speaker, microwave oven or cordless phone (the 2.4Ghz ones, especially) can wreak havoc. Try moving your wireless access point around until you get a better signal, and make sure the antenna is perpendicular to gravity. Even the heating in your house can interfere if you have copper coils that provide heat through the floor. It’s also important to note that older wireless access points are more susceptible to interference. Our old friend the little blue Linksys box (model WRT54G) is particularly known for this. You may want to consider upgrading to a newer access point with better resistance and a boosted antenna.
I always recommend that you set a passphrase to access your wireless network. There are several options for this, but the best is WPA (or WPA2 if your equipment supports it). But what if your passphrase doesn’t work? Try disconnecting and reconnecting your access point or, if that doesn’t work, resetting power. If all else fails or you’ve forgotten your passphrase, you’ll need to reset your wireless access point to factory defaults. This will mean reconfiguring according to your manufacturer’s instructions. I recommend that you change the default password afterward, because the first thing someone trying to sneak onto your wireless network will do is try the well-known default administrator password. Then you can set your passphrase and reconnect from your computer.
Don’t forget to subscribe to Tech Tips (free!) for the latest computer news. In August I’ll present my 2009 Parental Control Software Review.

Shame On Linksys For Plain-Text Passwords

I was minding my own business, installing a wireless router for a client, when Linksys gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies.

At first I was pleased with the latest Linksys/Cisco installer. It’s become common knowledge that wireless routers aren’t secure out of the box, but what isn’t widely known is how to configure them correctly. So the wireless makers have been improving the install process to help folks secure their wireless networks. The installer for the Linksys WRT110 walks you through password-protecting first the router itself, then the wireless network. Nice, I thought, until I got to the last screen…

Heebie-jeebies! Bad enough to display those passwords right there on the screen, but saving them by default to a text file on the desktop?! Text files are like candy to viruses, easy to devour. How soon before some malcontent writes a virus that searches for those text files? Hackers already scan the wireless networks of hapless users, hoping to get in with a default password. Saving plain text files of passwords is like leaving the code to the burglar alarm on the front door. The Linksys installer gives people a false sense of security, helping to change the passwords then revealing them in plain sight.

Shame on Linksys for such an obvious security gaffe, and let’s hope they eliminate it in their next installer version.

Planned Computer Obsolescence

Planned obsolescence is the idea that computer manufacturers deliberately design hardware to force customers into continual replacement.

Does planned computer obsolescence exist? If not, recent manufacturing quality (or lack thereof) certainly leads to that impression. I am positive that computer printers made fifteen years ago last longer than those made today. Cases in point: the high percentage of ancient HP LaserJet printers I encounter, bless their little electronic hearts. On the other hand, newer printers of all brands, especially the low-end models, seem to suffer a less-than-two-year lifespan.

Computers are the same. That $500 PC… well, you may get what you pay for in a few years. Then again, you could buy a $5,000 PC and have the same experience. In general, Macs seem to resist planned obsolescence more readily, perhaps because Apple’s stranglehold on the Mac hardware market limits competition. Even so, design decisions like the Intel Macs force customers to invest in new hardware.

Sometimes you have no choice but to follow the industry’s “rip and replace” mantra. A recent flaw in the wireless security protocol WPA may soon mean that if your wireless access point is more than a few years old, you will have to replace it or risk being hacked. But it’s not always feasible to spend yet more money on another piece of equipment when you feel like you just bought the one you have.

What can you do? Don’t worry if your computer isn’t the latest and greatest. If it does what you want, fine. If it’s slow, try software repairs before resorting to a new system, or see if you can upgrade rather than replace. Not only will this curtail planned obsolescence, but it’s better for your budget as well as our ewaste-encrusted planet.

Next month I’ll share with you the biggest secret in the tech world, Should You Buy PC Or Mac? If you have any computer questions, click Comments below this article, and be sure to sign up for the email version of Tech Tips for bonus tips and product reviews.

WiFi Poaching

Admit it, we’ve all done it: used someone’s unsecured wireless connection without their knowledge.

It’s called WiFi poaching, and there’s been debate as to whether it’s actually illegal. In Britain, there have been prosecutions for poaching, but in the U.S. the legality is less clear.

Some argue that those who run unsecured connections set themselves up for the situation. But most wireless access points are unsecured by default. Is it the fault of the unwitting consumer, who likely has no idea?

Either way, it’s best to protect yourself by enabling security on your wireless access point. The best security is an encrypted passphrase called WPA. There’s another standard for passphrases (WEP) but don’t use it, as it’s easily cracked. Your access point’s Web management feature will allow you to set this passphrase, which you will then have to enter on each computer connecting to your wireless network.

It goes without saying–don’t give out your passphrase! And while you’re in that web management panel, change your access point’s default administrator password, to keep snoops from resetting your security.

Do you think WiFi poaching is unethical? Discuss the issue here (click Comments below any article), and be sure to sign up for the email version of Tech Tips for bonus tips and product reviews.

[This article is reprinted from the March 2008 issue of Triona’s Tech Tips. Look for more computer security tips in the October issue.]