Tech – for Everyone

Tech Tips and Tricks & Advice – written in plain English.

Gold lock icon, a reader question: Holiday Edition

Greetings to you on my second favorite holiday and, yes, I felt the earthquake. Today I’m going to answer a reader’s question on a security topic you may find helpful– in the Q’s and their A’s format.

Q: Why did the gold lock icon disappear?
A: The gold lock icon is a visual clue that you are on a webpage that is secured by a special, encrypted connection. These special, encrypted pages are used to transmit the information between machines in a way that, if a hacker were to intercept the 1’s and 0’s (or otherwise obtain a copy), he would not be able to read your credit card number, name, and shipping address. It is absolutely essential to your privacy and fiscal security that you never provide your personal information to a website on a page that DOES NOT start with “https://” (note the “s”, for “secure”; which I discussed in this prior reader questions article) and DOES NOT display a gold lock icon in the address bar. gold_lock.jpg

 Please note, and understand, that an image on a webpage — and I mean on the page itself — can be any graphic the webmaster desires. He could copy and paste a gold lock graphic as easily as I did. The gold lock icon you’re looking for needs to be in (or “on”) your browser itself. It is triggered (in your browser) by the communication protocol — called SSL — and the fact that you are (invisibly to you) switched from the standard HTTP “language” to the encrypted HTTP(S) machine language.

The reason some pages on a website — usually the “log in” and “Shopping Cart” pages — are encrypted and others aren’t, has to do with the fact that https costs money (This helps keep the phishers at bay, btw). A “trust certificate” has to be purchased from a Certificate Authority, like Verisign. There are technical reasons (which I won’t bore you with) why a webmaster will design the website so that only the pages which need encryption are encumbered by it.

The fact is, you only need to see the security indicators on the page that is asking you to send your personal information. You don’t need it when viewing a product catalogue page, and you won’t (if the webmaster is at all competent) see a gold lock icon when viewing these types of pages.
Say you’re shopping for a book on You will not see a gold lock while you’re browsing around the books-for-sale pages, nor the reviews pages, and so on. Now you’ve found what you’re looking for, and it’s time to dig out your credit card (if you’ve memorized your cc number, well… no comment); you place a check on the item you’re interested in and click on a link titled “Proceed to Secure Checkout”, or “Add to Shopping Cart+Checkout”, or some similar thing. Now is when you need to look for and see the gold lock.
Do not type in a single thing if you don’t.

Today’s free link:There has recently been updates to the other free graphics program, mentioned here earlier, that makes it worth reposting: it’s even more like Photoshop now than ever– Gimp 2.4. “GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a freely distributed piece of software suitable for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition, and image authoring. It is a powerful piece of software with capabilities not found in any other free software product.”

Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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October 31, 2007 Posted by | advice, computers, how to, IE 7, PC, Phishing, searching, security, tech, Windows | , , | 13 Comments

Email for breakfast

One of the very first things I do in the process of starting my day is I check my Inbox(es). It is as much a part of my routine as my morning cup of coffee. This morning, it struck me that you do not have to be a computer geek to realize and appreciate that electronic communication has become an important — if not vital — part of our lives. And that it has changed the way we live.

If you will pardon a little self-indulgent reminiscing, I would like to tell you in a before-and-after method, that I am old enough to well-remember what it was like in the days before email, Instant Messaging, and cellphones: in my High School years there simply were no such things. (There were no ATM machines either, if you can imagine that.)
When I wanted to find out what my friends were up to, I picked up a Slimline telephone (with cord) and tried to catch them before they left, but I usually had to track them down by “making the rounds”, in person, of our ‘hangouts’…which put a lot of miles on my 10-speed. (No obesity here.)
Besides Ma Bell, the other method of communicating was the mail, now known as “snail mail”.
How we ever got along, back then, is beyond me.

Today the speed at which I transmit written correspondence is limited only by how frequently the recipient checks their Inbox. My pals answer their phones no matter where they are (or their voicemail does) or what they’re doing– who doesn’t carry a cellphone? I not only talk to my neice and nephew out on the East Coast, but I can see them via “videoconferencing” (free). Or I can “chat” with IM, no matter the miles of separation (also free).

But of all these modern methods, I rely the most on email. Email is the main way I stay informed and in contact with my friends and kinfolk, and the same is probably true for you. (For kicks, I challenge you to a little test: how long can you ignore your Inbox before it irritates? Could you take a week’s vacation… and never check it?)

Because I am an “email guy”, I am perhaps overly aware of the negatives of email. I am peeved by spam, alarmed by phishing, nervous about privacy, and paranoid about hackers and e-criminals. I have written a few articles on these ‘negatives’ and how to combat, and my “Tip of the day” today is; if you have not read them, to consider clicking on the following links.
Managing your email: eliminating the junk
Managing junk mail in Outlook/Thunderbird
They ARE reading your mail
How to block ads

It is my hope that the knowledge you find there will make using the modern miracle of electronic communication a more pleasant experience, as it is something we are exposed to daily… and would be hard-pressed to live without.

Today’s free link: If you are considering building your own website, or are interested in free WYSIWYG web-authoring tools, a nice tool is the free version of Web Easy Professional, by V-Comm.

Copyright 2007 © Tech Paul, All Rights Reserved

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October 30, 2007 Posted by | computers, how to, PC, spam and junk mail, tech, Windows | 2 Comments

Repair your directories with checkdisk

The file system on a computer is a complicated thing, and a good analogy for describing it is to compare it to a library– your files and digital music and photos are the “books”, and your hard drive is the “shelves.” Libraries use a numbering system to keep track of which shelf Dr. Suess’ The Cat in the Hat resides on, so that you can find it amongst hundreds of other books.
Libraries list books and their shelving numbers in a catalogue for quick reference.

Your computer’s operating system uses a similar system, called a “file allocation table” or “directory” (the “catalogue”), to find the sectors on the hard drive (the “shelf”) where it has placed your file (the “book”). Because everything about computers is more complicated than it has to be (wink), this is an overly simple analogy.

Computers don’t necessarily store your file in one place on one shelf, but often divide up your file and store part of it here, another part there, and yet another part over there, in a deliberate form of file fragmentation. Nor do they “reserve” space for fiction and non-fiction, but place things in any open space. This is irrelevant to us mere mortals however, as the machine uses the catalogue to gather and assemble all the “chapters”, from all the different “shelves”, so quickly (microseconds) that we don’t notice that our “librarian” went to any trouble at all to fetch us the “book” we requested.
Most of the time.

Tip of the day: Resolve file system errors with the CheckDisk tool. The file locating “catalogue” on your machine is a living, dynamic thing. It is modified each time you install/uninstall, Save, move something into the Recycle Bin, and Delete. Like any “living” (dynamic) thing, your table needs to be healthy and properly cared for, and occasionally needs a doctor’s visit when it’s feeling out of sorts… the “therapy” for the file system on your machine is the CheckDisk tool (with the repair options enabled).

CheckDisk can be found in the Properties window of your drive(s), accessed by clicking My Computer (or, Start >My Computer.. or Start >Computer, in Vista).
The default hard drive in Windows systems is called “C:”. Right-click on the “Local Disk (C:)” icon and select Properties from the menu that opens. [a brief aside: this can, and should, be done to any file storage device from time to time.. including thumb drives.] Now click on the Tools tab.
Click the top button to start the “error checking” process, and launch CheckDisk.
Place (or make sure) checks in both checkboxes; “Automatically fix”, and “Attempt recovery”, as shown above. This will cause Windows to repair any corruptions and errors it finds during the CheckDisk scan of your file allocation table. The process updates and audits your directory and makes sure that all the “books” are where the “librarian” thinks they are.
Do not be alarmed when you see the “I can’t do this now” dialogue window open. To really do its job, CheckDisk needs to run before Windows loads and the directory gets put to use. Click on “Yes” to schedule CheckDisk to run at the next reboot, and it will do its job the next time you turn on your machine.
You may be surprised at the variety of errors this handy tool repairs, and is a very good “first step” in any troubleshooting situation.

Today’s free link: A Really Small App 2.0. This handy little tool shows you in simple graphs the things going on on your computer (CPU usage, running Tasks, startup programs, etc.) in one window, AND it shows you what other computers are connected to yours — a good way to find out if your machine has been hacked and is under the control of a bot herder.

Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

Do you appreciate all the free advice and links to safe and free software I provide six days a weeks–ad free? Do your friends (and me) a favor and let them know about Tech–for Everyone.

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October 29, 2007 Posted by | advice, computers, file system, how to, PC, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to capture screenshots

Today I will answer a reader question whose answer you may find useful, in the (hopefully familiar) Q’s and their A’s format.

Q: What program do you use to get the nice pictures of things on your screen?
A: To “capture” the menus and dialogue windows (etc.) and post them into Tech–for Everyone, I could use any of the many screen capture programs on the market (some are freeware, even), but I don’t. I use a tool that has been a part of Windows for a very long time… and you can too. I refer to the much ignored MS Paint.

It is a very good idea to get into the habit of capturing error messages — granted they often disappear quite quickly — as they will greatly assist a Tech Support person (such as myself) to diagnose and repair your trouble as, believe it or not, those bizarre codes actually do (sometimes) tell us something important. I have yet to encounter a client who could repeat to me, verbatim, the content of the message he saw before his program stopped working and his computer rebooted.

The trick to capturing the things appearing on your screen is a keyboard key in the upper-right (usually on the topmost row) labeled Prnt Scrn. (The Print Screen key seems to me to be a bit mislabeled.. when I see “print”, I think “printer”.) This “captures” an image of your screen which can be pasted into a document.. or graphics application.
I usually don’t want a snapshot of the whole screen, but just an open window (or dialogue), so I hold down the right-hand Alt key in combination with the Prnt Scrn key. This “captures” only the ‘active’ window.

Then I open Paint, which is found in the Accessories folder (Start >Programs >Accessories) and hit Ctrl+V to paste the screenshot.
If I want only a portion of capture, I use the rectangle tool to draw around the area the area I want, and hit Ctrl+C (Copy), and then open a new instance of Paint and hit Ctrl+V to paste the rectangle’s area. In the example above, I have done this to capture a very small and select area of my Desktop.
Sometimes, hitting the Alt key makes items on my screen go away before I can capture them — such as context menus. In that case, I capture the whole screen with Prnt Scrn and then use the rectangle tool to grab the area I want.

Other times, and this seems to occur quite a bit with pop-open warning dialogues, the capture method described above fails to grab the appropriate window. In these instances, the trick to capturing the pop-open Error Notification is the Copy command— Ctrl+C (not Alt+Prnt Scrn). Then open Paint and hit Ctrl+V to paste.

One last tip: MS Paint, by default Saves the graphics you create in the bitmap format (.bmp). Some programs and some email accounts either don’t recognize or don’t allow .bmp’s (email in particular, because hackers have found ways to use bitmaps for evil purposes), and so instead of using the Save command, I use the Save As command which offers the option to save it as a TIFF, GIF, PNG, or JPEG. All the screenshots you have seen here are JPEGs.

Today’s free link: I have mentioned this program before, but it has been recently updated and enhanced, and fits in nicely with today’s topic. If you would like a much more capable graphics tool than Paint, without paying for Adobe, get the top rated IrfanViewer. It does much more than “view”!

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Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

Do you appreciate all the free advice and links to safe and free software I provide six days a weeks–ad free? Do your friends (and me) a favor and let them know about Tech–for Everyone.

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October 27, 2007 Posted by | advice, computers, how to, PC, tech, Windows | , , , | Leave a comment

Speed up your Startup, a repost

Business obligations require a quick re-posting today. This is a popular article on managing what programs load at Startup and contains a link to an article on what items should be in your Startup folder. Originally posted with the title My Startup folder is a clown car, it appeared 06/20/07–

I must assume that you are familiar with clown cars. It’s that tiny little car that drives into the center ring at the circus, stops, opens its door, and an arm comes out, then a leg, and then a whole, seven and-a-half foot tall clown comes out…and you wonder what inhuman contortionist’s feat allowed that BIG clown to fit into that little car. No sooner has that tall clown unfolded himself, then he reaches into the car and pulls out a fat clown. You think, no way! Now a lady clown comes out of that car…and then a short clown…and then another fat clown emerges…and you’re thinking, there’s gotta be a tunnel under there…but you had just seen elephants parading all over that center ring…and another clown’s out and another clown and another clown. What you’re seeing just isn’t possible. You lose count of all the clowns that come out of that car. Yes…I just knew you’d remember. Clown car.

I have one machine that I use for pretty much everything — gaming, digital photography, building/maintaining my website, reading and sending email, instant messaging, video conferencing, doing my taxes, etc — and I have, literally, scores of programs installed on it. (I have other machines as well, but this one is my Swiss Army knife: it does it all.) This machine’s Startup folder has become like that clown car before it expels its load. Because of that fact it takes so long to get going at boot up that I never turn it off — I leave it running 24/7. That’s far from an ideal ‘solution’, however.

The fact is, and this dates back to the days of DOS and TSR (terminate and stay resident) programs, just about every program and service you install wants to get itself loaded when Windows starts — so that it will be “immediately available” should you want it — and so it puts a shortcut to itself in the Startup folder. For some programs and services this is a very good thing; like your 3rd party firewall and antivirus program and updater. You definitely want those things running all the time, and just as soon as Windows boots.

But most of the others are unnecessary and merely slow down the boot process and waste valuable RAM memory space. Apple Quicktime, Adobe Acrobat (and Adobe Updater) and Real Player are notorious examples of programs that have no business inserting themselves into your Startup folder, but there are others: do you really need your webcam to start itself at boot? How about your instant messenger? Isn’t it sufficient to simply launch them when you’re ready to use them? Some of these simply launch themselves so that they can show you banner ads and make the owners money (like AIM and MSN Messenger), which is pretty darned-close to being adware…wouldn’t you say? (It is, in fact, the definition of adware.) Windows itself is often guilty of bogging itself down by loading programs (called “services”) that you probably don’t need.

Tip of the day: Speed up your boot process (and get rid of some of those icons down by the clock at the same time) by trimming shortcuts from your Startup folder and shutting down unnecessary services. Let’s start with the first one. In XP, right-click the Start button, and then click Properties. On the Start Menu tab, click Classic Start menu and then click Customize. Now click Remove. Open the Programs folder and open the Startup folder. Highlight the items in the Startup folder that you want to remove and click the Remove button. Close, and hit OK. That’s it. Restore your Start menu’s view if you prefer the “XP look”. (Remember, you are only removing shortcuts to the executable, and not removing the program itself: it is still there for when you want it.)

Now my advice on what to remove and what to leave alone: remove anything Adobe, remove anything that says “quick launch”, remove anything Apple, remove your webcam, and leave in place your Internet Security and anti-malware programs. It is up to you whether or not you want your instant messenger to be loaded at boot or not — I prefer it.

This next part, Services, is a little more advanced, and you should be real comfortable with Windows before you make too many adjustments — you will be doing more than just removing shortcuts here. Click Start >Programs >Administrative Tools (or, Start >All Programs >Accessories >Administrative Tools) and then Services. In the right-hand pane you will see a long list of services available to Windows, and columns labelled “Description”, Status, Start up type, and “Log on as”. The status shows you which ones are currently running, and as you will see, most of them are not (which is good).

Now since we’re in a province not meant for mere mortals, I’m going to suggest only a few “tweaks”, and strongly urge you not to do more.

Locate the service Messenger and check its status (This is not your instant messenger): it should be blank and the Start up type should read “disabled”. If not, double-click on it. On the window that opens, click the Stop button. Now use the drop-down menu to change the Start up type to Disabled. If you are not hosting your own website (and if you don’t know what that means, you aren’t) look for a service called IIS: use the above method to stop and disable this one also. If Telnet is running and you’re not a sysadmin, disable this one too.

If you are the only user of the machine, locate (and stop) the Fast User Switching service and set the Start up type to Manual. If it has been a long while since you’ve used Windows Help and Support Center, do the same to the service named Help and Support. And that, I believe, is enough for now.

Today’s free link(s): I have been talking recently about malware and I’ve mentioned the threats it poses. If you are concerned about, and have questions regarding, malware and ID theft, there’s a couple of great resources where you can get answers — Safer and the US Government’s “one stop” National ID Theft Information Center.

[update 8/2/2007: for more on the Startup folder, see my new post.]

Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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October 26, 2007 Posted by | advice, computers, how to, PC, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | , , , , | 1 Comment

Botnets hurt Rockies and, poison .pdf’s (updated)

You have to feel sorry for the Colorado Rockies, even if you’re not a fan. After a miraculous run of victories swept them into World Series, the Red Sox slammed them 13-1 in Game One (ouch!). To add insult to injury, their online ticket sales website crashed (after only 500 tickets were sold) on Monday, which they believe was the result of a cyber-attack; namely a DoS attack launched from a botnet.
“Our website, and ultimately our fans and our organization, were the victim of an external, malicious attack that shut down the system and kept our fans from being able to purchase their World Series tickets,” Keli McGregor, team president, said Monday in a news release.

Very early in the history of Tech–for EveryoneI wrote two articles which discuss botnets and how your computer could be a zombie without your knowing it — and a couple of steps you can take to prevent a hacker from using your machine to mail out spam, or launch attacks.

The first I titled “Some basic security pointers #1“, which I always think of by its opening sentence, “is your computer a zombie?”. In it I discuss User Account passwords, what makes a good password, and the hidden Windows Administrator account, and provide a link to a tool that tests the effectiveness of your firewall. (Click the links to view the articles.)

The second article was titled “The FBI and Operation: Bot Roast” which opens by asking the question, “is your computer a threat to national security?” In this article I discussed malware, such as rootkits and trojan horses, and how hackers use these to take control of your machine, and use it for their own, nefarious, purposes. I explained what a botnet is, and I provided a link to the pages on my business website where I list several dozen links to the best free antivirus and anti-spyware tools.

Tip of the day: Read these important articles and get educated about hackers and their evil programs, and then download the tools, and take the preventative steps, and thwart these Evil Doers. It is a fact that your machine can be used to interfere with our economic system and way of living.

Tip of the day #2: Do not open any PDFs you receive via email for a while. (Loyal friends and true will note that this is the first time I’ve posted two tips in one day.)
There is currently making the rounds an exploit that uses a trojan horse embedded in a poisoned .pdf attachment to download malware onto your machine. The exploit uses a vulnerability in code found in IE 7 on Windows XP. Microsoft is aware of this, but has yet to release a patch (through Windows Update).
If you aren’t sure what an “exploit” is, I discussed it in an article titled “These folks had a very bad day“, which discusses exploits and vulnerabilities and how this is the Number One hacker technique for gaining control of your machine. In it I demonstrate how to configure your firewall and Update settings, and provide a link to website which will scan your machine for unpatched vulnerabilities and help you get updated and protected.

[update 10/30: From Secure Computing–
Ken Dunham, director of global response for iSight Partners, told today that one of his source’s honeypots received the infected email once every 10 seconds. This indicates “a fairly heavy spamming taking place,” especially for home users in advance of the weekend, he said.

The shadowy Russian internet service provider, Russian Business Network (RBN), is behind the attacks, which attempt to infect users with two rootkits that seek to steal personal and financial information from compromised PCs, Dunham said.

“You have what looks like a PDF attachment,” he said. “It’s actually exploit code designed to download code from a remote server.”

Adobe patched the bug Monday, so those who upgraded to Adobe Reader 8.1.1 and Acrobat 8.1.1 are safe.”

Today’s free link: By clicking the links to the three articles posted above, and scrolling down to this section of the posts, you will find links to 50+ highly rated free security tools. Please, take advantage of them!

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Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

Do you appreciate all the free advice and links to safe and free software I provide six days a weeks–ad free? Do your friends (and me) a favor and let them know about Tech–for Everyone.

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October 25, 2007 Posted by | advice, anti-spyware, antivirus, computers, firewall, how to, IE 7, PC, security, tech, Windows, XP | , , , , | 2 Comments

Keyboard troubleshooting: is “Sticky Keys” on?

Yesterday I received a call from someone who was rather distraught and frantic (this happens from time to time at my Tech Support business) because, all of a sudden, they couldn’t type on their computer. Actually, she could type.. but she was getting very strange results.

After determining that she had not recently poured an extra-large Cafe Latte on her keyboard (to read my article on what to do if you do spill on your keyboard, [or, if a single key has stopped responding] click here), and asking some other diagnostic questions, I determined that she had accidentally turned on Windows’ FilterKeys feature and simply needed to turn it off again.
FilterKeys is a subset of keyboard “Accessibility Options” included in Windows to assist people who have difficulties typing. These tools are activated (toggled on and off) by keyboard stroke combinations (shortcuts).

Tip of the day: Understand and use (or make sure they’re turned off) keyboard Accessibility Options. There are several types of help for those with typing difficulties, namely:
StickyKeys is an accessibility feature designed for people who have difficulty holding down two or more keys at a time. When a shortcut requires a key combination such as CTRL+P, StickyKeys will enable you to press one key at a time instead of pressing them simultaneously.
FilterKeys: You can set Windows to ignore keystrokes that occur in rapid succession, or keystrokes that are held down for several seconds unintentionally.
Bounce Keys: If you bounce your fingers on keys inadvertently, Bounce Keys will ignore repeated keystrokes until some time has passed. You choose the time period.
Repeat Keys and Slow Keys: The computer will ignore brief keystrokes according to the time limits you set.

[Note: if your keyboard issue is not related to “Accessibility Options”, you may find additional troubleshooting answers in the Comments section (below). Also, this article may be more appropriate: What To Do When Your Mouse Plays Dead. Or Your Keyboard.]

To access these Options and turn them off or on, go to your Control Panel– click Start >Settings >Control Panel >Accessibility Options.
By default it opens to the keyboard tab. If you are experiencing a sudden onset of bizarre typing behavior, your first step is to visit here and ensure that there are no checks in the three checkboxes, which indicates these Options are in use.
I mentioned that shortcuts ‘activate’ these features — such as Tab+Enter, and a couple of Alt+a letter— and so you may have turned them on unintentionally.

If you do have some difficulty with your typing, such as happens when a Mr. Arthur Itis comes to visit, or/and if you have tremors, here is where you can enable these aids and tweak their settings to get the most benefit from them. Click on the “Settings” button to see the choices. Below is the FilterKeys Settings dialogue.
In the case mentioned, my client had first held down the Shift key long enough to activate FilterKeys (because a finger “rests” there). The lady was an extremely fast typist, and this setting ignored her strokes as being too short. Since she has no use for this tool, I recommended that she uncheck the top checkbox and disable the activating shortcut.

This screenshot shows the settings for StickyKeys, and unless you have trouble holding down more than one key at the same time — such as Ctrl+Alt+Del to activate Task Manager — I suggest you uncheck the top checkbox here as well.

For more on the keyboard Accessibility Options, click here.

Today’s free link: Loyal readers of this daily How To series know that I have a certain sensitivity to how the marvels of today’s technology has had an affect on our civil liberties and privacy. If you share my concerns, you should be aware of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization looking out for us in this arena. Take a look and see the latest headlines and concerns, and see how they’re defending your rights.

You can help improve this blog by answering a 5-question opinion survey Click Here to take survey

Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

Do you appreciate all the free advice and links to safe and free software I provide six days a weeks–ad free? Do your friends (and me) a favor and let them know about Tech–for Everyone.

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October 24, 2007 Posted by | advice, computers, hardware, how to, keyboards and mice, PC, privacy, tech, Windows | , , , | 294 Comments