Tech – for Everyone

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

Tips For Safe Online Shopping*

I think it is a pretty safe bet that quite a few of you are doing some last minute holiday shopping.. and that some of you are going to use the Internet to do some of that shopping.

I would like to remind you that there is a healthy, active, and well-financed underworld of cyber-criminals who are well-aware of the fact that the next few days are prime credit card and “identity” theft opportunities, and are going to be particularly active in trying to GET YOU.

You will see an increase in spam, and bogus pop-opens that tell you you are infected when you’re not. (Note: The phraudulent Skype alert is active again, too. see Skype — “Windows Requires Immediate Attention”.. Not! )

I am posting the following Basic Internet Shopping Tips in the hopes that Tech–for Everyone readers will not join the 9 million Americans who had their identities stolen last year.

  • Download Software Updates — Regularly!
  • Use Complex Passwords (include numerals and @#$%^&*[])
  • Use Onetime Credit Cards
  • Verify Secure Connections See that little padlock symbol at the bottom of your screen, and in the URL address bar?
  • Check Your Credit
  • Enter Your Shopping Site’s Web Address Manually (embedded links=no!)
  • Shop From Your Own computer (not a public ‘hotspot’)
  • Enable your browser’s phishing filter, or install a add-on. (such as the super-easy WOT toolbar)
  • Don’t Send Credit Card Information Over E-mail. Even if you think it’s secure. Don’t send it over IM either. If you feel uncomfortable about sending personal information online, call up the business.

I would like to direct your attention to the first bulletpoint. The programs on your computer need to be fully “patched” with the latest updates, as exploiting weaknesses is the primary method hackers use to infect your machines. (You visit a website that they’ve ‘poisoned’, and if you have an unpatched ‘hole’, bingo – you’re infected.)

How do you know if you have the latest updates? For all your installed programs? Do you think you are patched? Don’t guess. Be sure!

Today’s free link+download: Secunia offers a tool that I highly recommend. The online scanner (which you should bookmark, btw) will scan your machine for roughly 100 programs and tell you if there is a patch/update you need. If you go this route, you will need to visit once or twice a week.)
Better yet, they offer a download, a Personal Edition, which will scan your system against a database of over 7,000 programs.
Even better yet, it includes direct download links to the missing patches it finds.

I just ran it and it found an old ActiveX plug in, and told me that my Java Runtime Environment was out of date.. and I didn’t think I had installed JRE on this machine!

Further reading:
Computer Security – Time to Think About It

A Teen Texting Trend All Parents Should Be Aware Of

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved. post to jaanix

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December 20, 2008 Posted by | advice, browsers, computers, cyber crime, hackers, how to, Internet scam, News, PC, Phishing, phraud, security, shopping for, software, tech | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

How To Manage Startup programs in Vista

Folks, I am starting my weekend early. I intend to relax a little, and I hope you can do the same. I am reposting one of my most popular tips.

Tip of the day: Speed up and optimize your Vista machine by managing which programs load when Vista boots, and eliminate unnecessary background tasks in one simple step.

I know.. I know. I have never started an article with the “tip of the day”, and I promise I won’t make a habit of it. It’s just when you write six-days-a-week, you need to shake things up a little– every now and then –just to keep from getting stale.

One of my earliest “optimization” articles, My Startup folder is a clown car, has also proven over time to be one of the more popular “how to’s” I have posted. It describes removing program shortcuts from the Startup folder as a method for making Windows boot up faster (which has the added benifit of reducing ‘background’ use of CPU cycles). This technique is applicable to XP (and older) versions of Windows.

In a different article, I answered a reader question and described another method for managing Startup programs: the built-in msconfig tool. This method works on all versions of Windows, including Vista. The msconfig tool is authoritative and effective, but it has an annoying side-effect of opening a little dialogue window –each boot-up– that tells you it has done its job and “blocked” programs from starting. (Yes, msconfig. I know. I told you to. Remember? Sheeze.) Today’s method avoids that annoyance.

Tip of the day: Use Windows Defender to stop unwanted programs from loading at startup.
Vista comes with Microsoft’s anti-spyware program, “Windows Defender” installed; and Defender* has a tool built into it called “Software Explorer” which allows you select whether a program loads during the boot process (start-up). To see the list of what is currently loading, open Defender by clicking Start >Programs, and click on Windows Defender. When Defender opens, click on the “Tools” gray gear icon.

Now click on the “Software Explorer” hyperlink, and be patient while your hard drive is scanned and the list of programs “populates”. Make sure the “Category” is set to “Startup Programs” (the default).

You may be surprised at just how many programs, or bits of programs, have managed to work their way into your Startup, and you may be tempted to get aggressive and start turning them off with reckless abandon. My advice in this area has to be somewhat general, but I would not turn off anything with “update” in its name. Also, if you’re simply not sure what something is, there will be a description in the right-hand pane of whatever item is ’selected’ (single-click) in the left-hand pane.. which should help you decide. Be very conservative when dealing with Windows’ services (as in leave them alone).

In the screenshot above, I have ’selected’ a program called “Reality Fusion Tray Application”, which happily installed itself when I hooked up a webcam. (It is supposed to be some “cool” thing for online gaming.. I guess.) Not only does this useless (to me, anyway) service slow down my boot, but it puts one more icon in my already over-crowded Notification Area. It’s gotta go!

Select the item you want to prevent from automatically starting (at boot time) — Reality Fusion in my example– by clicking once on it. Then click on the “Disable” button in the lower-right. Repeat this process for all the programs you wish to “un-automate”.
The next time you boot up your computer, these programs will not launch automatically, and you will have a leaner, meaner, faster machine.

If for some reason you experience any future troubles or odd behaviors because of these actions, simply open Defender and “Enable” the program/service again.

*Free link of the day: For those of you who aren’t running Vista, Microsoft offers Windows Defender as a free download.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved. post to jaanix

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December 19, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, how to, PC, performance, tech, tweaks, Vista, Windows | 4 Comments

Selecting A New PC

Recently, my duties included an unexpected shopping jaunt. I had been asked to purchase and set up a new PC and home network (a service I provide at Aplus Computer Aid). Inspired by that, and in light of the fact that Shopping Season is nigh upon us, I have reposted an article on Guidelines For Purchasing a New PC, which first appeared 8/17/07–

How much RAM do I need, and other guidelines for buying a new PC. To conclude this series, I am going to review the topics covered, assume that you’ve decided that, yes, it is time to buy a new PC, and then give some advice on what to look for in a machine. I’m not going to get into a Mac versus PC debate, or talk you into trying Linux. I am going to focus solely on hardware (the ‘capabilities’) options of a non-Mac desktop or laptop PC.

Tip(s) of the day: Laptop computers. Most of what I am going to recommend today applies equally to laptops and desktops with very few exceptions. Today’s portable machines (notebook and tablet PC’s) very nearly rival the hardware capabilities of a desktop (or “tower”), and some models market themselves as a “desktop replacement”. They have large hard drives for storage, can ‘burn’ dual-layer DVD’s, have nice large screens, can access the Internet wirelessly, and are fast. Some have high-end graphics adapters that can keep up with the latest games.

Where laptops are different is: they are comparatively more expensive, they (often) depend on a battery, and they’re limited in terms of “expansion”. Expansion, quite literally, is room to “add stuff”, commonly referred to as “upgrading”. For this reason, I advise (when purchasing a notebook/laptop/tablet) differently than when buying a tower, to wit – buy the most machine you can afford.
Also, I advise buying the battery “upgrade”.

If you have to penny-pinch, reduce the RAM and/or go with a smaller hard drive… because these are the two components on a laptop that it is relatively easy to “upgrade” at a later date, when your finances have recovered. The other things – CPU, graphics, motherboard, sound, etc. — are not so easy to swap out/upgrade. In a tower there is practically nothing you cannot replace: in a laptop you’re kind of stuck, so buy as high up the scale as you can. Not just what you think you’ll need today, but buy for tomorrow as well. Because that’s the way the machine will be for its lifetime.

When deciding which model laptop, do not forget to compare battery life (these stats are published). Also, and I can’t stress this enough, do not buy a laptop that you haven’t typed on. Yes, you can make your purchase online or out of a catalogue, but go into a store and touch it first (sorry, all you Best Buy salespersons out there). Each keyboard and touchpad is different. Make sure you like the layout and “feel” of typing on the keyboard. There’s nothing worse (in laptop computing) than trying to work on a keyboard that just isn’t “you”–IMHO.

Desktops: When considering which tower/desktop to buy, there’s basically three categories of machines; budget/student, workstation, and “performance”/gaming. Low, middle, and top-end. You can spend as little as $300, or as much as $8,500. (Yes. $8,500. But, those systems are cool!) I have mentioned before that to do it right, you can get everything you want/need for $700 – $1,100, and that even the budget machines have the “good stuff”.

My advice for what to look for in a desktop, is a little more flexible. First, decide roughly what you’d like to spend. If you really are in the $300 -500 range, do not rule out “refurbished” machines. Rebuilt/refurbished machines are an excellent value. Any negative stigma they may have is unjustified.

Get the most RAM you can. If your machine is coming with Vista (and most of them are), you should avoid Home Basic — and Vista really should be run on 2 Gigabytes of RAM.

Go with a mid-to-high end CPU. The Athlon X2 chips are better than the older “dual core” Pentiums, but not quite as good as the Pentium Core Two Duo. (I know that’s confusing: there are two types of dual-core Pentiums. The D-series is the older type. You want either the Athlon or “Core Two Duo”.)
The quad-core CPU’s from Intel are very good, and are the latest ‘generation’. If it is in your budget, go quad.

Optical drives. Unless you really need a ‘high def’ burner and you want it right now, hold off on going for a “Blu Ray” burner just yet. Two optical drives, while nice, is not a necessity. Do, however, make sure your “combo drive” can burn (”write”) to a dual-layer DVD.

Graphics. Most people do not need a $800 graphics card (only us hard-core gamers, and other boys-of-all-ages, do) nor do they need an “SLI” set up. However, whenever your budget allows, it is almost always better to have a “graphics card” than “onboard graphics”. Onboard graphics chipsets are built into the motherboard, and while they do a quite adequate job, they “share” your RAM … and by that I mean “steal” your RAM.
Please note, you can buy, and install a graphics card at any time..

Do not skimp on your monitor.

Power Supply. Do not forget to check the Wattage of the machine’s power supply. Here is another area where more is definitely better. It constantly surprises me how many seemingly unrelated computer ‘glitches’ and quirks turn out to be caused by an inadequate or failing power supply. Shoot for one that’s rated in the neighborhood of 350W, unless you’re going for a more “loaded”, high-end performance machine — in which case 500W, or higher, is not unreasonable.

Well, that should get you started. Buying a new PC should not be a stressful thing. It should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Just remember to test drive before you buy, and do a little comparison. It really doesn’t matter if you decide upon a no-name, a HP, a Sony, Dell, or whatever. You may want to take advantage of the many mix-and-match-components “custom build” option, and design your own PC.

Here are the links to the prior parts of this series: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Today’s free link: To help shop for a new PC, another excellent shopper’s resource can be found at the PC World magazine’s website. Click here.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix

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December 18, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, dual-core processors, hardware, how to, PC, shopping for, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | 2 Comments

Firefox More Secure? Tops ‘Most Vulnerable’ List

We’ve all heard our geekier friends say it, right? “You should use Firefox.” Well, I’ve some good news and bad news today, folks. Firefox users, version update 3.0.5 is now available. This update cures – among others things – 4 “critical” security flaws.
MFSA 2008-69 XSS¹ vulnerabilities in SessionStore
MFSA 2008-68 XSS¹ and JavaScript privilege escalation
MFSA 2008-65 Cross-domain data theft via script redirect error message
MFSA 2008-60 Crashes with evidence of memory corruption

This good (and important) because Bit9, a trusted IT Security products vendor, ranks 2008’s “Most Vulnerable” Windows applications as:
1) Mozilla Firefox
2) Adobe Flash & Acrobat
3) EMC VMware Player,Workstation and other products
4) Sun Java Runtime Environment (JRE)
5) Apple QuickTime, Safari & iTunes
6) Symantec Norton (all flavors 2006-2008)
7) Trend Micro OfficeScan
8) Citrix (Cisco VPN Client, Blue Coat,WinProxy, SafeNet SoftRemote and HighAssurance Remote)
9) Aurigma, Lycos (Aurigma ActiveX FileUploader is used by Facebook PhotoUploader and MySpaceUploader)
10) Skype

To see the complete list, the criteria used in the assessment, the details, and the cures², click here.

I don’t think this is the “Number One” anybody wants to be. And, I want to be perfectly clear here — all browsers have flaws, and this isn’t “just a Windows problem”, it’s cross-platform.

There’s also the phenomenon of “Web 2.0” going on (give the people what they want) which puts the pressure on providers to give us more – more “interactive” content, more animations, more surveys and forms, more chat windows and widgets, more links and “feeds”, more Flash, more Java, more maps.. in short, more vulnerabilities.
To make your browser “safe”, you have to turn off (aka “block” and/or “disable”) all that stuff.

I use Firefox 3.0 (and am testing 3.1 Beta2 starting today), but I have NoScript -with all the switches thrown (see, How To Block iFrames*), Flashblock, and Ad Block Plus installed.
I also run IE 7, with SpywareGuard and SelectView installed.
And I run Avant and Opera occasionally as well.

Usually.. inside of of SandBoxie.

And.. to be honest, I still don’t “feel safe” surfing the Web. What does that tell you?

¹ Cross Site Scripting. One of the hacker’s favorite methods.
² I’ll give you a hint.. the cure is almost always a patch issued as an update.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved. post to jaanix

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December 17, 2008 Posted by | advice, browsers, computers, cyber crime, Firefox, hackers, how to, IE 7, Internet, News, PC, security, software, tech, Windows | 3 Comments

Woman Bilked Of $400K By Nigerian Internet Scam

Folks, as an IT Support Professional, I am keenly aware of the current state of  computer security, and the “shadow economy” of cyber-crime. I am a student of IT Sec (as it’s known), and I try to keep my readers abreast of the latest threats and trends.. and scams.

For a while now, I have looked forward to receiving Bruce Schneier’s monthly newsletter (named “CRYPTO-GRAM”). You can find Mr. Schneier’s website on my Blogroll. He is one of the leaders in the field.
To get the full benefit of his keen wit, one should (IMHO) follow the links he provides. One such link led me to this video..
Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “CNN – Woman loses $400,000 to an e-ma…“, posted with vodpod

I am not exactly sure of the original date of this story, but the blogs are atwitter with it now.

This is the oldest scam on the Internet (well.. one of the oldest anyways) and, frankly, I’m kind of flabberghasted by this woman. There is a wealth of information about these scams on the Internet.. I wonder, if she read Tech-for Everyone, would she have been so ___________ ?

I also wonder why she went public.
I do give ‘props’ to the news crew, though– they almost completely kept their chuckles out of the story.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved. post to jaanix

December 16, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, cyber crime, e-mail, hackers, how to, Internet scam, security | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Inserting Special Characters

Today’s quick and easy computing tip works no matter what program I am in.

Occasionally I have to insert a special character into my documents – such as the Copyright symbol in my articles, or and upside down question mark when representing Spanish, or an umlaut or tilde in an ancestor’s name.
And I think we can all agree that ¼ certainly looks better than 1/4, and is easier to read.

When I am working in Word (which is never, anymore) or working in an HTML editor (for the Internet), there are shortcuts I can use to quickly insert those unique (aka “oddball”) symbols. But in other situations and applications – such as webmail – it is a little trickier.
[note: a nice listing of those ASCII/HTML codes can be found here.]char_map

For those occasions when I need a symbol for which there is no key on my keyboard, I have created a shortcut in my Quick Launch area to the Windows Character Map tool.

Character Map is a font ‘data base’ which can display all the characters in the fonts on your PC. (shown left)

In each font there are multiple dozens ‘special characters’ and symbols, and weird letters from foreign languages like Latin. I simply select my font, and scroll through the assortment until I find what I need; then Copy > Paste it into my document.

In demo screenshot, I have selected Times as the font, and I found my symbol without any scrolling. I clicked on the “©” to “select” it (as you can see, it enlarged when selected), and then clicked the “Copy” button.
The copyright symbol is now on my “clipboard”, so I move to document and press Ctrl+V (or, “Edit” menu > “Paste”) to Paste it in. Simple!

The Character Map tool is located in the Programs >Accessories >System Tools folder.. which is kind of a pain to navigate to, so I right-clicked on the icon, and dragged it down to the QuickLaunch area and hovered my cursor between two existing shortcuts until I saw a black vertical bar appear, and let go. Then I choose “Create shortcut here”.. as shown above, there’s now handy launcher always ready for me.

Today’s free download: The Chrome web browser from Google is now out of Beta, which generally means that it is “ready for Prime Time”. You can read one of my reader’s RL reviews of Chrome here, and you can download this speed demon here.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved. post to jaanix

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December 15, 2008 Posted by | advice, browsers, computers, how to, keyboards and mice, MS Word, PC, software, tech, tweaks, Vista, Windows, XP | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Restore Missing Favorites In IE*

Bookmarks (called “Favorites” in Internet Explorer) make returning to our favorite Websites an easy task, and I — for one — rely on mine. The other day I got a call from someone whose Favorites had disappeared. Quite naturally, I think, they wanted to get them back, and came to me for aid.

An important thing to understand is that Favorites and Bookmarks are shortcuts.. just like the icons on your Desktop are shortcuts to programs (.exe’s) located in your c:\Program Files folder.
Your Favorites are simply a list of shortcuts to URL’s, and when you click on the gold star Favorites icon, this list is displayed. You can “export” this list to other browsers, a comma-separated-values (.csv) file, or a HTML file.. And you can add and delete items from this list as your heart desires.
[note: Firefox answer is here: Restore Bookmarks in Firefox– quick tip]

Tip of the day IE is a integral component to Windows, and Windows stores your custom configurations in your User Account– your Desktop icons, Theme, Settings, etc.. Windows allows for multiple users, and each person who uses the machine should have their own user account– it also has some built-in accounts, like Administrator, and Guest.

If your Favorites list is empty, and not displaying any shortcuts, the first thing you should check is that you’re logged into your User Account. Click the Start button, and then choose “Log off” (or “Switch User”, depending) and verify that you are indeed logged into your user profile (and not Guest or Admin..).

If this is not the issue, navigate to the folder that contains the shortcuts list– this is called “Favorites”, and it’s located in your User folder. In XP, your User folder is in the Documents and Setting folder, so your path is c:\Documents and Settings\username*.
In Vista, it’s c:\Users\username.

Open the Favorites folder and see if your bookmarks are there. If they’re not, well, something’s happened to them somehow, and this might very well be a cause for concern (has a hacker been playing on your machine?) or it might not.
To restore the shortcuts, you can “import” a .csv, or .html ‘export’ you made earlier (hint, hint).. or copy the contents from a backup copy of your Favorites folder (which, because you follow my advice, you have on CD/DVD and another drive).

Or, you have never exported and haven’t backed up your files and folders.. (ahem), well, here is where you can try System Restore to revert your computer to an earlier date. System Restore does not restore deleted files, but it does store User Account information, and so you may have luck this way.
My article on using System Restore is here.

Today’s free download: PowerISO is a powerful CD/DVD image file processing tool, which allows you to open, extract, create, edit, burn, compress, encrypt, split and convert ISO files, and mount these files with internal virtual drive. It can process almost all CD-ROM image files including ISO and BIN.

Today’s free link: Getting a New Computer for Christmas? – Essential Security Precautions

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.jaanix post to jaanix

December 14, 2008 Posted by | advice, browsers, computers, how to, IE 7, Internet, missing files, PC, software, tech, troubleshooting | Leave a comment