Tech – for Everyone

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

Your hard drive held hostage– Ransomware*

You turn on your computer and see, “Your files have been encrypted–send me $500 for the key.”
An article in Newsweek calls this a “new” phenomenon, but I assure you it is not — it even has a name: ransomware.

As my loyal readers know, I am constantly advising security, security, security! I have a “thing” … I detest digital Evil Doers.
Ransomware is a type of worm and/or trojan horse that runs a RC4 encryption algorithm on your hard drive. This ‘scrambles’ your files and makes them unreadable … unless you have the ‘key’. The malware leaves several (readable) read_me.txt files which tell you what has happened, and where to send money to buy the key. Your data held hostage. Without the key, all you have is gibberish. Without paying the ransom, you have no key. Or, that’s the idea anyway.
I haven’t talked about ransomware before because it has not been a very common, or rewarding attack.

What this means to you is that it is more important than ever to have an off-machine backup and up-to-date malware protections in place. You do have a recovery backup … don’t you??? Please click this link to read my article on creating backups. It is important to understand that what this piece of code does (and this is true of most malware), it does, or tries to do, to every drive it can find. That means every storage device attached to your computer, such as the hypothetical drive “E:\” in the ‘how to auto-backup’ article, will get scrambled. If you store your backup (and/or backup image) on a partition, or USB attached hard drive, it is effectively gone as a result.

Tip of the day: I will reiterate, because it’s so gosh-durned important, that you should store a recovery backup in two locations; usually this means two different storage media types. In this case I’m referring to CD’s or DVD’s.
I use a 3rd party “disk imaging” application (I happen to have got a deal on Norton Ghost [free after rebate], but my reco is Acronis True Image) which automatically breaks the system backup into disk-sized pieces. But you do not need such a program; you can use your zip program (see today’s free link) to do the same thing to a Windows Backup.bkp file. It will take several disks, so be sure to stock up.

If you have Windows Vista Home Premium or Ultimate Edition, you have a powerful system backup utility (built in) that will copy a recovery backup to disk, or other storage, that works through an easy to follow wizard. And you also have a delightful command line imaging tool called Ximage that I suggest you look into.

The main point I want to get across is that if you should, one day, discover that some Evil Doer has scrambled your files and wants money to descramble them, DO NOT SEND THEM MONEY. RC4 can be broken. You can find the password (the ‘key’) posted on the Internet, and use it to get your files back. You also should take a seriously critical look at your Internet protection apps … either you didn’t have them, or they let you down. Fix that.
If this happened to me, I wouldn’t bother with trying to decrypt my files. I wouldn’t trust that the trojan wasn’t still lurking, (possibly as a rootkit)ready to pull the same stunt again and demand another ransom. I would format my hard drive and boot my first recovery CD and restore my system from the backup. This backup would not contain the trojan, because I make system recovery DVDs once a month, nor my most recent files … those I would recover from a network drive, or live without.

So. You do have a system backup, right?

Today’s free link: there are many zip utilities out there, and Windows comes with a “compressed folder” zip tool, and selecting one is a matter of taste. They all do basically the same thing: take a big file (or folder) and run a compression algorithm to make them smaller (“zipped”). Some are free and some are for sale — typically under $20. The free zip tool I use is 7-Zip. It has all the features you need, and actually does compress.

Can I ask you a favor? I am a bit curious as to how Tech–for Everyone readers are feeling about the Olympic Games being held in China, and so I’ve created a very brief survey. Click Here to take survey

Update 8/16/07: There’s a report on Sunbelt of a new ransomware, and this one only demands $150. Click here for an interesting read.
Update 8/9/08: Bill Mullins discusses a newer, and meaner, type of ransomware in this article.

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

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August 9, 2008 Posted by | advice, Backups, computers, cyber crime, encrypting files, how to, PC, ransomware, security, tech, Windows | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Is your wireless a hackers’ playground?

I have found in life that many things we deal with are…mixed blessings. Such is the case with wireless technology. The very factors which make it so convenient (and thus popular) also make it less secure. A WAP is a radio station. It broadcasts its signal in all directions, for a limited distance; and it “listens” for signals as well. It (by default) sends out a constant “I’m here. I’m ready. I’m here. I’m ready…” When a passing device, a laptop or PDA say, gets within range it hears the WAP (Wireless Access Point) and can connect with it by sending a “I’m ready too. Let’s begin.” message.
So convenient. So easy. And no wires holding you to one spot. It’s a modern miracle!
It’s little wonder that nine out of ten networking devices sold in the US are “wireless”. They cost basically the same as wired, so why not get wireless too? My router is wireless (a WAP). Isn’t yours?
But I know about wardriving. Yes–”war+driving”. What’s that? It’s driving around with a laptop and a sensitive antenna (or a piece of coaxial cable stuck into the bottom of a Pringle’s can) and trying to “sniff” (detect) unprotected WAPs. It’s a game hackers play: who can detect the most unsecured WAPs in an hour? When they’re not doing it for kicks, they’re accessing a wardriven WAP and ‘creeping’. What’s that, you ask? “Creeping” is browsing around the data on the computers connected to the WAP. Most of the time they’re not interested in stealing your data (there’s no challenge there), they’re just snooping. They get some kind of kick out of it. (Sometimes they’ll leave behind a ‘calling card’ to let you know you’ve been ‘creeped’.) Most of the time these guys cause no harm…unless they see that you’re a total non-geek novice (no anti-virus, all your .docs are in one folder, you’ve never ‘defragged’, etc.) and they decide you’re “too stupid to own a computer” and they take it upon themselves to “punish” you by erasing your config.sys file (which will cause Windows to fail to load).
Sometimes they will simply “pile on” or “coast” a WAP and use it to surf the web for free–the main downside to the owner is reduced bandwidth (speed).
When a hacker runs across a WAP in his wardriving games that the owner has taken the precaution of encrypting, he usually passes on by, but sometimes they get bored with the super-easy creeping, and feel the need for a challenge (I’m sure, thinking, “what’s this guy hiding behind that encryption?”). This is when hackers become crackers. See, it’s terribly easy to turn on encryption–every WAP manufacturer builds it into the product–and use it. The trouble is most folks don’t know about it, much less use it…But for those who do, manufacturers included the ability to use WEP encryption (Wired Equivalent Privacy): a 128bit stream cipher key. So now the hacker is looking at gibberish and needs to find a way to “crack” the code to see the data being transmitted, and to talk/co-operate with the WAP–thus the ‘challenge’. Sadly, with the computing power of today’s personal computers and freely available tools a hacker can break into WEP protection in less than two minutes (much less).
Eventually, the hacker’s methods were discovered and WEP was quickly declared to be next-to-useless, and manufacturers switched to a new (2003) and improved methodology called WPA–Wi-Fi Protected Access. Now there’s WPA2. Have the hacker/crackers been thwarted? Well…um…no. However, WPA and the newer WPA2 are so time consuming to crack, the average hacker won’t bother. Why should he? There’s still plenty of folks broadcasting “Here I am. I’m free and easy. Here I am…” Seeemingly every house on the block an unwitting Internet café.
WPA2 is pretty good, and keeps out all but the determined (and sometimes even them).
The main points I want to make here are:
* You really do want to turn on the feature that scrambles your wireless transmissions. (To read my How-To article, How-to-secure-your-wireless-network, click here.)
* Securing your wireless by encrypting with WEP is next to useless; with WPA is so-so; and, WPA2 is the way to go at this time.
* Your network is only as capable as its weakest link, so if you have older devices that aren’t WPA-capable, your newer devices will default down to WEP (or no encryption) level to accomodate your old. I recommend replacing your older gear with newer, WPA2-capable devices.

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

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June 17, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, encrypting files, hardware, how to, networking, PC, Portable Computing, routers and WAPs, security, tech | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Troubleshooting iPods and iTunes

It may be kind of hard to believe, but it seems that a lot of people have iPods. And it seems to be true that a lot of people (even Windows people) use iTunes software to download and/or manage digital music. And, it also seems to be true that both these products are fairly simple and easy to use.

Tip of the day: Make sure you’re using the latest version of the product to resolve your iTroubles.
iTunes is pretty good at letting you know when there is a “newer version available”, and it (typically) prompts you to update. You should accept these prompts when you see them. If you haven’t.. and/or are having trouble making purchases at the iTunes Store, or connecting your iPod to your computer.. you can (and should) manually check for a newer version of the software.
To do so, open iTunes, and under the iTunes menu, click “Check for updates”.

iPods need to have their software updated as well, and you can solve most issues by following these steps:
Connect your iPod and then open iTunes and click on your player in the Source list (on the left), and click on the Summary tab, then click on the “Check for Updates” button. Then follow the instructions.

If you are fully updated with the latest software, and still are having troubles getting or playing music the next troubleshooting step is to reset your iPod.
1) Unplug your player from your computer.
2) For Click-Wheel iPods, slide the Hold switch to “Hold” and then to “Off”.
3) Press and hold both the Menu and Select buttons down for about 10 seconds, or until you see the Apple logo on the screen. (If you don’t see the logo after 15 seconds, stop, and repeat the steps above.)

This should do the trick. But if all this fails, and your player still won’t play, you can restore your iPod’s software. This should be done as a last resort, as it will “wipe” your stored songs/podcasts/etc. from your iPod’s memory, and you will have to copy your content back.
Connect your iPod and then open iTunes and click on your player in the Source list (on the left), and click on the Summary tab, then click on the “Restore” button. Then you may see up to four restore “options”– try using the “Use Newest Version” option first. If that doesn’t do the trick.. repeat the process and select the “Restore” version, and then update it when it is reinstalled.

These steps will resolve the majority of problems, and get your music playing again.

Today’s free link: I have recommended the top-rated encryption program TrueCrypt before, but I don’t believe I made it clear that versions are available for Mac users as well. To get it, click here, and scroll down a bit to see “Mac OS X” and use the drop-down arrow to select your version.. then click the “Download” button.

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

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June 2, 2008 Posted by | advice, Apple, computers, encrypting files, hardware, how to, software, tech, troubleshooting | , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Top 10 things you should do to your computer–updated

Today is “one of those days” and I simply have too much happening this morning to write an fresh article. So today I am reposting an article which aggregates the most important computer security steps into a single checklist…a “Top 10” list. Click on the blue links to get more instructions on the topic.

There are several things a PC owner should do to have a healthy computer and be safe(r) from online cyber criminals when they browse the Internet. Not surprisingly, I have covered these topics/items over the course of writing this six-days-a-week series of articles.
I have noticed (from my stats) that not too many folks are looking through past (archived) articles, nor are they using the Search tool to find this previously posted advice and help. So I thought I would put the more important ones into a single list — a “Top 10 List” — and provide direct links (blue text) to the articles which cover the How To steps of making these things happen… and provide you with a simple way to find out what you need to do, compared to what you’ve done already. In case you missed one, or two.

Tip of the day: Run down this list, and ask yourself, “have I done that?” to each one.

1) Install an antivirus, and keep it up-to-date (with the latest “definitions”).
To read my articles on malware, click here. To see a list of links to free antivirus programs, click here. To read my article on how to configure your antivirus for maximum protection, click here.

2) Install two anti-spyware apps, with one having “active” shielding.
To read all my articles which discuss spyware, click here. To see a list of links to free anti-spyware programs, click here.

3) Install a 3rd Party firewall OR turn on the Widows Firewall.
* If you have a home router or Wireless AP, make sure its firewall is enabled (NAT).

4) Enable Automatic Updates from Microsoft (and either set it to automatically install [for the non-geeky] or to prompt for install [for the hands-on type]) and set your programs to “automatically check for updates”.
And then actually click on the “Install” button when told there are updates available.. and please not tell them to “go away, you’re busy.”

5) Password protect your User Accounts.

6) Make a (monthly) system backup.. or at least a “files and settings” backup.. and store a copy — on two different types of media — someplace other than your hard drive.
To read all my articles on backups, click here.

7) Upgrade to IE 7 and/or an “alternative” Web browser (like Firefox, Opera, or Avant). Click here to read my articles on browsers and browsing.

8: Use strong (and complex) passwords. Everywhere. And change them every so often.

9) Rename the Administrator account.

10) Tell Windows to show file extensions.

* (Windows XP/older) Use the NTFS file system, and disable Simple File Sharing.

* (Laptops) Encrypt your hard drive.

There is more you can do to optimize your PC (of course) and the odds are good that I have told you the steps in a prior article, as I’ve written well over a 250 of them– so far, and I invite you type the word “optimize” into my Search box and see what comes up. Also, my Tag Cloud can help you find topics that can help– click on a word in the “cloud” and see the articles I have “tagged” as being relevant.
I hope this find-it-in-one-spot review has been helpful to you.

Today’s free link: By clicking the links above, you will see all the previously posted downloads, of which there are many. And also, there are links to more free links in no’s 1 and 2 above.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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April 5, 2008 Posted by | advice, anti-spyware, antivirus, Backups, computers, converting to NTFS, encrypting files, how to, passwords, PC, privacy, security, tech, Vista, Windows, XP | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Continuing adventures in e-mail security

Who’s reading your e-mail? Are you sure it is only the person you sent it to? Could it hurt you, or your business, (or, your marriage?) if someone else was reading it? Wouldn’t it be great if you could ensure that only the intended recipient could read it?

Loyal Friends and True of this series will remember that I while back I wrote a series on using WinPT and GPG to encrypt your e-mail and keep your important conversations private. (If you would like to take a look, click here.) I feel compelled to confess to you, Dear Reader, that the topic was not too well received, and my stats took a bit of a downturn during its run. It is my belief that this was due to the fact that the method described is not one-click simple. It is, in fact, a bit complicated.

In the prior series, I explained (in my limited way) that the encrypting of files, and sending them to someone else, where they then need to decode them, is best done by the exchanging of “keys” in what is called “Public-key encryption” (for Wikipedia’s explanation on that, click here). I will not be lecturing on that today.. though, I invite you to click the link if you’re interested in (or curious about) cryptography.

It is not hard to understand how encrypting your writing — so that it can travel across the Internet in an unreadable format — is a “good thing”.. a desirable thing.. and would have serious benefits. The encrypting of e-mails is often required by businesses, and they install cool (and expen$ive) machines on their networks that automatically encrypts all company e-mail. But what about us? Here at home? How do we do it? Can it happen automatically.. like it does at our job? Well, yes and no. The first step is to get yourself a “key”. (GPG allows you to generate keys, btw.)

I mentioned in yesterday’s article that I had started using a new (to me) e-mail client (Windows Live Mail) to access my webmail accounts. Live Mail, and all other e-mail clients (Outlook, OE, Thunderbird, etc.) natively support the use of “keys”, and allow you so “sign” and/or encrypt your e-mail with a single click… assuming you have taken a couple of steps first.
You may have noted that I have been putting the word key inside quotes; that’s because when I’m speaking at the level of how crypto works, I am actually speaking about algorithms and when I talk about using those keys, I am talking about “Certificates”. To encrypt your e-mail you need to get a Certificate… which is really a key (pair). Confusing, I know.

Tip of the day: Get a Certificate for your e-mail account(s). There are several Certificate Authorities that offer free Certificates for the personal use in e-mail, but I have found that if you are using any Microsoft products.. or you suspect that your recipient(s) may be using Windows and/or Outlook (which is a fairly good bet), you want to get your e-mail certificate here:
Today’s free link: Comodo Free Email Certificateimage 

Fill in the form, and use the e-mail address that you want to protect with encryption (If you use more than one e-mail address regularly, repeat this process for each one: each account needs its own Cert), and click on the “Advanced Private Key Options” link, and place a check in the “User protected?” checkbox, and enter a “Revocation password (twice). Click “Agree & Cimage ontinue”.

A window will open telling you that a Certificate is being “requested on your behalf”.. agree. Now you will see the screen (pictured). Click “OK”.

If all goes as it should, the Comodo webpage will change to a “Congratulations!” page, and instructs you to check the Inbox of the account you created the Cert for. Do so. There will be an e-mail from Comodo containing a link. You will need to click it to complete the process (Copy>Paste links into the address bar of your browser, remember?!).

image

Your e-mail will look like this. When you’ve copy>pasted the e-mail’s link into your browser’s address bar, and requested the Cert download, Windows will then automatically try to install it for you, but needs your permission..

image

Click “Yes” to give it.

image

This tells you you’re done, and now you can digitally “sign” your e-mail.. which is the first real step to exchanging encrypted email.. which I will describe tomorrow.
Now, e-mail a link to this article to the person(s) you want private conversations with, and tell them to click the link and follow the Comodo wizard and get their key.. you’re going to need it. Once you and they do this, encryption is a click away.

The conclusion of this How To is now available here.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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March 19, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, encrypting files, how to, security, tech, Windows | , , , , | 8 Comments

U.S. Air Force blocks blogs

The First Amendment does not give you the right to yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. It does not protect you from prosecution if you use “hate speech”. Threatening to harm or kill someone — even in jest, or said when drunk out of your mind — is a felony (4 yrs.) called “terrorist threats”, and if said by a man to woman, will be vigorously prosecuted. Uttering a racial epitaph can result in severe bodily injury or death.
We Americans cannot say whatever we want, whenever we want– First Amendment or no.

We have much more freedom when it comes to reading. (Which implies that we can print more than we can say, btw.) Sure, we might not find the book and magazines we’re interested in on the shelves of our public library. We might have to go into special, “adults only” bookstores. We might have to ‘subscribe’, and have our ‘literature’ sent to us in the mail.
Or, we might have to search the Web.

The Internet has literally billions of published pages (on a million topics) and, as I mentioned in my article on “Web 2.0”, practically anyone can publish them. If you wanted, you could create and host a website (or use the free one your ISP gives you); you could post a blog; you could post your thoughts and pictures on MySpace or Facebook ect., et al, and so forth and so on. And.. you can say pretty much anything (there’s very little oversight).
I could be typing my Great-Aunt Elsie’s dill pickle recipe, or blathering about the S.F. Giants’ chances now that Bonds is gone… or, disclosing secret tricks for getting away with going A.W.O.L. from your Air Force base.
That’s why I’m glad* the Air Force has decided to block blogs. (Click the link for details.)

Now… I don’t know if the Air Force’s policy prevents personnel from viewing Tech–for Everyone or not (frankly, I don’t know that any member of our Armed Forces has ever visited my humble site). The articles I read indicate that the filter used blocks all sites with the word “blog” in the URL, which my URL does not have. I do not want you to think I’m writing this article because I have been “blocked” and I’m sore about it.. I simply don’t know that to be the case.
I just don’t think all blogs are “bad”, and I am concerned by blanket blacklisting.

But I’m willing to concede that there are plenty of blogs that people should simply ignore.
I am willing to concede that there are.. policies that should be applied to members of our government, justice system, and armed forces that don’t need to be applied to civilians (particularly in areas involving national security).
There are merits on both sides of the censorship argument.. what is the “right thing” to do?

Personally, I have faith in the caliber of individuals serving in the Armed Forces and I feel that they should have access to information. I believe they are smart enough to discern the “legitimate” from some kook’s rantings.. and don’t need some mechanical blinders put in place.

I would like very much if you folks who read this, and either are in the Armed Forces, or who have loved ones serving (and this has affected them), would post a comment in my Comments box and share with us what you think of this restrictive action by the Air Force. Does this help you do your job?
(Actually, all are welcome to comment!)

*Sarcasm.

Today’s free link: I have posted this one before, but I really think it is worth posting again. If you carry any sensitive data on your thumb-drive (logins for example), you really should encrypt it. TrueCrypt simply is the best free data encryption tool that I know of. Encrypt any folder or partition (“drive”), including your boot (C:). TrueCrypt works with Windows, Apple OSX, and Linux.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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February 29, 2008 Posted by | computers, encrypting files, hardware, tech | , , , , , | 5 Comments

Wow! + Securing your e-mail, Part 5

Folks, I am just not sure that I have it in me to write today — I’m still staggered by yesterday’s Super Bowl. I’m reeling. Stunned. And.. chagrined.
At the very start of the season I predicted (to anyone who would listen) that the New England Patriots would win the Super Bowl. I repeated this prediction — with growing assurance — each week.
(“But what about the Colts?” was the main objection/reaction I received.)

The omniscience of my prediction was bolstered by an undefeated season, and the Pats went into yesterday’s game something like 12-point favorites. They were playing (against) a wildcard team (only once before has a wildcard team made it all the way to Super Bowl victory) led by a young and untested QB.
I think you can figure where I placed my bet. Who could not say that the Patriots were the best team this year?
Wow. The reality was like a Disney movie. I expect the scientists to announce that the Earth’s magnetic poles have flipped positions any day now.

Now, back to work:
Now that we have WinPT installed and configured, it is time to start using GPG to encrypt our e-mails. Our public and private keys have been generated, and our public key is has been made into a transferable file (“Export”).

But first, lets review:
a: You will have downloaded and Installed WinPT, as I described in Part 3 of this series. (Those of you using a e-mail client other than Outlook Express will also need to download+Install the appropriate “plug-in”.)
b: And you will have configured the encryption program (GPG) and generated your keypair, as described in Part 4.
c: Those of you using Outlook Express (as I am for this demonstration) also need to launch the OE plug in (GPGOEInit). Simply click on it in the WinPT folder of your Programs list. Start >All Programs >Windows Privacy Tools >GPGOEInit. (also, please note the “Documentation” option.)
gpgoe.jpg

If you have played along, you should see two icons in your System Tray (by the clock), the WinPT “key”, and the OE plug-in’s “padlock”.
icons.jpg
d: You will also have “Exported” your private key, and sent your key to the person(s) you want to exchange encrypted e-mail with. (The documentation, and my previous articles, discuss key exchange methods.) They will use your key to encrypt the e-mails they send to you.

Congratulations! You have come far. But, it should be fairly clear that for encryption to work, both ends of the transaction need to have the encoding/decoding tools– in short, the person you are exchanging encrypted messages with also needs to have GPG installed, and they will have needed to send you their public key (which you will have “Import”-ed onto your keyring).
If they have not (yet) installed WinPT/GPG, you can point them to this series by copy>pasting this URL https://techpaul.wordpress.com/2008/01/28/whos-reading-your-e-mail-part-1/ and sending it to them.

If these thing are in place, open OE and create a new message.

send.jpg

When using GPG, the appropriate method to encrypt the message is to issue a hotkey command: when your e-mail is typed and ready to go out, hit Ctrl+Alt+E. You will see a WinPT window tell you that the encryption was successful. Now click Send.
When you receive an encrypted message, open it and hit the Ctrl+Alt+D key.

The screenshot below shows the sample e-mail (encrypted) as viewed by a machine which does not have GPG capability. This is how it looks to anyone who might intercept it.
scrambled.jpg

Clearly, this “after” picture is quite a bit different than the “before” picture, and my e-mail is unreadable by unwanted eyes.
Now you can safely and securely exchange sensitive, private, e-mail with only the intended recipient.

I will continue this series with more ways to use WinPT/GPG, and describe other tools/methods for encrypting e-mail, but will take a bit of a break before doing so — there is much in news I want to discuss first.

[Please note: the e-mail accounts and keys shown were temporary and have already been deleted.]

Today’s free link: For many people, the best part of any Super Bowl is the commercials. If you would like to view this year’s ads again, click here. You can even vote for your favorite.

Copyright 2007-8 © Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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February 4, 2008 Posted by | advice, computers, encrypting files, IE 7, PC, privacy, security, tech, Windows | , , , , , , | Leave a comment