Microsoft will be ending support for Windows 7 in January 2020, which means there will be no further updates. Shortly thereafter, I will stop support as well. While that date may seem far in the future, I can assure you that’s not the case! It is less than a year and a half away, and the majority of my clients will need new computers (along with associated hardware and software) between now and that deadline. I am affected by this as well; because I have to replace my desktop and laptop.

This early reminder is designed to let you begin planning a budget for a refresh. Based on the current political talk and potentially looming trade tariffs, it is possible that computers could cost more for consumers and businesses before next year. However, I have no idea when (or if) price increases will take place, nor by how much. You can use the following approximate numbers: $800 for a computer, $200 for a monitor, $150 for a printer, and $500 for me to do the necessary work (assessment, procurement, system set up, installation, and file transfer).

I have a chart with the warranty information for each of my clients’ computers. I will send you a letter 60 to 90 days in advance of its expiration to find out how you would like to proceed. Some of you may decide you want to move to an Apple Mac, others may opt for Ubuntu Linux, and still others Google Chromebook. We can discuss those options in the coming months.

Please note that recently purchased Windows 7 computers are eligible to upgrade to Windows 10 for free. I will contact Lenovo to obtain the software update for you. Other Windows 7 computers may not be eligible for free software, but could still run Windows 10 (an additional purchase). Again, I will discuss these options with you as well.

Look for more frequent reminders, along with Windows 10 usage tips, in future editions of this blog.

Cisco Systems earlier this week released a report from its Talos cyber intelligence unit. It contained a warning of 500,000 routers and storage devices in 54 countries that have been infected with malware. Their findings (https://blog.talosintelligence.com/2018/05/VPNFilter.html) pointed to the Russian government as having sponsored the hack, calling it “VPNFilter,” and that the software was simply waiting for activation. With a high preponderance of these devices in the Ukraine, it seems that an attack might be pending, or at least imminent.

I won’t bore you with the details (and they are voluminous), but the recommendations for how to thwart the hackers are quite interesting. End users are instructed to reboot their routers, modems, and network attached storage (NAS) devices to the factory default state and then to install the latest firmware. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are instructed to reboot routers and cable modems for their customers and to ensure the devices are patched. Those two steps should, for all intents and purposes, knock out any of the malware that may have infected the devices.

Here’s my question: How many home users – or business owners – know how to perform those two steps? I do, because it is something I learned a long time ago as part of my job. But I can’t see asking any of my clients to do that. For one thing, the recommendations didn’t take into account the main task of saving existing settings – or at least writing them down – so they could be recreated after the device was flashed and rebooted.

In a “best case scenario” I can imagine someone was using a Linksys modem they purchased from a big box store and they didn’t configure anything; they simply followed the installation instructions. But in all likelihood, the SSID (i.e., the broadcast name) of their Wi-Fi is going to change. That means all of their wireless devices – computers, printers, tablets, and phones – will also need to be reset.

The report acknowledges that most of these devices are what we frequently call “set it and forget it,” meaning that they are expected to simply do their job once they’ve been installed. My concern about the recommendations centers on the fact that most individuals have no idea how to obtain the current firmware for these network attached devices. It isn’t very obvious from any of the manufacturers’ literature (and these include Linksys, TP-Link, and Netgear) that this is a task anyone should ever consider doing.

Granted a half-million devices is only a small drop in the bucket in terms of world-wide network device distribution. Yet it seems we have entered into a new “normal” for what people need to do – and learn – in order to better protect themselves from cyber security threats.

Thanks and safe computing!

Microsoft issues its monthly updates on “Patch Tuesday,” the second Tuesday of the month. Since the beginning of this year it has tried to fix the critical issues associated with the Spectre and Meltdown problems. But in a totally unexpected turn, the March 2018 monthly update knocked Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 systems offline because the network drivers get clobbered after the computers were restarted.

As a result, for the past two months I have blacklisted the updates; meaning I prevented them from being installed. In cases where I missed that phase and the computer had not been rebooted, I ran a script to uninstall the update. And in some cases, I was altogether too late and had to manually reinstall the network drivers.

Unfortunately, the May 2018 monthly update was wrapped up with a critical security patch, so it was inevitable that I had to release it. And I regret it, because this last episode has pretty much worn me out – and I’m not done with it yet.

Of all the vaunted software tools I have at my disposal, the most valuable one is remote access. However, when a client’s computer cannot connect to the internet that tool becomes useless; and I am forced into “break/fix” mode.

So the second Thursday of the month has now become a day of running around to client sites and manually reinstalling drivers, getting internet access again, updating the drivers and fixing other elements that are listed as “Unknown” in the Windows Device Manager.

Knowing that I’m shouting into the wind, I’m going to make this plea anyway. “Hey Microsoft! Could you please figure out a way to get this update to work properly without any extraordinary measures on my part?” I would thank you, and my clients would thank you.

I received a phone call from a major distributor earlier this week asking me if I knew about a new line of laptops issued by the electronics giant LG. I admitted that I was a Lenovo partner, and was partial to their offerings, but I was interested in seeing what the competition had available.

A short while later I received the email, the bulk of which is shown below.

 

At first I was intrigued, because it looked like it was going to be a light-weight model that could be useful for some road warriors. That is until I got to the last word of the text, and I stopped short. In my head I heard the cartoon sound of tires screeching to a stop.

I then re-read the title, “Professional Redefined.” At that point I was horrified because of the dissonance in the ad copy.

It starts with the word “professional” in the first line and ends with the words “Windows 10 Home” in the last.

If “professional redefined” means using consumer-based products in a business environment, I am absolutely and totally against it.

I am a managed services provider (MSP), and I sell IT support services to small businesses.

One of the main points I make as an MSP is that a business must use business-class (or even enterprise-class) products, because they are designed to be properly managed, provide greater security, and offer additional features used by businesses.

Windows 10 Home does not fit in those categories at all.

I cannot, in good conscience, even consider these devices for my clients.  But now I’m wondering how much grief this LG marketing campaign is going to cause other MSPs who will have to tell their clients, “No, I’m sorry, it looks nice and shiny, but it isn’t suitable for your office.”

And no offense to LG, but if you are going to redefine the word “professional,” I would hope – very sincerely – that you would aim for something higher up on the scale, instead of lower.

Thanks and safe computing!

A security-based newsletter entered my Inbox Tuesday afternoon and, like a gerbil, I immediately clicked it open to see what kind of shenanigans were going on in the world of cybersecurity.  You can imagine how intrigued I was at the following title:  “Chrome Is Scanning Files on Your Computer, and People Are Freaking Out.”

Well, that certainly got my attention, and I clicked on the link to read the article at Motherboard, and a lot of the associated links, and those associated stories and their links, and before I knew it, more than 30 minutes had gone by – and my jaw was just as slack at the end of that adventure as it was at the start.

Here’s the original article:  https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/wj7x9w/google-chrome-scans-files-on-your-windows-computer-chrome-cleanup-tool

I’m going to give you the “Reader’s Digest” version because I don’t know if many of you are going to read that.

Let’s start with the basics.  Google Chrome is a browser, just like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, and Mozilla’s Firefox, and Apple’s Safari.  The browser lets you explore the pages on the World Wide Web.

The focus of this article is that deep within the Google Chrome settings, there is a ‘clean up’ option that uses a third-party product (from antivirus vendor ESET) to scan for malware that could, potentially, harm the Chrome browser itself.

One of the parameters associated with this option, “Report details to Google,” is defined as follows: “Includes information about harmful software, system settings, and processes on your computer.”  And the default for this setting is to ALWAYS SEND the data to Google!  Obviously, this setting lets Google’s developers know how to handle any problems that may have been encountered during the scan.

Now that’d be great if Chrome simply scanned a few known locations in which malware frequently appears and then closed down.

Unfortunately, as the reporter describes it, the scanner reached further into the computer than anyone would have suspected, and it was going through the My Documents folder.  I can’t imagine that any malicious software would reside there that could cause any harm to the browser.  So that’s just overkill.  The exaggerated claim is that Google is spying on you, your files, and your computer.

According to a leading Google developer, the scanner “only runs weekly, it only has normal user privileges (meaning it can’t go too deep into the system), is “sandboxed” (meaning its code is isolated from other programs), and users have to explicitly click” on a box if anything is detected.

Like I said, this is the first time I’m hearing about this.  But the text of the “agreement” you have with Google when using Chrome can be found here: https://www.google.com/chrome/browser/privacy/whitepaper.html#unwantedsoftware

I looked into this, and it seems that this clean up “feature” has been in existence for more than a year, and is only now getting any reaction.  But that’s the wonderful nature of the Twitter universe.  Someone makes a discovery; some of her followers take a closer look and get agitated; a reporter asks a few questions, and then everyone gets all riled up about the intrusive nature of a global corporation.

I doubt that any of my clients who have Chrome have EVER seen a pop-up that malware was found.  And I know that many of you use Chrome and that some of you have encountered instances of malware.  It’s simply that the software I have installed on your computers scans more frequently than once a week, is constantly updated, and – most importantly –I monitor the results (not Google!).

While I would want everyone to turn off the setting that sends data to Google, the steps I have followed do not work for more than the logged on session.  If you close your browser and then re-open it, the setting turns itself on again.  I have checked, and it seems that this setting simply cannot be eliminated.

What’s my recommendation:  If you don’t mind having your machine bogged down every now and then by a scanner over which you (and I) have no control, you can continue to use Chrome.  But I would really like to know if you ever get a pop-up from Google about malware.  Otherwise, if you’d prefer a less intrusive browser, send me an email or give me a call and I’ll install Firefox and transfer your favorites.

Thanks and safe computing!

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It is Black History Month, but it also contains Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day (remind me, why did we decide to smoosh all of those birthdays into only one day?), and let’s not forget my favorite: National Margarita Day (2/22). For a short month, this is chock full of “days.”

What’s all that have to do with computers and security?

Quite a lot!

Every day, there is another announcement of some form of threat to your security: a data breach here, a ransomware attack there, new forms of malware, some other scheme for mining cyber-currency from your computer or smart phone, and even more sinister, the ever-present phone calls from “flaming idjits” that tell you about a problem with your computer that they have detected and called to help you fix. Please! That one just makes me angry. (Although you might be amused at the sheer number of individuals whom I’ve told to engage in physical acts that would require contortions beyond the ability of most…)

I know that no one can be kept on “high alert” day after day without getting weary of it. It is tough for me, and it is a major aspect of my job. I am always pleased when one of my clients gets an email and forwards it to me to ask, “Is this legitimate?” or “What should I do about this?” That means you’re staying on your toes and looking out for your own safety. That’s what I want you to do; that’s what I need you to do.

However I don’t know how many others are getting emails and continuing down the path of – there’s no other word for it – ignorance, and clicking on that link. Because, despite all of the protections that I’ve put in place on your computers, there is still the risk that if you click on a link in an email something bad could happen.

So what should you do if you are attacked?

1. First of all don’t panic, although that’s what most people do.

2a.  Simply pull the Ethernet cord from the back of the computer (there’s a little hitch to squeeze in before you unplug it).

2b.  Business owners, you need to make sure the affected computer is no longer communicating with the server.

3.  Do NOT turn off the computer! You will lose any forensic information that is available. I’m going to need that data to help remediate the problem.

4.  Call me immediately, and use your phone to send me an email with a photo of what’s on your screen so that I can identify the exact nature of the problem.

5.  Let me handle this for you – it is not a “DIY” (do it yourself) project! Don’t start “Googling” for the fix! Some Russian firm with 500 employees wrote the malware and will charge $79.95 to your credit card to fix the solution they created in the first place. And it won’t get fixed – you’ll simply be scammed…

6a.  After I have assessed the damage, and if it is necessary, you can reach out to the local police and to your insurance company.

6b.  For business owners, this is a reminder to make sure you get, or review, your cyber-liability insurance policy.

There, some “tough love” on Valentine’s Day. I hope that you don’t have to go through any of this, and can simply relax and enjoy National Margarita Day with me.

Thanks and safe computing!

I thought that when Mozilla released Firefox 57, code named Quantum, it would live up to the recent hype about how fast it would be.

I did not find that to be the case.  My home page is www.google.com and it would take almost 10 seconds to load it.  That is ridiculously too slow.

I did some research and found others had complained about slow response and freezing web browsers.  The net result is a simple fix:  turn off the Accessibility Services (if you don’t need it).

  1. Click the menu button Fx57Menu and choose Options.
  2. Select the Privacy and Security panel.
  3. Go to the “Permissions” section.
  4. Check the Prevent accessibility services from accessing your browser checkbox.
  5. Restart Firefox.

Simple and sweet – and it works!

Here is the KB article if you want to read the entire description of these services and how you might be affected if you disable them: https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/accessibility-services

Hope that helps!

 

I think that I know my client base well enough to know that the majority of you don’t use Twitter, although you probably do know someone who does (no, I don’t mean that guy who seems to be in the news every day for his posts). Unfortunately, what is happening now with that venue is getting out of control.

In the past few weeks if someone in politics, or in the news media, tweets something that is antithetical to another group’s beliefs, that person’s inbox will be filled to the brim immediately with targeted opposition posts. There are these things called “bots” (short for robots) that are now spewing out antagonist tweets at an unprecedented rate. And they are using Twitter to attempt to change the course of political and social discussions.

We all realize now that the 2016 presidential race was subject to Russian cyber-meddling. Some analysts say that the recent ferocity of the latest assaults is but a mere preview of what could be coming in the 2018 elections. The purpose of these bots is to sow discord, and so far, they are succeeding. While top Russian officials have repeatedly rejected accusations of meddling, the top U.S. intelligence agencies are telling us otherwise.

I’ll certainly bet you never thought the information you got on your mobile device came from a robot programmed to serve up garbage, but it is happening. And now, more than ever before, you now have to question the integrity of the information that you receive. On the one hand, ever since the election Twitter has taken steps to counter false news and kill off fake accounts. On the other, unfortunately, the bots are also getting savvier at dodging detection.

Introducing AOL Desktop Gold

You may have received – or in all likelihood will receive – an email from AOL that reads, in part:

Thanks to one of my clients for forwarding this email to my attention. I had not heard of this before now, so I did some research.

From what I have read in a variety of online forums, this software is a complete travesty. It functions poorly, doesn’t address the needs of most users, and is subject to frequent crashes and computer freezes despite the (supposedly) frequent updates from AOL.

I’m not certain what they were thinking – other than asking hundreds of thousands of older adults for $4.99 a month to be able to send and receive emails – but for those of you who have not paid anything for AOL for years, this is a pretty drastic change.

AOL is saying that because they will now offer two-step verification, your AOL account will be more secure. They will be encrypting the emails that are saved on your hard drive so that no one will be able to read them, thus providing you with more protection. And, because you are a paying customer, you’ll have access to their tech support (definitely not US-based).

So, what should you do?

I am going to recommend that you DO NOT install this software unless you want the headache(s) of dealing with it. If there ever was a time to break free of the AOL desktop software, it is now. It should not be too difficult, but I’m going to cover the available options – and there are only three.

First, you can opt to sign up to receive the new AOL Desktop Gold software. You must have an existing AOL account and (at some point) you’ll have to provide your credit card for the monthly $4.99 charge. The first 30 days are free.

Now I called AOL customer support, and after waiting about 20 minutes for a representative, I asked about that little asterisked statement at the bottom of the email. The one that reads, “To avoid being charged the recurring subscription fee, simply cancel before the free-trial period ends.” This means exactly what it says. You can decide you don’t want to pay for this new software before you get charged. And when you tell AOL that, the software will stop working. Seriously. You won’t be able to access your emails – or your contacts. And you won’t be able to go back to the old desktop software version because the new one has scrambled the crap out of your emails. This is a one-way ticket. I warn you not to do it. If you run into a problem after you install this, I won’t be able to help you – you’ll have to call AOL tech support for help.

Second, you can keep your old software and use AOL in a browser. You will have 30 days from when you receive this email notification until your desktop software will no longer work in terms of sending or receiving email. So you can decide to bite the bullet and use a web browser to work with your new emails, as millions of people do. This isn’t a particularly awful transition, because things are pretty much where you expect them. And it is still AOL and all of your stuff is there for you.

Your existing desktop software will continue to let you access all of your email that was “Saved to my PC.” You will be able to use any browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, or Safari) to access your mail directly at http://mail.aol.com, where all of our “Saved to AOL” mail exists, as well as your contacts.
All of your downloaded email attachments can be accessed through the Download Manager in your old version of the AOL Desktop software, or through Windows Explorer in the folder where the files were originally saved.

I’m sure at least one of you is going to be curious and ask: Can I archive my old mail? The answer is: Sure you can; but you have to do it one at a time. There is no automated mechanism. You have to open the email, select File, then chose the type to save it as, and then you have to use a unique name for each one. If you have thousands of emails, you’ll have to work non-stop throughout those 30 days just to get a small portion of them saved. Not worth the effort…

Third, you can give up using AOL and use another email service. And this means changing your email address, which I know is a horrifying thought. The two free services that I suggest looking at are Outlook.com and Gmail.com. Changing your email address means that you would have to contact everyone you know to say, “Hey here’s my new email address.” You’ll also have to update any website where you sign in, and update any email subscriptions, and your phone and tablet. It is a huge effort, but I wanted to cover all the options. Irrespective of which one you chose, you can save your existing AOL contacts and import them.

Outlook, provided by Microsoft, is a free service that uses the same enterprise infrastructure that Microsoft uses for Fortune 100 companies. Only because you are not a company, you will receive AOL-like ads in your email. You can reduce some of them by using the privacy features in the profile settings. The web interface is clean and pretty straight-forward.

Gmail is offered by Google. It is free; it can be accessed on any web browser anywhere as well as on mobile devices. Similar to AOL, it is not ad-free. The company will display targeted ads; only not based on your activities in Gmail, but instead on things like your Google searches, the YouTube videos you watch, the apps you use, and the websites you visit. You can opt out of those targeted ads — but not Google’s data collecting — by turning off “ad personalization” in your personal Google settings.

There you have it, three not so great possibilities, but that’s the way of the email world in 2017.

AOL is rolling out this change in waves, so it may be some time before you receive the notice. I just wanted you to be aware of what’s going on, and to prepare for it.

Any questions, let me know in the comments.

The last thing in the world I want to hear from a client is, “I did something really stupid,” because sometimes I am inclined to agree with them.  This was the case the other day.  I received a very distraught call in the middle of the afternoon. My client sputtered, “I should have known better, but I just wasn’t thinking.”  She went on to tell me that she received a phone call from someone who alerted her to the fact that something was wrong with her computer and that he had to remote in to fix it.

What makes this situation a bit puzzling is that she uses a Mac, and most of these fake callers say they are from Microsoft.  Now for the truly terrifying part:  She proceeded to let a complete stranger remotely access her computer for about an hour.

I won’t go into the recriminations she must be feeling.  While I tried to offer as much comfort as possible, I am quite embarrassed that one of my clients would not think to call me, or at least tell the person calling that “I already have a computer guy who takes care of this for me.”  But that is not the point of this security brief.  I need to concentrate your attention on what has to happen after this atrocious event.

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