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!

A client called in on my support phone earlier this afternoon and told me that she had a “Microsoft System Security Alert” screen that was talking to her and that she couldn’t do anything with her computer.

I launched a remote session, and by using the Windows Task Manager I quickly ended the Internet Explorer applications that were running. It was a fast and easy fix for a really stupid problem.

I was extremely grateful that this particular home user called me, instead of the 800 number that was on the bogus alert screen (shown below). But my relief was short lived.

A few minutes later she was back on the phone saying the fraudulent alert was on her computer again. I killed it and ran a scan with Malwarebytes, which turned up nothing.

I reassured her that everything was fine.

When she called a third time, I had to ask what it was she was doing – so she showed me. She launched Internet Explorer and it opened on AOL’s home page. She told me she wanted to go to Amazon to check on a book. And she did so using the AOL Search bar and typing in Amazon.

On the resulting page AOL search results list (shown below), she clicked on the first link that was displayed. I finally understood exactly what was going on.

You see, that is a sponsored advertisement, meaning some organization paid AOL money to highlight their “product” based on a search. Underneath that is, in fact, Amazon’s legitimate web site listing.

I used this as an instructional moment by turning on Internet Explorer’s Status bar. I moved the mouse over the Amazon site link to show that https://www.amazon.com appeared in the Status bar. I then moved the mouse over the ad, and the following bunch of gibberish appeared:

https://174036060.r.bat.bing.com/?ld=d3iEIp8CztNDVVjNTYoqXRUjVUCUzK_5V032YvPMriEHbBBDFcwsFXQFK3s2qR9MgRW_xhZ9J5SlsoSk6f38u2TnHoDCUsZUB1JUNHwTr9OuZjeHpOBGhVUOyzHQ20xE-ECR9lob4HeScYrxeY00wTrgAAZ5Wu2BEbi0Pb9RjRzi-woEAc&u=http%3a%2f%2fgoo.gl%2fyD6Nby%3furl%3dhttps%253A%252F%252Fwww.amazon.com%252Fbooks-used-books-textbooks%252Fb%252Fref%253Dnav_shopall_bo_t3%253Fie%253DUTF8%2526node%253D283155

I calmly pointed out that if my client knew which web site she wanted to go to, she could simply type it in the address bar of the browser and go there – no searching necessary. She’s glad to have learned that.

What I can’t figure out is how in the heck AOL permitted this ad to be displayed in the first place. By having it up there, they are actively enabling those sleazebag “support agents” to run rough-shod over the typical older AOL user, who does not have a Managed Services Provider to answer her support phone calls.

It took 15 minutes to get through to an AOL Support rep. I’m hoping – after demonstrating exactly what we found – that AOL will take this ad down and pursue the bad actors in some way. Of course, that probably won’t happen…

Beware!

Update 09/07/2017: AOL has removed this ad from the search results list. Probably the fastest action they have ever taken…

I have been working with the Windows 10 Technical Preview for several weeks now. It is slowly starting to stabilize, and I am becoming slightly more proficient in working with and around it.

Just the same I have some concerns that lead to questions for which I have not found answers.

I am concerned about support for vendor-specific device drivers from the likes of Dell, HP, and Lenovo. In many cases these manufacturers did not provide new or updated drivers for Windows 8 / 8.1 for “recently released” Windows 7 computers.

What’s going to happen when someone thinks they can update to Windows 10 because Microsoft said it was possible – and they no longer have network access because there are no Windows 10 drivers for their network card? The only option at present is to roll back the upgrade and hope that the computer still operates properly.

I am also concerned about what is going to happen after the first “free” year of Windows 10 as a service. What is Microsoft going to charge consumers and small businesses to continue using the operating system on their computers, laptops, and tablets? Will there be a “buy one – get two free” offering? Will each device require a subscription? How much money does Microsoft think consumers will be willing to spend monthly or annually?

I am patiently waiting for some answers to come from Redmond…

SkyDrive is Microsoft’s cloud storage feature for sharing files among various Internet-connected devices.  You can upload files from your computer to the cloud and access them from your web browser, or your phone.  You can even share files with others.

Here’s how it works.  To get started, open your web browser and go to http://windows.microsoft.com/skydrive.  Click on the Get SkyDrive button.  A small file will download to your computer.  Double click it to launch it.  As part of the installation process, you will be asked for your Microsoft Account.

If you don’t have one, you can create one at that time (all it requires is an email address and a password).  You will have to verify your existing email address by waiting for an email from Microsoft.

The installation continues to run and creates a SkyDrive folder on your computer .

Click Next and then Done, and you can access your files from anywhere. Read More →

In October 2009, Microsoft made an unusual jump into the “free” software market.  It allowed original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like Dell, HP, and Lenovo to install a replacement to the previously discontinued Microsoft Works suite.  The offering was called Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition.  This starter set of Office only included Word and Excel.  In fact, these versions were a subset of the base products, because they had reduced functionality.  In addition, they were sponsored with relatively unobtrusive Microsoft-sponsored ads.

Face it; if you only used those two Office products, and wanted to save more than $100, you used the “free” version of Office that came pre-installed on your computer.  Many of my clients did that – because the two products just worked and people  found they didn’t need the advanced functionality.  However, Microsoft believed that most consumers would eventually click on one of the ad links and purchase the fully functional version.

This experiment lasted less than three years.  In June 2012, Microsoft announced to the OEMs that they could no longer pre-install the Office 2010 Starter Edition.  With that announcement, the OEMs could offer either a 60-day trial or let you purchase the full product.  There was no “in between” version available.

So what should a consumer do?  Naturally, there are two options.  The first is based on the long-standing practice of purchasing software and installing it on your desktop.  The second is based on the new way things are heading.  In this case, you use a web browser and put your files in the cloud.  Let’s discuss each of these options.

The lowest priced version of Office 2010 costs around $120.  This is the Home and Student version.  All you need to purchase is the product key, which contains the 25-digit code to unlock the Office 2010 software that is already installed on your computer.  If you want, or need, to use Outlook for your email, you’ll have to spend about $70 more for the Home and Business version.

The second option requires a leap of faith and the desire (and ability) to learn new ways of doing things.  Here, you would to select to use the preview version of Microsoft Office Web Apps.  This is (for now) a free, online, edition of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote that relies on a scaled-back subset of the desktop versions’ features.  It requires using Microsoft’s SkyDrive (something you have to sign up for separately).

SkyDrive gives you 7 GB of storage in the cloud, and is accessible from a web browser.  This means you can access your files from any computer anywhere there is an Internet connection.  The Office Web Apps can work in conjunction with the desktop versions of Office, but do not require it.

Office Web Apps is still considered to be in “preview” mode.  This is the equivalent of “beta” software, so that means you cannot depend on it 100% of the time.  It also means that your support is solely through email or community forums.  However, because it runs in a browser, Microsoft can update the functions and features on a regular basis – without performing any updates on your computer – to make sure that these programs operate properly.

So, give Microsoft more than $100 for software so you can work on your desktop, or give Microsoft your files so that you can work on them in the cloud.  The decision is up to you, and in most cases will be based on what you want.  To get a glimpse of what the future holds, take a look at Working with Microsoft in the Cloud Using SkyDrive.”

If you have any questions about Microsoft Office, please let me know.

So you finally acquiesce to the nagging prompt that the Java runtime needs to be updated.  You click OK and the download starts.  You wait a few minutes and the installation begins.  You click the Next button repeatedly, because you just want to be done with this update.

Unfortunately, you just installed the Ask toolbar in your browser and changed your homepage and search provider to Ask.  And you never meant to.

But, if you paid careful enough attention during the installation, there was the tiny – pre-checked – mark that “asked” if you wanted to install the Ask toolbar and all of its attendant changes.

Over the years, I have seen Internet Explorer browser windows with more than five toolbars:  Yahoo, Google, Ask, and others.  Why would you need all of those?  Most people don’t have any explanation.  Still others figure it is all part of what they are supposed to have when they use IE (as if Microsoft had decided to update something for them).  Even fewer know how to remove them.

One major problem with all these toolbars is that they slow down your web browser.  In addition, they add clutter to your screen.  Some increase the risk of virus and spyware infections.  Of course some toolbars are the result of spyware, so it is not always your fault.

With the Java update, Oracle gets paid by Ask for each user that gets this toolbar and uses it.  You, as the “victim,” need to jump through hoops to get your settings back to the way they were before the installation.  Unfortunately, even the Windows Restore feature may not work well enough to make things right.

So, what can you do?

For one, you simply have to pay attention during the installation.  Different vendors insert this “permission” step at different points.  Simply clicking the Next button is a lazy approach.  Take your time.  Make sure you read each window carefully.  Uncheck the box that was filled in for you about any toolbar you don’t need.

By the way, my SPF+ and SHADE subscribers do not encounter this problem – the installation is handled automatically, and no toolbar is installed!

Have a lot of toolbars in your web browser?  Send me a screen shot and I’ll post the best entries.

 

I just came back from a very, very, short client visit – and I feel bad about it.  Not because I couldn’t solve the problem that he called about (I did).  I feel bad because I could not arrange to get to see him for more than a day and a half, and the problem identification and resolution took less than one minute.  To make matters worse, he had spent most of the day waiting for a Time Warner Cable technician to come to fix the problem with his modem, after having spent almost one hour on the phone with their technical support the day before.  The issue he was experiencing:  no Internet connectivity.

My client called me on Tuesday, right after the July 4th holiday weekend, and said that he could not connect to the Internet.  He’s a businessperson who works out of his home office, and I know that getting his email and the attached documents is extremely important to him.  He told me that he thought the problem started sometime on Sunday evening, but that he waited until after the holiday to call me.

He said that the lights on the modem were not all lit, and asked if that could be the problem.  I told him that it sounded like a bad modem.  I also explained that I was booked with appointments for the entire day, but that if he had the patience, he should call Time Warner Cable to see if the problem was on their end.  He was willing to do that.

During a brief follow-up phone call later in the day, he told me that he spent almost an hour on the phone with a support representative, who after exhausting her script, told him that she would dispatch a technician the following day.  Good for him, right?  No, not really – the appointment could not be narrowed down to anything other than between 9 am and 7 pm.  My client was going to be a captive in his office with nothing to do but wait.

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In the March/April 2011 issue of the AAA North Jersey Traveler magazine, author Jim Grey wrote an article entitled, “Preventative maintenance helps the life of your vehicle.”  While I won’t reprint the article in its entirety, I do want to highlight a few of the statements he uses to describe how to take care of your car, and apply them to the care of your computer network.

“Consumers may think it’s the luck of the draw when a car reaches 200,000 miles and another bites the dust at 100,000, [while] it really comes down to preventative maintenance.

Scheduling regular trips to your mechanic can mean the difference in tens of thousands of miles in your car’s life.”

Well, most small business owners know that their computer networks can last anywhere from two years to ten.  But very few of them contact a technician to take care of them until something breaks.  Most people don’t know (and even fewer even care) about the common maintenance techniques necessary to keep their computer networks running properly.
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I received a frantic call from a client just the other day.  He had just returned from a trip and had not used his computer in three weeks.  He told me he was able to print out the contents of an email, but when he tried to print the attached PDF file, nothing happened.

I went to see this for myself, because I could not understand what was wrong.  Sure enough, nothing happened when I tried to print the PDF file; not a flicker, not an hourglass, and nothing in the print queue.

I approached diagnosing the problem in a logical manner.  I restarted the printers (there were two – and neither one worked), rebooted the computer, and tried to print the PDF file.  Still nothing.
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