Microsoft will end support for Internet Explorer 11 (IE) on June 15, 2022, as announced in May 2021.

Starting with Windows 10 version 20H2, which Microsoft released in October 2020, if you attempt to use IE, Windows will prompt you to use the Microsoft Edge browser.  You must make an explicit choice to deny that to continue to use the Internet Explorer browser.

Note: If you want to know what version of Windows you have, type the word winver in the Windows Search box (next to the Start button in the lower left-hand corner). The resulting “About Windows” window contains the version and build information.

The critical point to all of this is that Microsoft will jettison some outdated, still risk-prone software in favor of its new Edge browser, built on the same base as Google’s Chrome.

What does that mean for you? If you have an Internet Explorer icon on your desktop, it is time to delete it. Similarly, if you use IE to browse the web, you should transfer your Favorites (bookmarked websites) and your saved user IDs and passwords over to Edge or Chrome.

While Microsoft will provide a hybrid form of IE under Edge’s covers, the rest of the world has moved on. According to W3Schools, the internet’s most extensive tutor of web-based material, Chrome held the lead in usage with a commanding 81% of the market. Edge came in second with 6.6%, and Firefox held on with 5.5%. I am, and probably always will be, a stalwart fan of Firefox (at least until Mozilla stops supporting it).

In the upcoming months, I am hopeful that companies whose websites contain code explicitly built for Internet Explorer will remove that code to strengthen the security of their website. However, if they don’t, your browser should automatically switch to IE mode in Edge. But I won’t be surprised if bad actors make multiple attempts to figure out how to take over those websites to try to introduce malware to the unsuspecting.

Thanks, and safe computing!

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft officially released Windows 11 on October 5, 2021. In a blog post, the lead project manager expects the operating system successor to nearly seven-year-old Windows 10 to be widely available by the middle of 2022. I’ll admit, the “geek” in me couldn’t resist the siren call of a shiny new object. So, I spent less than half an hour downloading the 5.1 gigabyte file and an equivalent amount of time creating a virtual machine environment (running under Hyper-V) on a test Windows Server.

The installation was speedy compared to previous versions of Windows, even though the source file was on a USB drive. The initial phase after installation, commonly referred to as the “out-of-box experience” (OOBE, pronounced “oo-bee”), was pleasant and easy. No muss and no fuss getting to the initial Windows 11 desktop.

Here is a brief overview of some of the new features in the latest iteration of the Windows operating system.

First and foremost is that the Windows Taskbar is now in the center of the screen. I’ll call this blatant effect mimicry (or stealing) of Apple’s Dock, found in all Mac devices since 2001. This change may not be creative, but it is certainly different. This is especially apparent when for more than two dozen years, ever since Windows 95, Windows users have been accustomed to moving their cursor to the lower, left-hand corner to access the Start menu. Now it is in the “home” position – meaning the left-most spot – on the Taskbar. Now when you click it, the Start menu opens in an entire window in the center of your screen instead of sliding up an extensive menu. According to Microsoft, this sleeker, more straightforward screen gives you a better overview of the available features and programs to make it easier to accomplish your work (or play). Over time, the apps you use most frequently will take their place in the Recommended section.

New to Windows 11 is the confluence of several individual components that Microsoft thought would be useful to consumers. This item is Widgets, which includes news headlines, weather, stock information, and sports. Each item displays current information based on your location. You can change the size of each widget and customize it by clicking the three-dot menu icon in the upper right corner. You can add more widgets based on your preferences to the display. The privacy implications of all the Widget telemetry exchanged between you and Microsoft is a discussion for another newsletter. Also, I don’t know the corporate equivalent of this feature, nor if Group Policy can eliminate it.

Another change is what Microsoft is calling Snap Layouts and Snap Groups. In Windows 7, you could snap one window on each side of the screen by clicking on the window’s Title bar and rapidly moving it to the right or left. Windows 10 maintains this capability, and Microsoft expanded the concept with the Task View (described in the August 2019 edition). The purpose of this new functionality is to let you design how many open windows you want at one time, what they should contain, and where you want them to be positioned. For instance, you might wish to have an Excel spreadsheet open on the right-hand side of the screen, and your email client and an internet browser open, stacked one above the other, on the left-hand side. You can then save this layout to a named group and call it up when you want all three apps to open at once. Windows 11 gives you the ability to resume where you were working when you click on the link to the layout.

As you might have guessed, having all these apps open simultaneously (never mind saving their condition to restore them quickly) is going to require more memory than ever before. Most of you have been very comfortable working with 8 GB of RAM (memory). In some cases, I have given “power users” 16 GB of RAM. If you plan to use this feature extensively, I may have to double the amount of memory in your computer. Only time – and practical usage – will let me know if this will be a problem in search of a hardware solution.

The last element of this first peek at Windows 11 is Microsoft Teams integration. Teams is Microsoft’s equivalent of Zoom or WebEx. Working from home – or from anywhere, really – will continue to be part of our culture for the foreseeable future. Microsoft fully believes that a dispersed workforce is inevitable, so it placed this icon in a prominent position. After all, what could be easier than clicking on an icon to launch a discussion with co-workers or colleagues? I expect that as time goes by, probably with the first annual Feature Update, Microsoft will provide more integration with the corporate version of Microsoft 365 and Teams.

Over the next two years, I’ll be giving you more information about this new operating system. But, as I’m sure you realize, it is still Windows. Most of you use the operating system for probably opening a browser to get your mail and see what’s going on with your friends, family, and organizations on Facebook. All the bells and whistles don’t mean much to you – I get it. It’s just that Microsoft doesn’t feel the same way.

Kaseya had a bad July. The vendor, who sells solutions to Managed Services Providers (MSPs), learned over the July 4th holiday weekend that some servers running their software were taken over and distributing ransomware to the clients that were being managed. Kaseya has two offerings, on-premises (server-based) and cloud-based. Usually, MSPs who have the resources to run their own data centers employ server-based solutions. So that means the clients will be of high value to bad actors, which was precisely the case.

As I wrote in an email shortly after the attack became public knowledge, Heliotropic Systems does not use any Kaseya products (server- or cloud-based). We use products from ConnectWise for monitoring your computers and remotely accessing them. These are both cloud-based offerings, and ConnectWise has been very transparent in letting partners know what flaws have been identified and when they are corrected.

No software is exempt from bugs. After all, people code the programs and do not necessarily consider everything when designing and developing those programs. Yes, there are Quality Assurance teams that are supposed to test the programs — but they are only as good as the instructions they receive in terms of what the test cases should be. And not all possibilities are (or can be) tested.

The news is now filled with stories that malicious actors are targeting more and more small businesses because they think the “work from home” population is getting lax with their security consciousness. There is a movement within my industry to implement what’s called the “Zero Trust Initiative.” (Note, Marvel fans, this is not another Avengers movie). Zero Trust is not a product but a concept, and what it means is this: Every object in a network is identified, and every person with access to anything is identified. Then, rules are established to define what access level each person has to those objects — and when those rules are to be invoked.

Here is a simple example. Madeline and Roland are employees at Total Prepared Foods. She is an inside salesperson who is responsible for calling on existing clients. Her computer accesses the cloud-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to perform her daily tasks. He is an accountant who works with the payroll system and handles the firm’s online banking.

In a Zero Trust environment, the hours that both employees work are known. The CRM software Madeline accesses has rules regarding what aspects of the program she’s allowed to see (e.g., client information but not payroll). Roland can access the payroll system but has no access to the CRM system. The network knows who logs in to which computer. It also knows which external Internet address is supposed to be used when she remotely connects from home. If someone — or something — tries to access her computer in hours when she is not authorized to use it, an alert is sent. More importantly, because Madeline’s computer requires two-factor authentication, a bad actor would not have access to the token on that device. Similarly, Roland does not have access to the payroll system except from his office computer, which is not authorized for remote access.

Previously, most believed that protecting a business had to occur from the outside in. Now, it is becoming evident that companies must be protected from the inside out. I am going to take two actions before the end of September to begin a journey toward zero trust. The first will be to ensure that no computer user at any client site has administrator privileges (meaning they can install programs). The second will be to add a new product to the SPF+ and SHADE subscriptions. This new product is a browser extension that should stop anyone from getting to a fake website if someone inadvertently clicks on a link in a phishing email. Combining a limited user desktop experience and a program to thwart potential problems, will make you much safer.

A home user client forwarded an email requesting that I read it and advise him about the contents.

With the subject, “Important: Don’t lose access to your email account,” the email, purportedly from AOL Broadband Member Services, contained a reminder about a change in how the parent company, Verizon Media, was going to handle data. The email urged the recipient to review the new rules and went on to warn, “otherwise you will not [sic] longer have access to new email.” The center of the email contained a bold link to “Review and agree now.”

Of course, this email was a classic phishing attempt; however, anyone would have thought that the page was a legitimate AOL page upon clicking the link. The coding behind that web page was identical to AOL’s own. The only subtle difference would happen after a person entered an email address or user name and a password.

I didn’t take my experiment any further because I could see from the website URL that this was not a valid AOL page. The address was https://aolmaildomain.weebly.com. That was the final clue that convinced me this was not a legitimate email.

Weebly is a web-hosting service that lets you develop your own website. Because it is owned by Square, the payments processing company (Heliotropic Systems uses Square), it is designed to let people build e-commerce sites quickly and easily.

It did not take me long to discover the appropriate division to submit a complaint about this particular abuser’s website. I included a brief description of the problem and sent back a copy of the original email after receiving a confirmation of my case. The good news is, less than 24 hours after receiving the request from my client, the bogus website had been removed from Weebly.

Lesson to be learned: If you think the email you received is suspicious, don’t click anything. Forward it to me for review, and I’ll let you know if it is safe to proceed or delete. Please don’t think, for one minute, that you are bothering me when you do this. I’d rather take a few moments as a precaution than to take hours (or more) later to clean up a mess.

In this case, the consequences for someone who depends on AOL for email would have been a new “silent partner,” diligently reading their emails to harvest personal information — the first step towards identity theft.

The “black screen” problem in Windows 10 shows how nothing sometimes matters quite a lot. Seeing nothing except a black screen where the desktop and its icons usually appear is disconcerting because you don’t know what the computer is — or isn’t — doing.

I am an experienced Windows user, and when I encounter a black screen, I know at least two things immediately. First, just like you, I know that something is wrong with my computer. And second, because nothing is visible, I can assume something is not quite right with the graphics interface and the operating system.

As a start, that may be enough, but what most of you want is to get your desktop back. In this article, I’ll guide you through the methods I’ve found to fix this annoying problem.

Occasionally, you’ll start Windows and end up with what’s called a “black screen with a cursor.” Just as it sounds, this means the display is entirely black, except that the mouse cursor appears on that black background. The cursor might track your mouse’s movement even though it’s moving over a completely black screen.

In my personal experience, the black screen with a cursor occurs far more frequently than a black screen by itself (no cursor). The presence of a cursor that responds to your mouse’s movement is a good sign — even in the midst of a bad situation. It indicates that Windows is still working (partially) behind the scenes, and that the mouse driver can still track the cursor position on the screen. This means there’s an excellent chance that the desktop can be restored to regular operation using a few well-known key combinations.

Two keyboard combinations can (usually) restore normal operations

Both combinations involve pressing multiple keys simultaneously. This means using one finger to press the first key and holding it down, using a second finger to press the second key and doing likewise, then more of the same for a third key — and one of these two combinations requires adding a fourth and final key as well.

Attempt 1: Restart the graphics driver

This four-key combination tells Windows 10 to stop, then restart any graphics drivers that happen to be running. For your first attempt, do this: Windows key + Ctrl + Shift + B. I usually do the first three keys with my left hand, then press the letter B with my right index finger.

If you see the rapid flashing of the disk activity light, that’s a good sign. Sometimes the screen will return to regular operation a few seconds later, showing that the driver has reloaded and is now running successfully. Sometimes, nothing else will happen after the disk activity light stops flashing, so it is on to the second attempt.

Attempt 2: The three-fingered salute

This is a familiar key combo to anyone who has used Windows for a long time: Ctrl + Alt + Delete.

Even when the first attempt gets the graphics driver going, it still won’t light up the screen. And sometimes, when that’s the case, this key sequence will repaint the screen to show you the secure log-in options. If that screen does appear, click “Cancel,” and your desktop should reappear.

Attempt 3: Forced restart

If the cursor is absent, these key combos often won’t help (and sometimes they don’t help even when the cursor is present). In those cases, there’s only one thing to do next: forcibly turn off your computer. This means holding down the power button – for at least the count of 10 – until the device completely shuts down.

After a moment, press the power button again to turn on your computer. It should typically start with no black screen. If the screen remains black after you’ve gone through these steps, you need to call me!

Nobody wants to see a black screen on Windows 10

If you ever encounter this disturbing situation, you now have a pretty good idea of how to fix it yourself. In most cases, reloading the graphics driver or restarting the computer will do the trick. In other cases, there’s no choice except to let me know so that I can work through some of the more advanced troubleshooting sequences.

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 →