Sunday, January 3, 2010

Viruses, Spware & Malware

The moment you connect your Windows PC to the Internet you risk exposing it to possible infection by malicious software, or malware. Here are the definitions of the terms, in brief, from Wikipedia:

Malware: short for malicious software, is software designed to infiltrate a computer system without the owner's informed consent. The expression is a general term used by computer professionals to mean a variety of forms of hostile, intrusive, or annoying software or program code.[1] The term "computer virus" is sometimes used as a catch-all phrase to include all types of malware, including true viruses.

Virus: A computer virus is a computer program that can copy itself and infect a computer. The term "virus" is also commonly but erroneously used to refer to other types of malware, adware, and spyware programs that do not have the reproductive ability.

Spyware is a type of malware that is installed on computers and collects information about users without their knowledge.

Adware or advertising-supported software is any software package which automatically plays, displays, or downloads advertisements to a computer after the software is installed on it or while the application is being used.

In my previous post on Windows security I discuss how important it is to use the best virus and spyware protection you can, and surf the web with a secure web browser. Viruses can cause serious damage to your software and can destroy your documents as well. Sometimes viruses will mess up your Windows installation so bad you won't be able to boot your computer at all.

If your PC gets a virus usually the first thing you will notice is your computer slowing down when you attempt to run a program, especially web browsing. Sometimes web sites you normally browse to will not load at all even though you can go to other sites. Other symptoms include computer freezing up or Windows crashing and displaying the blue screen of death.

If you think you might have a virus, close all programs and open your virus protection software. If you don't have one installed, consider it a lesson learned and skip to the part below on how to remove viruses. Make sure that the software and it's virus definitions are both up to-date. Often when the license expires, the software won't update, nor will it download the latest virus definition files, meaning that newer viruses can't be detected and removed. Also, some viruses disable your anti-virus software's ability to update, so be sure it confirms that the updates are current. If your software seems to be working properly, now you can scan your PC for viruses.

If your virus scanner encounters any errors while scanning, or won't run normally for any reason this is further evidence that a virus has infected your PC and has compromised your protection software. Again, remember to check and see if the software license has expired.

In either case you should download the Avast! Home Edition Installer to your desktop, remove your old anti-virus software and install Avast. It's free for life, and is one of the best out there. If you find that you can't even get online you may have to borrow someone else's PC to download the Avast installer to a flash drive, or CD so you can transfer it to your PC. Do NOT try to install Avast or any other anti-virus software if you have not removed any existing software. Having more than one anti-virus software installed at a time will cause problems and is never a good idea.

If viruses are found, write down their names, or take a screenshot for reference. When viruses are detected, your anti-virus software will probably ask you what you want to do with them . In most cases the choices will look something like this:

"Repair Infected Files"
"Delete (Remove) Infected Files"
"Move to Quarantine"

The best choice is usually to repair the infected files. If the infected file happens to be an important document of yours, or a Windows system file, choosing the repair option will clean the file of infection and restore it to it's normal state. If that fails, quarantine is the next best choice because you can safely store the file for possible repair by a technician using more advanced techniques. If those choices fail, deleting is the only option. The bad news is if an unrepairable file happens to be a Windows system file, Windows will need to be repaired, or more likely, reinstalled.

If your anti-virus software reports all problems corrected, close the program and reboot your PC. Try to notice if the computer behaves any differently. It might start up faster than it has in a while if viruses had been removed, or you may see error messages if there was any damage left behind by the infection. Write down any error messages you see verbatim. They can be searched for on Google to help solve the problem.

Now that you have rebooted, open your anti-virus software again and scan the PC for viruses once more. If it comes up clean you have succeeded. If, however viruses come up again during the scan, this could mean that viruses are getting re-generated from a host file that remains undetected, or untouchable to the anti-virus software. Often this involves the virus using Windows XP's file lock-down abilities to block you and your software from removing or altering it.

It still may be possible to fix this but it could take a very long time, and there's no guarantee Windows will be OK when you're done. Viruses sometimes damage your data, rendering the files useless, but more often they corrupt system files rendering Windows unstable, unreliable, or just plain broken. In most cases of persistent, multiple virus infections, backing up your data and reinstalling Windows from scratch is time better spent. If you re-install Windows, make sure any data you backed up that you are returning to the PC is scanned for viruses, otherwise the PC can get re-infected. Your files will be automatically scanned for viruses when you transfer them to your PC with some virus scanners, including Avast.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Backing up Your Data

All the files you save on your computer are stored on the hard drive. Hard drives die eventually, and if yours goes all the data on it will be lost permanently. Start backing up those irreplaceable documents, photos, media, etc, while you still can.

Typically hard drive death comes in the form of mechanical failure, also called crashing. You will know your hard drive has crashed if your computer won't start up, and you can hear a quiet yet audible clicking sound coming from inside the PC tower. You also might get error messages like, "missing boot device", or "primary hard drive not found". This kind of hard drive failure can't be fixed, and all data on the drives can't be recovered, although there is a slim chance the old hard drive in the freezer trick might work, assuming you're willing to open up your PC and remove parts.

Besides hard drive failure, another common causes for data loss on PCs is virus infection. Most viruses only attack Windows system files and not your user data but sometimes viruses can corrupt your files turning their contents into gibberish, or they corrupt the Windows file system destroying your files and rendering your PC unable to boot. For more on virus infection you can read my post on that topic.

A good backup strategy will protect you from loosing your data in both of these scenarios. Copying your files to a CD-R might seem like a good idea, but they are too unreliable for safe-keeping. Even so-called archive quality CDRs should not be trusted.

A much better backup solution is to keep your important files on two separate hard drives at all times. If one hard drive fails or it's data becomes corrupted you repair or replace the bad drive, then copy your files from the other drive to the replaced or fixed drive. For example, if you own a desktop PC and a laptop you can copy all the important data from one to the other. If you only have one computer you can purchase an external hard drive and connect it to your PC via the USB port to copy your data to it.

The above backup methods will protect your data from the most common causes of loss but may not help in the event of fire, flood, earthquake or other disasters since both backups are in the same place. To protect your data from such disasters, you can back up your files to the Internet. There are free and paid online file backup services to choose from. The advantages of online file storage are you don't need to purchase any new hardware, and you can access your backed-up data anywhere you have internet access. Drawbacks are limited space on free accounts, and slower uploading and downloading speed compared to local backups.

Dropbox: is one option for online backups. It is very simple to set up and use. Once installed, it creates a folder on your PC that you can drag and drop files into. All files in the Dropbox folder automatically get backed up online, and you can also install it on all your PCs to keep files synchronized between PCs as well as on the web. Dropbox also has a web interface so you can access your Dropbox files from any PC with an Internet connection, without the need to install software. You just got to the Dropbox website and log in to access your files. The free account is limited to 2 gigabytes, paid options offer much more file storage space.

For more information about online file storage services, including a comparison chart of features of popular sites visit:
Wikipedia: A comparison of notable file hosting services

Cobian Backup: is a free backup program for Windows. You can use it to automatically run scheduled backups of files and folders from one hard drive on your computer to another, to a USB-connected external hard drive, to a computer over a local network, or to a server computer over the Internet. You can create full or incremental backups. Incremental backups allow you to save only changes to files since the last backup, thus minimizing hard disk use and backup time. This also allows you to save multiple versions of file changes for retrieval later if needed.
This is important because let's say you made changes to a document on Monday, then the automatic backup routine propagates those changes to the backup Monday night, replacing the previous night's backups. When you come in on Tuesday and realize you need to go back to Monday's version of the file, you can't because Tuesday's backups overwrote Mondays. Saving multiple past versions of the file changes solves this problem, and since only file changes are saved, multiple past versions of files don't take up a huge amount of hard drive space.

DirSyncPro: is a free, open source Windows backup program that is simple to set up and use. Like Cobian, it can create incremental backups to minimize disk space, but unlike Cobian it does not as of yet support backing up files over the Internet.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Best Tool For The Job: Recommended Software

Windows users often want to know which software to choose for a particular purpose. For example, people often ask me what's the best Windows anti-virus software, and I tell them Avast! It didn't make this list, but my second favorite AVG did. My opinion is if more people knew about Avast! they might prefer it. It's important that any other types of software you install are also secure and bug-free. As always, you can't beat peer-review for finding the best trusted, high quality software for free. Lifehacker conducted a user survey and used the results to create a great list of recommended free software in 26 categories. Most are Windows-compatible, and many are cross-platform, or web-based so they will work on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. Follow the link to the article or check out the summary I included below:

Best Digital Photo Organizer: Picasa (Windows/Linux)

Readers love Picasa—the cross-platform photo management software from Google—for its ease-of-use and impressive feature set, which is particularly strong for free software.

Best Instant Messenger: Pidgin (Windows/Linux)

Pidgin is a cross-platform, open-source IM client.

Best DVD Ripping Tool: DVD Shrink (Windows)

DVD Shrink (download)This freeware decrypter, ripper, and compressor is still a favorite all-in-one stop for ripping and backing up DVDs.

Best Contact Management Application: Address Book (Mac OS X)

Most folks who own a Mac look no further for a contact manager than Apple's Address Book.

Best Text Editor: Notepad++ (Windows)

Notepad++ is the go-to text editor for many Windows users looking for something better than Notepad.

Best Online File Sharing Service: MediaFire

Users love unlimited storage, and MediaFire (original post) offers just that. The service is free...

Best RSS Newsreader: Google Reader

Ever since Google launched the updated Google Reader toward the end of 2006, users have flocked to it for its impressive speed and usability.

Best Application Launcher: Launchy (Windows)

Launchy is best known for its lightning-fast indexing and searching.

Best Start Page: iGoogle

Once a very limited, bare bones collection of links, iGoogle has grown into a fully customizable dashboard of tabs and web widgets.

Best Antivirus Application: AVG Anti-Virus

The lightweight AVG Free provides protection against the various nasties floating around the internet.

Best Photo Sharing Site: Flickr

Flickr was originally conceived in 2002 as a video game-screenshot sharing web site, but it quickly blossomed into a full-fledged photo sharing site with a bustling community.

Best Personal Finance Tool: Mint

Mint is a web-based personal finance software... The service, which is completely free to use, automatically retrieves your latest financial data from your online financial institutions, then analyzes and integrates it with their service.

Best Desktop Media Player: VLC (All Platforms) VLC is the cross-platform Swiss Army knife of media players. It's lightweight, open source, and can play virtually any file—audio or video—that you throw at it.

Best Windows Maintenance Tool: CCleaner

Running CCleaner on your system frees up space, keeps your computer running smoothly, and protect your privacy.

Best Windows Backup Tool: Carbonite

Carbonite is an online backup solution similar to MozyHome. For $50 a year, Carbonite provides unlimited online backup and is another set-it-and-forget-it solution which offers off-site backup to remote servers.

Best File Syncing Tool: Dropbox (All Platforms)

Dropbox is a free, cross-platform syncing app that boasts quick, instantaneous syncs and file versioning through your desktop and their web-based interface.

Best Alternative File Manager: Total Commander

Total Commander features side-by-side file-browsing panes, enhanced file search, built-in FTP, archive management, and file comparing tools.

Best GTD Application: Pen and Paper (they're not kidding!)

We asked for your favorite GTD apps, but the nominations made it apparent that an overwhelming number of you are still rocking GTD with the tried-and-true pen and paper.

Best Note-Taking Tool: Pen and Paper (see??)

Despite a multitude of high-tech note-taking tools, the classic pen and paper still holds a special place in many a note-taker's heart...

Best To-Do List Manager: Pen and Paper

For hundreds of years prior to the computer, humankind has managed to-dos with a simple pen and paper, and for many it's still the only way to go...

Best Desktop Search Application: Windows Search 4

Where file search was once the most useless "feature" built into a Windows XP PC, the new and improved Windows Search 4.0 is a fast, extensive desktop search tool from Microsoft.

Best FTP Client: Filezilla

FileZilla is a free, open-source FTP client for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Best Password Manager: KeePass

Desktop application KeePass is a free, open-source password manager with a robust and easy-to-use feature set.

Best Download Manager: DownThemAll

Firefox extension DownThemAll (dTa) is a powerful download manager with a stable of advanced features to enhance your download experience.

Best Calendar Application: Google Calendar

Ever since it launched in April of 2006, Google Calendar has quickly built a reputation as the premier web-based calendar.

Best BitTorrent Application: uTorrent

uTorrent's first public release came three years ago today, having been developed with one goal in mind: To create a lightweight, efficient BitTorrent client.

Software was chosen based on votes from Lifehacker readers. The result is an excellent reference for choosing the right tool for the job. The only thing I would have voted differently on was the anti-virus software. They selected AVG and I would have suggested Avast! Home Edition instead. AVG is also excellent software, so this is a minor quibble.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

5 Steps to Maximizing Windows Security For Free

With the rise in identity theft, and with spyware and viruses flodding the internet, PC security is more critical than ever. Arguably, Linux is the most secure PC operating system, followed close behind by Mac OS which is based on Linux's predecessor, Unix. Windows comes in at the bottom of the list. Windows security is so bad that the head of Symantec's Norton Antivirus, one of the most popular commercial anti-virus programs for Windows, uses a Mac!

This article is intended to instruct the average Windows user on how to manage their computer's security without having to purchase any products or buy services of any kind. If you are concerned that free software should not be trusted with such a critical task, and that high profile commercial products are more trustworthy, let me be the one to tell you this is absolutely not the case. In fact the opposite is often true, the most obvious example being the explosion in popularity of the free Firefox Web Browser.

A few points before going on to the five steps. Microsoft stopped supporting Windows 98 so I don't suggest using it. Lack of support means it's not going to get any better and any security exploits won't be fixed. If you really want to keep using your old PC try installing Xubuntu Linux on it. If you prefer to stay with Windows, a better choice than Windows 98 for an older PC is Windows 2000. It's more secure and will run great on computers that don't have the system recourses to handle XP or Vista. Windows Millennium Edition is preferable to Windows 98 but still not as good as 2000. I don't recommend Windows Vista but that's a whole other topic I won't go into here. Whatever version of Windows you choose to run, the steps in this article will help enhance it's security.

The 5 Steps:

1. Use the Right Antivirus Software:
In my experience the best antivirus software for Windows is Avast! Home Edition. If you are using Norton or McAfee I recommend you remove the software and replace it with Avast. It won't slow down your PC as much as they will and Avast is better at catching and removing viruses. Avast also has the boot-time scanner that is indispensable for removal of persistent, reoccurring viruses. Scan your PC for viruses once every week or two. Avast will automatically keep itself updated without you needing you to do anything.

2. Protect You PC From Spyware:
If you don't currently have any anti-spyware software installed and you have an Internet connection chances are you have spyware on your PC now. There are two anti-spyware programs that when used together will offer the best defense against spyware, as well as give you the best removal tools: Microsoft Windows Defender and Ad-Aware. Microsoft Defender has a real-time spyware scanner that runs in the background protecting you PC, and Ad-Aware can be used to scan your PC periodically to catch whatever Defender misses. Windows Defender will keep itself updated, but when using Ad-Aware remember to click the 'Update' button before you scan your PC.

3. Use Firefox Instead of Internet Explorer:
Surfing the Internet with Internet Explorer, the default web browser for Windows, is the biggest security risk. Install Firefox web browser to replace Internet Explorer for web surfing. There are some web sites that still require Internet Explorer, so you'll need to use it once in a while. The idea is to use Firefox whenever possible. This will go a long way toward improving your Windows security and Firefox runs noticeably faster as well. Firefox also has many add-ons you can install, some of which offer ways to further enhance your security such as NoScript and McAfee Site Advisor. To access Firefox add-ons: in the 'Tools' menu, select 'Add-ons'. In the lower right corner of the ad-ons dialog box click on 'Get Add-ons'.

4. Do Not Use Administrator Account For Regular PC Use (Windows XP and 2000):
If you use Windows XP or 2000 by default when you log on to your user account you will be in administrator mode, meaning you have total access to the system. This means your system will be more vulnerable to viruses and other security risks. To solve this, add your user account the power users group. Limiting your user account this way still allows you to do routine tasks like installing and removing some programs, but it limits the harm that viruses can do to your system should they get in. When you need administrative privileges to perform a task you can temporarily log in as an administrator, then switch back when you are done.

5. Keep Your Software Up to Date:
It is critical that you keep your software as up to date as possible. Make sure you have the latest security updates for Windows by going to the Start Menu, then All Programs>Windows Update. After you've updated Windows, go to the control panel and click on Security Center. From there you can turn on automatic updates which automates the Windows updating process. All other software on your PC should also be kept as up to date as possible. Learn what you need to do to keep any such installed software updated and do it. If you don't have documentation or help files for a program and aren't sure how to tell if it's up to date, Google search is always a good place to start.

Unfortunately no method or combinations of methods will work 100% of the time so you can never achieve perfect security no matter what you do. However, If you follow these steps you will maximize your Windows PC's security and potentially avoid major computer problems. By doing it yourself you learn a valuable new skill while avoiding the cost and inconvenience of bringing it to the PC repair shop. If you follow my recommendations you also save money by avoiding unnecessary software fees.

Questions or comments welcome here.


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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How to Set Up Your New Windows PC

When you buy a new PC that comes with Microsoft Windows, keep in mind there are some critical tasks that Windows can't perform, for example virus protection. For this reason PC manufacturers will pre-install other software to fill these needs. Sometimes they create their own brand of software and include these with their PCs, but usually they will bundle trial versions of third-party commercial software. Sadly, in most cases the software that is selected to be bundled with your new PC is not what's best for your needs, but is chosen based on business alliances.

Here is an example of how it works. Software company "X" pays PC manufacturer "Y" a fee to pre-install a 60 day trial version of their anti-virus software on all it's PCs. A very large percentage of those who purchase those PC's will do the easiest thing when the 60 day trial ends, they will purchase a license for the anti-virus software that is already installed. Now they will be paying overpriced license fees every year only to be stuck with an inferior, bloated and performance-killing product.

To avoid this dismal situation, I
suggest removing the trial programs and replacing them with free alternatives. By using well-known, trusted, high-quality free software you save yourself time, money and frustration. In my post on Windows security I point out better alternatives to the bundled trail versions of anti-virus and anti-spyware software. The first set of links below takes you to step-by-step instructions on how to remove those trial programs and replace them with the suggested alternatives.

But wait... there's more! Windows Vista places serious restrictions on copying of media such as CDs and DVDs. Previous Windows versions also won't copy audio CDs or even copy the songs to the computer in CD sound quality. Luckily, we have free alternatives for that too, listed below.

Then there is the issue of Microsoft Office. A lot of folks still think it comes with Windows but it doesn't. Often there will be a trial version installed just to get you hooked, then you find out the full version cost more than Windows itself! Free alternative? Follow the Open Office links below.

Virus Protection: Windows is extremely vulnerable to viruses. It is absolutely critical to have the best possible protection against them. To do so, replace your trial version of Norton, McAfee or other virus protection with Avast! Home Edition. It is 100% free for home users and is higher quality software. If you are going to use it on a business machine their licensing fees are lower than the previously mentioned options. Avast not only is better at virus protection, it's lighter on system recourses meaning it won't slow down your PC nearly as much. If you have software not listed here the steps might be similar enough to get you through the un-installation, otherwise you can do a Google search for "how to uninstall (name of software) antivirus".

Spyware Protection: You will need spyware protection as well. No one wants rogue software taking over their PC, spying on their browsing habits and slowing down their internet access. Microsoft created Windows Defender to combat spyware and included it with Windows Vista. It runs in the background automatically and constantly guards against infections. For Windows XP, it's available as a free download. Windows 98 and ME users are left out in the cold, but fear not! For them there is Ad-Aware, another excellent free spyware killer. Installing both Windows Defender and Ad-Aware will give you the best protection from spyware. The free version of Ad-Aware will not remove spyware automatically like Windows Defender, you must remember to scan your PC manually once in a while. You can, however buy the full version that does support automatic detection and removal.

How To Install Ad-Aware on a Windows computer
How To Install Windows Defender
Follow the "Get It Now" link to download, scroll down for installation instructions.

CD/DVD Backup: Do not expect Windows alone to be able to copy CDs or DVDs. While there are some PC manufacturers that do include audio CD and DVD copying software on the computers they sell, there are plenty who don't, or use buggy second rate programs. Why doesn't Windows have this ability? We'll have to ask Microsoft. The following question and response is from Micosoft's Windows Vista help web page:

"How do I make a music or a video disc that will work in a CD or DVD player?"
"Use a music or video burning program to make playable discs. If you use Windows to copy music files to a disc, for example, they will be copied as files and will not play in most CD players."

So there you have it, right from the horse's mouth. Microsoft would rather you get your CD/DVD copying tools elsewhere. Let's take a look at a couple of great free options:

InfraRecord: This free software will burn CD and DVD, including dual-layer. It can copy audio CDs as well as save audio tracks to your PC in many file formats including .wav, .wma, .mp3 and more. It can burn unencrypted DVDs, like the ones you create with your video camera but can not duplicate copywrite-protected DVDs. It also can create custom data, audio and mixed-mode projects such as slide shows with audio. You will need to MP3 plugin if you want to burn mp3 files as an audio CD playable in an ordinary CD player, or if you want to copy an audio CD to your computer in mp3 file format.

DVD Shrink & DVD Decrypter: If you want to back up your store bought DVDs, you can do it with the help of these two wonderful peices of sotware. Unless the blank DVD you are copying to is dual-layer, chances are the contents of the origional DVD won't fit. This is where DVD Shrink comes in handy, it resizes the contents to fit on your blank DVD. It can reduce the size of the content to fit the blank disk automatically while minimizing quality loss. You can also copy the disk to a file on your PC to burn later. In some cases you will encounter problems copying because of a form of copyright protection called encyryption. This is where DVD Decrypter comes in. It can seem like a complicated process to the uninitiated. Lucky for us there is an excellent step-by-step tutorial on how to backup DVDs with these two programs:

Quick disclaimer: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has made the backing up of encrypted CDs and DVDs a crime even when you own the original, even if you don't share, or distribute it, and only use it for private, personal home use. Check your local laws before copying anything to make sure you are not in violation.

Open Office: This is a free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office that can open, edit or create Microsoft Word, Excel and Power Point files. This means files created in Open Office can be opened and edited with Microsoft Office and vise-versa. Sometimes there can be bugs, for example one person I know complained that when she opened her essay she created in Microsoft Office with Open Office, the margins were bigger. Generally though it's a fully functional replacement and is even more flexible in terms of supported file formats.

Firefox Web Browser:
Last, but definitely not least I suggest using Firefox web browser. Internet Explorer security breaches are usually the cause of virus and spyware infection. Firefox is more secure, stable, flexible, and it runs faster. It has excellent bookmarking tools, privacy controls, tabbed browsing, and a whole universe of add-ons that make it infinitely customizable. An excellent example of a useful add-on is AdBlock Plus, which blocks most web page advertisements automatically as you browse. You won't be removing Internet Explorer because you can't, Bill Gates won't allow it, and even went to court over it. Even if you could, you shouldn't, because some sites still require it. Just use Firefox whenever possible.

If you have any recommendations of your own to add, or have any questions you would like answered, please leave a comment here.