Puppies are Cute, but This is a PUP that You May Not Want

The world of Malware (an all-inclusive term) is always changing as the Black Hats continue to fight it out with the White Hats. Things move so quickly that if the Antivirus on your computer is not updating on a daily basis, it now only takes a FEW DAYS before the machine is at serious risk.

Today however I want to focus in on the PUPs. A PUP is a Potentially Unwanted Program. That is how it is described in the press. To be clear they should instead be called DUPs, or Definitely Unwanted Program.

1. Where do they come from?

In some cases folks download them directly because they have useful sounding names such as “Coupon Printer for Windows”. Many of the weather reporting apps end up in this category because of what they end up doing on your machine is more than just weather reporting. If you have children who play games on PCs (or if you do) there are some cheat programs that do more than help one cheat on a game.

In the rest and likely the majority of cases, these are installed at the same time as other legitimate software is installed to your machine. Not a worry if you are installing software from a CD/DVD you have purchased, and more a worry if you have just downloaded software from the Internet, especially if it was free. The most well known example is the terrible Ask Toolbar that gets put on millions of computers because it is bundled with Java (which needs to be constantly updated for security reasons), and the box the install it is always CHECKED by default! Sometimes the java install pushes other things as well, and you will not want any of them.

Please understand that nothing is really free. If a program on the Internet claims to be free, the chances are very high that it will attempt to install all kinds of these PUPs on your system. They will always be checked by default for install and they may appear on several screens.

2. What do they do?

Nothing good. Some of them try to hijack your original settings like the aforementioned Ask will replace whatever your previous default search engine setting was with itself without your permission. Others will try to target ads to you and many of them open connections from your computer to questionable servers on the Internet which connections are doing Who Knows What. I have seen personal computers with 50 connections or more to various servers on the Internet, where the largest number of legitimate connections I have seen on a home computer is well under 10. Do a “netstat -na” command sometime without the quotes in a Command Prompt window and see how many connections your machine has. You can ignore addresses that start with 127 or 192 or 10.

3. Why does my Antivirus program not stop them?

Best question of all. You will love the answer . . . because they are technically NOT a virus. They will typically uninstall all the way if you purposely uninstall them, and they do not attempt to replicate themselves to other machines or networks, and they do not try to harm your computer. As a result they escape being classified as malware by most scanners. Even when malwarebytes (a very good scanner) finds them, it will tell you that it has discovered “non-malware” on the system.

4. What are the noticeable effects?

One or two of these will typically not have much noticeable effect. It is when more of them start to pile up that the effect does become noticeable as they start to slow down the machine. They often put themselves in the startup settings so they load a boot time even though you never specifically load them. Their constant network communications to servers on the Internet add traffic to your router and modem and when there gets to be too much, can slow down your legitimate traffic. General response time on the machine suffers in direct proportion to the number of these things that are installed.

In recent virus cleanup jobs we have had, we are not cleaning that many viruses, but we are cleaning hundreds and even in some cases more than a thousand PUP traces. They can be difficult for the average user to get rid of because one should not just delete programs without understanding what they are deleting so we DO NOT recommend that users try to just get rid of these things by just uninstalling everything they do not recognize under program and features or Add/Remove Programs or Uninstall a Program. This could result in a necessary legitimate program (like an important driver) getting deleted.

So the best way to stop these is before they start, by paying very close attention to the install when anything new is installed to the machine. If kids use the computer we recommend that they do so from Limited/Standard accounts so that they are not able to install anything without the parent password . . . and we recommend the parents be involved in every install that happens on the machine. Giving kids unfettered Internet Access from an administrator class account will lead to eventual trouble.

A Chilling Find on an Awesome Care Check

Recently I did a remote computer check on the Awesome Care program for one of our Awesome Care customers. This was a Windows 7 machine and on the surface it seemed to be running just fine and were it not for the scheduled check, there was no reason that the owners would have been calling us about it.

It is a good thing we did this however, as I found the machine running with 55 Connections to the outside world. Yes you heard right, 55.

How many of these connections were from legitimate programs? About Two.

So what was the deal? The machine had a very strong AV on it that was mostly working (it had reached the point where it was crashing from time to time), and there actually were not any traditional Viruses or Trojans on it, nor was there any Rogue/Fake Antivirus (they might have seen that one) or Ransomware (like Cryptolocker/Cryptowall). Also found no active rootkits.

No, this was a collection of what we call in the Industry PUP or Potentially Unwanted Program(s). A big collection of them. These are programs that are not considered viruses so to speak (because they do not try to replicate and EMail themselves to everyone in the address book like viruses try to do), but they also serve no useful purpose whatsoever and they make a lot of connections to “back home” where they share who knows what with the home office. Many times they have very innocent sounding names, like “Ask Toolbar”. That particular one is one of the worst; and if gets installed by a drive by download when folks are trying to do something they should be doing, and that is updating Java. The checkbox to install that trash along with is always CHECKED by default; so that folks who are not paying attention end up with it every time.

And that is how the rest of them get on there as well. They come as drive by downloads from the installation of other programs that the user was trying to install. Anytime one is installing something that is “free” they need to be very conscious of every install screen and make sure to uncheck every single checkbox that is trying to add something else. For instance there is a utility program that I like to use but when it gets downloaded it tries to push a certain web browser different than what most folks use and worse than just installing what might be an unwanted program it is also automatically checking a box to make this new and unasked for program the DEFAULT web browser! Now the folks are certainly going to wonder what happened to their computer when their entire web browsing experience has suddenly changed for an unknown reason.

I take exception with every single one of these vendors who check these boxes by default. If you want income from your program then CHARGE for it. If it is useful then people will pay for it. Pushing all this crapware at people I do not believe is the right way to go. Not one computer user on the planet would be harmed in any way if the Ask Toolbar just completely disappeared.

What is the moral of this story? That there is much more to the security of your computer than just the virus checker. That is only the beginning not the end of the security focus for a PC. We recommend that you either hire us to check your machines that appear to be running fine or take the time to learn how to do it yourself. What I discovered here is a great example of what happens in today’s computing world when they are never checked because they seem to be running just fine.

Windows 9 is on the Horizon

Windows 8.x has been received with what I will call mixed reviews. The younger a person is (I have noticed), the more likely they are to like it; and the older they are, the more likely they are to hate it. Just what I have observed, and there are always exceptions.

Some of the complaints have been addressed directly by Microsoft such as no longer being forced to use the Tiles screen if it is not wanted. The issue with no Windows 7 type Start Menu is only addressed by third parties, and you have to pay close attention to those as windows receives new updates. I also an not a fan of the removal of the Desktop Gadgets, I just love those in Windows 7 and would never upgrade to 8.x myself for that reason alone.

Windows 9 is set to address some of these issues better than they are addressed in Windows 8.x. For instance one thing it is scheduled to be able to do is to determine what type of device it is running on and design itself in the installation accordingly. This would me a more Windows 7 like Start Menu would return when it is installed on a desktop or non-touch screen Laptop, and the Tiles screen (Metro interface) would be key when installed on a Tablet or a phone.

It is not clear to me as of yet if the desktop gadgets are returning, so I will have to advise on that later; and as far out as the scheduled release is (April or May of 2015), we can expect several possible changes before that time.

It will be interesting for me to see if a solid Windows 9 release that is more popular will stem the tide of decreasing PC Sales that has been occurring recently. Some of that is folks who now buy Tablets to do some of the things that the PCs used to do, but some of that is the folks who did not like Windows 8.x and are holding out for something better.

For now I recommend Windows 7 for all Desktop and Non-touch screen Laptop computers. It will be supported at least through 2019 if not later, and it runs very well. If you have Windows 8.x, I do not necessarily recommend any third party shells, because these can be broken as windows updates get installed.

How Can You Tell if You Are Improving Your Service Level?

A fair question.

I was once told that we should only judge the effectiveness of something by the results. Sometimes harsh, always fair. Thank you Brian Klemmer for that. If someone writes a book, and no one buys it, then is it a good book? I love how Robert Kiyosaki explains this one when he states that one can be a “best writing” author or a “best selling” author . . . but that the first in no way guarantees the second and the second can and does happen without the first.

So I recently wrote that everyone should start their own business. This will involve both sales and service, as well as some marketing. It is fairly rare to find all three of these skills in the same person; so one should expect to have a few things to learn as they move through this process. A sales and marketing expert paired with someone who is technically proficient at a skill can be a very effective combination. Those who are technical in nature often try to do it all by themselves, and those who are sales and marketing types often partner up because they know they need the technical skills. Or they can learn them depending on what the business does.

Either way and whether there is an individual, partnership or group formed, we would all typically seek to improve the business . . . to continue to hone what we do so that we can be more efficient. More efficiency means more profit in most businesses, with the reminder that without sales and marketing there will not be any profit.

So what is the best way to improve? Here is the separation. The people who best know how we can improve are the customers, and yet getting this information out of them can be a challenge. Let me ask this question first. Let’s say that you run a business that goes to someone’s home and provides a service. Let’s say that you believe the appt is going very well, and when it is done you are convinced that it went well. In this situation would you take any follow up actions with the customer to see what they thought? If you did, and they were not as impressed as you thought, then are you going to get upset about it?

Question 2. If the customer says that you did a great job, like they have never seen anyone do it better, then what will you do to improve your service level as a result of that feedback? It is a very easy question to answer . . . you will do nothing to improve your service level because there is no actionable feedback. So your service level will remain the same, and worse yet you might start to think that you are all that when you may not be for the next customer.

I appreciate positive feedback as much as the next person, but no one built a great service business based on only positive feedback, and you can take that to the bank.

If I can get constructive criticism from a customer I consider that a huge win. If a customer tells me that they hated my service and will never use me again (yes that has in fact happened to me), then I will do everything I can to find out why, and the only way to do that is to see if you can get the upset customer to tell you. I have worked with more than 500 different clients as I have run Awesome Computer Help and I can tell looking backwards who the customers were that did not appreciate the service as much as I thought, because they are the ones that suddenly disappear. Trying to obtain feedback from these folks is a real challenge, but if somehow I could I would consider it a huge win.

It is true that customers who are upset do not always like to share. It is also true that many customers are afraid to give constructive criticism because in the past it has come back to bite them. This has happened to me before. Once I used an internal service desk for support at a company that I used to work for. They did a fair job but it could have been better and so when they survey came I did not mark it perfect and I explained how it could have been better. The reaction that I got from that was very surprising to me . . . how dare I mark less then perfect when I work for the company!!! They went back to my boss at the company and told them to make sure I knew how things worked around there. Well I got that message loud and clear . . . this was a service business that had no interest in improving, and I was not surprised to learn later that it is a shrinking service business. Some stuff like that can be hidden behind a good name, but not as much as people think. That is a service business in decline, and the people responsible for that attitude should be dismissed immediately before they can do more damage to the companies brand.

So lets say on the same service call business that I mentioned earlier that the customer told you that you were way too slow and they did not think the service was a good value. Now what will you do to improve? Well you now have OPTIONS. This concern could be addressed in several ways, none of which are likely to be wrong. I would advise to not get worked up about it, and to remember that it is possible that these ideas are unique to this customer. So I am saying do not over-react, but learn what can be learned.

I have had cases where my first visit with a customer did not go as well as I thought it did. I learned this later when I did follow up contact. Folks who did not like your service are much slower to respond, but they are the most important folks to hear from. In some cases I have to make multiple follow up attempts. I have been able to save customer relationships because I was able to learn what the issues were and then address them. We do warranty service from time to time as appropriate, and we do not charge for warranty service.

So the natural thing to do is to get upset if someone dings your service. It is easy to do, but it does not lead to improvement. It just leads to stress.

The enlightened thing to do in the same situation is to ask for more information on what went wrong. The more info that can be obtained is equal to the more service level improvement that can be done. Many customers will eventually provide this information if you can convince them that you want it.

So this brings me to my greatest fear, and it is that I am messing up bad while thinking I am doing well. Unless we hear from the customer’s we cannot rule out that this is happening in our own business. Please do everything that you can to enable your customers to have a safe and protected voice. . . the result will be a better service level which will ultimately lead to more income.

With all of that said, if you are one of my customers, and I have messed up, please tell me about it and we will make it right. I am someone who cares what the customers think, and I am someone who considers it a big win if I can get constructive criticism from a customer. You will not get the reacton from me that I got from that former employer I mentioned. You will get a huge Thank You from me.

Joseph
Founder and Chief Techincian – Awesome Computer Help

Leave the Computer On or Turn it Off Every Night ???

This is a question that I am often asked, as to whether it is better to turn the computer off every night or just leave it on all the time. There are arguments for both cases and I will present them here so that the folks can make an intelligent decision.

First let’s talk about wear and tear on the computer and the parts inside. If this is the primary concern (someone wants this computer to last as long as possible), then it is better for the computer to leave it on most all of the time. The wear and tear that happens on the electronic components inside occurs mostly when the machine is first powered on. The components go from being unpowered to being fully powered almost instantly, and this is where the wear and tear occurs. If a computer is turned off every night and then powered back on every morning, then it will typically not last as long as a computer that is left on most of the time.

The second concern of course is power usage and the environment. It will obviously use more than twice the electrical power to leave the machine on most of the time. Now most machines have power save features and I will get into how that changes things in a minute here, but if power usage (as opposed to computer longevity) is the main concern, then the machine should be turned off when not in use. Especially in the case of desktop computers the difference in usage on the electric bill is noticeable.

So it generally comes down to higher electric bill versus having to replace the computer sooner.

Now let’s talk about power save features. Modern computers and operating systems have built in features that can automatically power down parts of the computer after they are not used for a certain amount of time. For instance they might un-power the monitor after 20 minutes of inactivity. The computer might “go to sleep” or “hibernate” after a certain time that it is inactive. In some senses this is the best of both worlds because it does save power and the wear and tear to bring it out of sleep mode or hibernation is not as much as turning it on from being completely off.

However just a warning here. I have noticed in my years of doing this that the circuitry that controls coming out of sleep mode seems to often be the first circuitry that fails on a failing motherboard. I have seen it fail and then the rest of the motherboard and the computer run fine for several years. So if the computer has any issues whatsoever coming out of sleep mode or hibernation then all that I can recommend is to disable that feature. Also it is possible that by the time one counts the number of times that the computer goes to sleep and awakes in a single day there could actually be more wear and tear on components than if it was just turned on once each morning and then just left on for the day.

So the issue is not as simple as I would have hoped to explain. My recommendation is to go with your primary concern. If your primary concern is the power usage and/or the environment then turn it off all the time when not in use of set short time frames for it powering down the monitor and it going to sleep. If your concern is more the longevity of the computer then just leave it on all the time.

The same is true for Laptop computers as desktops with the one difference that they use much less power to start with. Leaving a Laptop computer plugged in and on all day does not drain near the power that a desktop computer does, but power can still be saved when it is turned off or hibernated. Running on battery does not make much difference here because the eventual recharge of that battery will draw more power; so not much power (if any) will be saved by trying to run on battery as much as possible. Also most batteries will recharge about 500 times and then they need replacing, and they are pretty expensive to replace.

Windows XP Support has ended: Here is what it really means

On April 8, 2014, Microsoft discontinued security patching support for Windows XP. Since it may not be clear to everyone what this means exactly, I will explain all of the ramifications here.

First thing to understand is that Windows XP will still run and run all the same programs after April 8th that it used to run before April the 8th. This part does not change. And it will remain activated. There is not concept of it becoming un-activated in this process.

Also your virus scanner will still function assuming that it is not expired, but if it is expired you can renew that one. Please read the rest of this before you decide if you want to pay money to do that.

If you were using Microsoft Security Essentials as your virus scanner, that one will not update anymore. It is permanently expired for the XP Platform. So you would need to replace it with something else but read the rest of this before you make that decision.

Access to the Internet will not be affected and Windows XP computers can still get EMail and browse the Web. Microsoft Office Applications that are on an XP Machine will also continue to work and stay activated.

Also if for some reason your XP machine is not connected to the Internet then it will not be affected as much. I will explain this but also say that most every XP machine is connected to the Internet. If you disconnect then no more EMail or Web Browsing on that machine, but I know some folks keep XP machines around to play older games and they may not need the network connection. If it is never on the network and no thumb drives or other removable media is ever attached to it, (and if it is not already infected), then the machine will be safe despite the discontinuance of support.

Now for the real world, the production XP computer that is still connected to the Internet that is still being used. Here is exactly what is happening.

Almost every Tuesday, Microsoft releases Windows Updates for all versions of Windows. This is what has now stopped for Windows XP. there will not be any more of those Windows Updates for Windows XP. What does that mean? I will explain.

Generally the purpose of these updates is to patch security holes that have been found in Windows. One might think that it would be hard to find a new (and never discovered before) security hole in an operating systems that has been pounded on by virus writers for 13 years now, but it still happens.

The problem with a security hole is it provides a potential way for malware to get onto your computer right around the virus scanner. Malware that exploits a security hole that is not patched can infect a machine and then attack the current AV “from the inside”. Once it disabled the virus scanner, it will typically download a lot of other malware. If anyone does not know “malware” is a general term including computer viruses, trojans, adware, ransomware, rootkits, hijacks and so forth.

So the end effect of the discontinuance of support is that very quickly XP computers are going to be vulnerable to malware in a way they have never been before. Chances of them getting infected go up sharply starting right now. As soon as the next security hole is found in Windows XP (if that has not happened already), all the virus writers will know that they can exploit it with no chance that it will be patched on anyone’s machine. This is potentially dangerous and serious at the same time . . . malware on the computer might cause passwords to be compromized, keyloggers might be installed, identity theft could occur because of information that virus writers will now be able to lift from easily infected Windows XP machines.

Of course unplugging the network cable (or disconnecting from wireless) mitigates the risk, but people cannot live without the Internet these days.

If someone is saying that this would not affect them because they only go on the Internet to safe and established sites, then let’s talk about that for a second. It is possible that the statement is true, but I need to offer the following guidelines. First of all if you can upgrade your machine to get off of XP then please do so. We can help you if you would like us to. If you are stuck on XP for a while for any reason the following set of rules must be put into effect immediately:

1. Never click on any Internet Advertisement, or anything on the rigth side of GMail, Yahoo Mail or Facebook or Twitter. Read EMails and posts only. Treat any link no matter what the source with great suspicion.

2. If you can, set up Outlook Express to read your mail and turn on Preview Mode. Read all your EMails by previewing them instead of actually opening each one. NEVER click an attachment unless 1. You know the sender and 2. YOU WERE EXPECTING IT. Unexpected attachments from people you know if a common way that viruses spread.

3. Learn how to disable the Network connection in XP, and disable it when you are not specifically using it. If you run the Windows Explorer (by right clicking on Start and choosing Explore), you can then Right Click on My Network Places and choose Properties and you will see the Network Adapters listed. Figure out which one you are using (easy if there is only one) and then right click on that and Choose Disable. Remember to do the same and choose Enable to start using the network again.

Please note that doing this also detaches one from the home or work network, so network printers or file sharing would not be available while it is disabled. Never leave the machine on for long periods of time connected to the network. Remember you are the boss, you get to decide when the machine gets to talk to the Network.

And still make plans to get off of XP as soon as possible. Use these counter-measures in the meantime.

Myths of Computing: The Computer is Always Right

There is an acronym that is used among IT people that seems appropriate for this posting:

GIGO

Stands for “Garbage In, Garbage Out”

This is used against the un-spoken but almost universally accepted Doctrine of the Infallability of the Computer which simply states that if the computer says it, then it must be right.

Seems comical I am sure when put in this light, but this doctrine has adverse effects on real people quite often.

Such as the case where a data input error caused the computer record for a man to show that he was dead. As such his Benefit checks stopped coming. When he went to check on the problem he said “Look and me I am not dead”, but somehow it did not register.

If computers were not informed by people, then GIGO would not be a problem; but everything about the computer is designed by imperfect people. The program that is running. The database that holds the data. The data entry itself (a common point for errors to be introduced). The computer operator who may out of ignorance or carelessness push the wrong button.

The problem is when folks trust what a computer says like it was scripture or something. It is not.

The same goes for the Internet. A comical TV commercial says “Sure! They are not allowed to put anything that is not true on the Internet!”. Of course no one knows how much of the Internet is true information because NO ONE IS CHECKING IT.

I research things on the Internet all the time. When doing this, I keep in mind that the Internet has now given a voice to every person in the world whether they know any truth or not. Folks can self publish such that no one else even sees what they write before it goes live. There are some who purposely deceive, and there are others who like to talk about things that they do not know anything about.

Even in cases where the same bit of information is found in several places on the Internet, that is STILL no guarantee that it is true. It happens that some false info is put out there that sounds good, and as folks read it they tend to republish the same (faulty) info in their own way.

The only way to try to verify the truth of something that is on the Internet is to try to verify it with a non-Internet Source. I know that is not what some of you wanted to hear.

My main message for Internet Researchers: Reader Beware.

Please Get Your Computer Checked by an Expert

As I run this Awesome Computer Help business, I constantly see folks running very important business and finance transactions from their computer without ever getting their computer checked out from time to time. In fact it has to almost crash completely before some folks will call us.

It can be dangerous to operate this way.

Most people understand that there are certain people in the world who instead of honestly earning money for themselves, they would rather steal some from someone else. There are also those who just wish to cause havoc even if they are not trying to steal anything. Further there are those who create new malware programs and social engineering schemes for many different reasons.

If you operate on a PC Desktop or Laptop with any version of Microsoft Windows on it, then your machine is squarely in their sights. It is not that Windows (in the newer versions) is not as secure as some other operating systems, it is just that with the kind of attention it gets from malware writers and theives, the general computing public need to be aware.

And yet many feel that if they have an antivirus program on their machine, then they have no need to be concerned about any of these threats. Unfortunately this is not the case. Having an antivirus program (we recommend Vipre) is the beginning of security for your computer; but far from the end of it.

If your home business and your finances were not at risk, I personally would be much less worried about this; but since both of them are very much at risk, we have designed a program to allow us to do proactive checks on your computers in a very cost effective way. Our program is called Awesome Care. You can “Avoid the Scare” with Awesome Care.

Please get your computer checked out every once in a while. We recommend every six months as an absolute minimum. If you do not wish to use our program (which is available world wide), then please ask a computer expert you trust to check your machine. Please also plan on paying them if you want them to take your check seriously.

The hassle and pain that can come from a breach of your private information is real, so I am hoping that I can convince folks to do something about it. When an expert checks your machine, they can find all the hidden things that are leading to trouble. Make sure the person who checks your machine is really an expert.

If they are directed by 24 years of Tech Support Experience (like we are) that would be nice.

Unsafe Real Estate on Almost Every Web Page

People often ask me where does all the malware and the spyware and the Potentially Unwanted Programs (PUP) come from. Of course the answer is that they can come from several different sources, and I will describe one of them today.

On almost every single legitimate webpage (that is backed by any commercial concern) that you go to, there is dedicated add space set aside on the main pages as a way for the sight to bring in income. It is not hard to find examples, try the main page of any major news organization.

There are several things that you the viewer need to understand about these ads, and knowing these facts will make your computer much more secure if you act on them:

1. Generally the website is not in direct control of what appears in the add space, and to a large extent they do not even know what appears in the ad space. They are just selling the space in general and a different organization is responsible for what goes there. Also most of that is decided by computer because those ads are somewhat tailored. The first mistake that many make is to assume if the website is legitimate, then all the ads on it would also be legitimate. This is NOT the case.

2. If an actual virus or trojan is proven to be linked to one of those ads it will be taken down, but not until after some people are infected by it. However getting actual trojans and viruses from these is not the chief concern. Folks do need to be aware however that it has happened.

3. There are many schemes that run on the Internet that have questionable legality. Many of these sell things that are made to sound good up front but which turn out to have questionable value. There tends to be a large amount of small print and in some instances the small print says that “in addition to” what you think you are buying you are also paying for these extra subscriptions to things that you did not ask for. Each of which of course has a yearly or even a monthly “subscription fee”. Because the small print DOES detail exactly what will happen, it is hard to say what they are doing is illegal.

4. Personally I never click on any of these spaces. Not even the ones that purposely cover up what I was trying to read. If I cannot find a way to make it go away (this does happen) then I kill the whole Tab or the whole browser instance to get rid of it. I will mark that webpage down as an undesirable if they do that to me. Am I missing out on some new killer product that no one else knows about and I could be the first to buy? Maybe, but I do not care. In many ways the Internet in it’s current form is like the wild wild west, and Law and Order as we know if for everything else has not yet caught up.

5. The text on these new ads can be easy to pick out: “(Your town) new rule”, “New Rule(s) for _______”, Something that sounds new and different. A lot of them use the current president of the United States trying to bring in those who trust that person. Let me tell you strait up that there are typically no new rules in these except for the rule of the author that you are supposed to give them some of your money. Did you want to give them some of your money?

6. Internet ads are very similar to junk mail and to some extent almost all mail. Why does someone send you something in the mail? Because they want money from you of course. Some ask legitimately because you are getting something in return, like your water or your electricity, but most just want you to give them some of your money. Do you want to? Now of course things that come from people you actually know are not included in this, but even some of those are asking for money.

7. It is our recommendation to all of our customers, and those who listen to us, that users NOT click on ANY of these ads. There are no real new rules or secrets to be learned through this course. There is money to be lost, and the best case scenario is that no money is lost and only a little but of your time is wasted. In the worst case scenario; well let’s just say that someone could still be busy months later still trying to stop all the charges that are coming off the debit card number that was given or the bank account number for an ACH transaction.

Finally, these are so tough because it is hard to figure out who to even go after if you are wronged. The main organization page that hosted the add will say they are “not responsible” for what appears in the ad space, or at least that they are not in control of it. The company that someone finally pays is often offshore and not subject to US Laws.

Most of us do not have time for this kind of a financial tragedy in our lives, please do not click on these ads. You will also notice that you will not see any of these ads on our site, and some would call me crazy because I have not “money enabled” my site. I am not concerned; I earn a lot of money selling Awesome Care, which is a high value service that can save my customers a lot of headache in the future. So many people depend on their computers, yet never get them checked out by an expert. Awesome Care solves this problem in a very effective and cost effective way.

Microsoft or Windows Support Will Never Call You

The scam I will talk about today is not new, but I have not mentioned it on my blog before. Most folks know that they should be 100% suspicious when someone calls them out of the blue, as the only reason anyone (even the legitimate ones) calls you out of the blue is because they want some of your money. Do you want to give it to them?

This particular scam will have someone call and say they are from “Microsoft Support” or “Windows Support” or even “Windows Security”. They will say something similar to “Your machine has a lot of viruses according to the reports that we are getting” and “would you like for us to help you clean them up”?

If you stick with them they will show you piles of Windows errors in Event Viewer (bogus), or files in the prefetch folder (which they will call viruses), or something in msconfig that does not make sense to average users. Eventually they will ask to make a remote connection to your machine, but not normally until they have switched the person you are talking to (so the first one lied to you but the second one now has not, get it?).

No matter what happens do not give them a remote connection, and if thay caught you at a bad time and you were tricked into doing it then unplug your machine from the network or turn it off ASAP. They will try to get you to pay them money. Paying them is not a good idea, but the real damage comes from letting them on your machine. If this has happened to you, turn it off immediately and take it to a computer repair place that you trust and tell them the story of what happened.

They will use all kinds of Social Engineering, similar to EMails that come in with bogus subjects like “IRS Notice of under reported income”. You know something designed to get you out of your normal frame of mind. I recommend against staying on the phone and trying to play with these people, the only totally safe thing for you to do is hang up as soon as you realize it is not on the up and up and never answer again from that same number. Be aware that if they have called you once, they are likely to try you again in the future.

In the future I will post some strategies as to how to stop these folks from getting your number in the first place.

The Hidden and Very Helpful Windows 8 Power Menu

One of the chief frustrations that many users have with Windows 8 is the removal of the traditional Desktop Start Menu (or Start Orb as it was called in Vista and Windows 7). More than just for running programs, users used the Start Menu to run a program (Run Command), Shut Down or Restart the Computer, go to a command prompt, go to the control panel, and so forth. Now that it is not there, users invariably spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to do all these things some other way.

But here is great news! We do not have to! There is a hidden Start Menu that is still there (called the Power Menu) and you reach it the following ways:

Windows 8.0: Go to Desktop Mode if not already there from the Desktop Tile. Position the mouse at the lower left hand corner of the screen and a Start Menu item will appear in the corner. RIGHT CLICK on this. The Power Menu Appears.

Windows 8.1: Go to Desktop Mode if not already there from the Desktop Tile. RIGHT CLICK the new Start Orb that is there. Notice all the cool things you can now get to easily.

In short this Power Menu provides for you most all the functionality that the old Windows 7 Start Menu EXCEPT for running or listing programs. If you need the old Start Menu for any other purpose the Power Menu can probably help you. For running or listing programs, the new Tiles Start screen does that, and in Windows 8.1 there is a down pointing arrow that will take one to a list of all Apps installed on the machine.

Want Someone Who Knows What They are Doing to Check Your Computer?

If you would like an expert to come and check your computer where do you go? There is only one National Player in the home and home office computer care market and their option, if you want them to come to you, is pretty expensive. Short of the National Player, there is in every market a large number of small (mostly one man) computer help companies and you may have heard of a few of them, but how do you know which ones are good? Quite frankly since it is a market that is not really regulated at all, pretty much anyone can go into business as a computer help company with no oversight whatsoever from the government. Now this is a good thing if you want to start a computer help company; but it is a bad thing if a customer ends up with a “tech” who really does not have much experience and does not know what they are doing. Money spent on one of these is not money well spent.

Now to be clear, just because a Tech does know what he is doing, it still not a guarantee that the Tech can work magic for you. If your computer has a hardware issue, it will take some testing that you will be charged for to come definitely to that conclusion. Once diagnosed as such, the only way to fix a hardware issue is to replace the affected hardware and this is at additional customer expense and in some cases is cost prohibitive versus buying a new machine, especially on Laptop computers.

So it happens that some folks have expectations that are too high for a computer tech. . . sorry but I do not know any of us who can wave a magic wand and make a hardware issue go away, and I have also not yet met one who knew every answer so that they did not have to troubleshoot, but some customers worry about how long it takes to troubleshoot. On a computer that is really slow it takes LONGER. Best strategy there is find a tech with a lab option where they will set processes and then leave them without charging you for all the time it takes them to run. We operate this way with our lab jobs, and as a result it may be more cost effective to bring us your machine (as opposed to us coming to you) if it is really slow.

Back to the main subject at hand. You have three choices when it comes to getting your computer checked. Here they are:
1. Go with the National Player for a lot of money. Those Techs are usually pretty young with five years of experience or less.
2. Pick a small player in your local market. These will tend to have more experience and probably charge less but there is a real unknown factor at work and getting a bad Tech is not what you want to do.
3. Sign up for Awesome Care with us, or let us do a Remote Check on your computer. I will explain.

Awesome Care is a program that is designed to allow our experts directed by 24 years of Tech Support Experience to check your machine twice a year on a proactive basis and then send you a detailed report indicating our findings and recommendations. Most issues that will eventually take down a computer do not just develop overnight; and we know how to see them coming. It is really smart for the customers to allow the experts to check their computer while it generally seems to be ok to see what is lurking in the shadows of the operating system. Given that the check is remote it is easily scheduled and usually completed within an hour and at most two hours unless the machine has a major issue.

If Awesome Care is too much because you were just wanting a one time check, then we can help there as well. For a set price that is less than the National Player, we can setup a remote session and do a check (similar to the Awesome Care Checks) that is run by a tech with years and years of experience (generally more than 15); and that Tech is directed by our Chief Technician who has 24 years of Tech Support Experience. Not plain IT experience, but actual Tech Support and troubleshooting experience for all 24 years. Can your computer guy say that?

If either of these two options sound good to you, give us a call at 281-256-6251. We can run these checks for any computer in the world (PC Based) that is connected to the Internet. Or you could just wait until the lurking problems build enough to take down the machine, and deal with an unknown onsite Tech from your area. We are the only computer help company that is “Awesome”. Welcome to Awesome Computer Help.

A new kind of Ransomeware: You will want to know about this one

The concept of Ransomeware is that a virus takes control of something on your computer and demands a payment to give control back. It is not that new of a concept, but there is a new version of this out now called Cryptolocker which is *really* nasty.

The current version of Cryptolocker will infect a machine through a corrupted email attachment or website link. Once the machine is infected, the user will not notice anything different at first. Behind the scenes the Cryptolocker malware is encrypting files; and it will attempt to encrypt data files on every data drive that it can find on the system. This includes network drives and mapped drives and external drives and to some extent even cloud based drives. I will explain.

Now many will think that online backups or cloud based drives would be safe because they are not physical drives to the computer. That would be true except for the automatic synchronization facter that many of these Cloud Based Services use. When Cryptolocker encrypts a file on the main drive and there is an online backup or synching cloud drive monitoring that file store, it is possible that the online store will see that encryption as a change in the file and will then resync which would replace the previously good copy on the online storage with the encrypted copy. If your online backup service or cloud drive service has versioning please turn it on immediately, and it may save you.

Back to the infection. Once Cryptolocker has completed encrypting all the data files (not the program files so windows still runs), it will then throw up a message on the screen saying that your files are encrypted and that for $300.00-$400.00 you can buy an unencryption key that will allow you to unencrypt them. Of course we are dealing with criminals here and there is no guarantee that paying will actually restore your files, and even if it does, you would be paying criminals. There is also only a limited time to pay, maybe 72 hours and there is a countdown timer presented. The encryption key needed to unencrypt your files is not on your machine; but on a random web server somewhere on the Internet and so while removing the Cryptolocker malware is pretty easy, there is actually NO WAY to unencrypt the files without obtaining the right encryption key. So cleaning the virus off does not help in this case, and actually harms if you decide later that you do want to pay and hopefully get that key.

The only 100% defense against this is to have a complete backup of all of your data, EMail, Contact and Program Installation and license key files; and this backup needs to be NOT ATTACHED to the computer (or else Cryptolocker may be able to kill it as well). Easiest way to do this is to use and external drive and then unplug from computer when finished, but then you have to remember to plug it back in to do another backup and it would be really difficult to run automatic backup in this setup. If you have cloud backup then turn on versioning so that previous versions of important files are kept for a time.

I know not the easiest solutuion, but many users when hit with this thing have to weigh the value of all of their data files against $300 or $400 and the data files usually win and people pay. Welcome to the Internet where someone can extort hundreds of dollars from someone they have never even met and who lives thousands and thousands of miles away from the perp in another country.

If you do not have a current backup of your data files, your emails and contacts, your favorites and your program installations and license keys, NOW would be a really good time to do that. While this initial version of Cryptolocker does not infect via security holes in java or other popular software, it is only a matter of time before a varient comes out that can infect that way, and when that happens WATCH OUT! Because most folks do not really understand how to plug the security holes in their computer.

Want us to check it for you on a proactive basis? Then we recommend Awesome Care. Once we have done our thourough check on your machine, we can share with you your risk of getting infected by this or something like it in the future. Either way, please make sure to backup your files!

Joseph

Does Your Computer Ever Get a Physical? Or a Check Up?

Under recent changes in Health Care Laws the Insurance Companies are now required to cover well physicals at 100% for insured persons. As a result of this change, I believe that more folks will take advantage of the opportunity and go to a physician to get an annual physical.

Why would someone do that when they feel fine and are not aware of any new issues?

Well because not all issues are plainly visible when they are new and growing. In some cases waiting until there are obvious symptoms will mean a much rougher go before resolution.

So the physicals are a PREVENTATIVE thing.

Now let’s talk computers, and specifically let’s talk home and home office computers and computers at small businesses where there is not a full time IT person. Does anyone who is an expert even check out these computers? I am afraid that far too often the answer is NO.

So what can happen when an expert never looks at them? Well here is what often happens: The computer builds up over time with Adware, Spyware, Viruses, Trojans and possibly even Rogues. Also the computer gets gunked up by drive by downloads, unwanted programs that masquerade as important programs, and other leftover and now unused files. Most computers have a resident virus scanner installed (make sure you only have one), but no one scanner can get every malware that is out there. The almost unavoidable conclusion to this is that the computer will get slower and slower and it will not be clear to the user how to fix the issue safely without deleting something that really was important.

And yet even with this, most computer users will wait until the computer is so slow it is unusable, or it is dead as a doornail, or a Rogue has completely taken control of the machine before they seek professional assistance. It is my stated goal as the founder of Awesome Computer Help to do something about this, and this is why we now have a program called Awesome Care.

Home Office and Small Business users need no longer wait until machines are down and they are losing money before they call in the experts. They can fire the experts to do unobtrusive checks on their machines for not even that much money. I think of it as a no-brainer.

Is There a Way to Get Help Before Your Computer is Completely Dead ???

Speaking now about residential and home office customers, we are concerned that we are not called in on issues until they have become bad and in most cases the machine is completely down. Everyone knows that Computer Down = Losing Money for most computers that do important things. I am not talking about the kids computer in the other room here.

We think it would make much more sense if folks had a way to have those important machines checked out every once in a while, on a Proactive basis. Call it Proactive IT support for Home and Home Office Computers. Oh wait! There is just one problem, and that is that no one offers this service at a price that makes sense to residential or home office customers.

As I was making my review of what is going on on the industry, and talking to my competitors in my area, this fact became very clear. Larger businesses have IT personnel on contract for set hours and once they reach a certain size they also have specialized monitoring software that will alert everyone immediately the second some sort of issue appears on a covered machine. What do home and home office customers have? Their telephone. Of course the problem is that no one thinks to call the Awesome computer guys until things are really bad, and then they can be down for several hours while a Tech is dispatched and the issue is fixed.

It does not have to be this way.

Once I came to understand the problem as I have explained it above, I knew that we were uniquely positioned to offer a compelling solution to this problem. What I asked myself is: “How can we set up a worthwhile Proactive offering that is not cost prohibitive for home and home office customers”?

And my answer has now been formulated and it is called Awesome Care. For a set price that almost any home or home office computer user can afford, the Technicians at Awesome Computer Help directed by 23 years of Tech Support Experience will make a proactive remote check on your computer(s) twice a year. By doing this we believe we will be able to spot problems that are forming and will be troublemakers later. We will fix them now before they have a chance to bring the machine down. As an additional incentive folks who sign up for this program will get priority scheduling and reduced rates on all of our other services, and a new less expensive “remote support” service tier that is not available to the non-Awesome Care customers. It is the priority scheduling that we believe will be the greatest benefit, because the last thing that any user wnats to hear when they call in for a computer repair is that they cannot be helped immediately.

And so we now offer Awesome Care on a world wide basis. For those customers not in our physical coverage area, we will still make the proactive checks and report the results via EMail, and in cases where more assistance is required that cannot be done remotely, we will assist those out of our coverage area customers in finding a suitable local Tech who can help them, and will try to negotiate the best rate possible for them.

Of course this might be the year where the important computer does not fail at all . . . but why take the risk when some real peace of mind on the compouter can be purchased for so little? There is just not time for that kind of scare in someone’s life.

Avoid the Scare with Awesome Care

A Word About Social Engineering

I had a computer brought to me this last week with a variation on the FBI Rogue with a really interesting twist. It had infected a Laptop computer with an integrated Webcam and it had then taken control of the webcam and snapped a picture of the computer user and then used that picture on the Rogue/Fake Antivirus screen. This is a new (to me) twist in what we call Social Engineering.

Now 99.9% of computer users know that you should not open that attachment on that strange EMail (which is likely from someone you know) or click that link in that strange EMail that you just got (probably also from someone you know). So how can the virus writers infect your machine if 99.9% of everyone knows not to do that?

Well there are several ways, and absolutely everyone needs to read this article to understand what some of those ways are, but the virus writers have not given up their traditional approaches either, and thus we need to have a quick discussion about Social Engineering.

The FBI Rogue is a great example. If you actually read what it says on the screen when this infects your computer, you will read threats that your machine has been doing illegal things or that you have, that it will threaten to file criminal charges against you, and that all of this will happen to you if you do not pay them $400.00.

It is the same thing as a spam EMail that comes in and says “IRS Notice of Under-reported income” or “Foreclosure Notice”. Of course all of these are lies but they are designed to get you upset and out of your normal frame of mind. The virus writers know that if they can get you out of your normal frame of mind then it is more likely that they can get you to click that link or open that attachment.

In the example case, my customer acted very smartly. As soon as he saw his own picture next to a screen with an FBI Logo, he immediately turned off his computer and left it off until he was able to get it here to my lab in Cypress. I was able to clean the machine for him and we prevented that FBI Rogue from spreading to anything else on his home network.

Of course the FBI Rogue has nothing whatsoever to do with the real FBI. They are just trying to scare us. Do not let them.

Joseph

Would It Be Better if We Found Your Issues Proactively?

With the start of a new year I am thinking along the lines of how we can be of better service to our customers. Many of them wait until things are really bad or computers are completely down before they call us. We all know that a down computer = losing money, and if there would be some way for us to get to these computers before they are so bad I will pursue it.

The result of this will be a new Service Offering that we plan to roll out on February 2013. It will be called

Awesome Care

The idea is for us to come check your machine proactively from time to time so that we can see problems coming and head them off before they get there. We envision the following benefits being defined for those who will purchase Awesome Care.

1. Defined pricing at a discount for all of our services.
2. Stable and available remote control access for remote repairs.
3. Protection from service price increases for as long as the plan is in effect.
4. Priority Scheduling if something does go wrong.
5. Automatic Renewal with Credit Card
6. Pricing that Home and Home Office customers can work with
7. Plans for small business with no limit on number of computers
8. Peace of mind for customers who know that their computers are getting a timely checkup by an expert.
9. Easy process to remove machines or add new machines.
10. If you move locations then your service moves with you as long as it is current.

Use the list at the top left to find a Tech today, and ask them about Awesome Care. You will be glad that you did.

Avoid the scare with Awesome Care!

Time is quickly running out to not be stuck with Windows 8

Since Windows 8 has now been released by Microsoft, most of the computer vendors will remain in Lock Step and offer only Windows 8 machines very soon if they are not doing it already.

Now do not get me wrong, I do believe that Windows 8 does represent the direction that all computing is going . . .

I just disagree with the way normal computer users are forced to make the change before they are ready to because they are not allowed to decide what OS comes on the new computer that they purchase. My recommendation to normal computer users who are not wanting to be on the bleeding edge is to avoid Windows 8 for 12-18 months at least.

There is a significant learning curve with Windows 8, and the classic Windows 7 interface does not work as well as you might hope. Windows 8 is also clunky (a technical term) on traditional computers with a mouse and keyboard . . . it does much better in a touch interface scenario. I personally think that in Windows 9 they will remove the text from the tiles by default, just like they did on the Taskbar (by default) between Vista and Windows 7.

To me it appears that they are being influenced by Star Trek where the computers are all pictures or symbols and no text and all touch or voice interfaces. I personally believe that this is driving some of their decisions.

You know, like Mr Scott says in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: “The keyboard! How Quaint.”

So I believe this is why they are moving this direction, but I am concerned that someone who gets a new Windows 8 desktop or Laptop (non-touch screen/non tablet) computer under their holiday tree may spend until well after New Years celebration with a lot of frustration.

Most reports I see say that the time to get comfortable with the new operating system is measured in weeks. I remember my own experience the first time I saw a beta . . . I sat in the front of the machine for a couple of minutes not knowing what to do at all, and then I started clicking on various things to see what they did.

So if you like Windows 7 and will be replacing a computer in the coming year, you might want to start trying now to see where you can still get a Windows 7 machine.

Could you be part of the Zombie Net?

Not you specifically but your computer sure could. Have you ever seen any of the following things come up in a virus scan on your computer?

Aleuron Trojan
TDL3 or TDL4 Rootkit
TDSS

The Aleuron Trojan is a delivery mechanism for the TDLx rootkits. A rootkit is a malicious piece of software that hides in the background on your computer but can give someone else control of it. A Zombie Net is a group of infected computers that acts as one because it is controlled by the same version of malware; and on the dark side of computing folks sell access to Zombie Nets for real money.

What could someone do with a Zombie Net? For our purposes we will talk about a 20,000 computer (typical) Zombie Net. The controller (or the person who has bought control) can issue a command to the entire group telling them to do something like hit microsoft.com over and over again. This is an example of what is called a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack and is designed to bring the target website down by overwhelming it with requests from all different locations.

But these days the more valuable item is harvesting EMail addresses. Every infected computer can provide a list of 500+ EMail addresses to the Zombie Net controllers that can then be sold to spammers. So you get spam not necessairily because you have a virus, but one of your friends did and they got your EMail address off of their computer. Please note that the Address Book is only one place they get these addresses, there are many more.

Almost everyone knows that they should have a good AV program and make sure it is not expired and it is updating, but it still surprises me how many folks have a Windows machine with an expired AV or even with no AV at all! Might as well paint a big target on your computer’s back if that is the plan.

What do we recommend for AV? The one and only VIPRE. Small, fast, effective and out of your way, with US based Tech Support where the folks speak clear English, and all of that for much less than the competition. The only brand we recommend.

Can You Have Two Antivirus Programs ???

Generally the answer to this question for most users is No.

If you did have two resident antivirus programs on the machine then they are likely to spend as much time fighting each other than fighting actual viruses.

Unless one of them is NOT resident.  Enter the Free Version of Malwarebytes Anti Malware.

The free version of Malwarebytes is a stand alone non-resident scanner that will not interfere with your resident scanner (which should be Vipre if you have been listening to us).  It has to be the free version however, even a free trial of the paid version will become a resident scanner and then will conflict.

Now Malwarebytes is a very good resident scanner, but I do not like to use it that way.  If you use Malwarebytes as your resident scanner then you cannot use it’s free version as a backup scanner, which is my favorite way to use it.

So our recommendation is to get Vipre for your resident scanner, and then get the free version of Malwarebytes to back it up.  The first time you run the Malwarebytes it will ask you about a free trial of the paid version, and you will need to make sure that you press the Decline button.

Here’s to you Vipre and Malwarebytes provided safe computing!