It's no secret that one of the most important elements of computer security is to keep the software on your machine up to date. The people who write malicious software such as viruses, spyware, keyloggers and ransomeware are constantly seeking to exploit security flaws which are discovered and publicized in the various pieces of software which are used in today's computing environment. In previous years, Microsoft Windows and the software which was a part of it (Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, etc.) were perhaps the biggest targets. While security flaws continue to be exploited in Windows, though, the bigger targets recently have been third-party software applications such as Java and Adobe Flash player, which are installed on virtually all computers. Even Apple employees were hacked in a recent attack which took advantage of a security vulnerability in Java. (Please don't believe the lie that Apple computers and devices are inherently more secure than Windows, especially as their vulnerability to attacks will likely increase proportionality with their market share.
What's one of the best way to keep your computer secure? Keep it up to date! Turn on Windows Updates and allow them to be installed automatically. However, this will only update the Windows software on your computer. What about all of the other software which is the target of malware, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, Flash Player, Java, iTunes, etc.? Thankfully, there is a free tool available which will patch all of these pieces of software in one fell swoop. Patch My PC is a small piece of software which can be either downloaded and run one time or (better) can be saved and run by computer users at regular intervals (e.g. once a week). The program will scan your computer for 12 commonly installed programs and will determine whether or not they are up to date. If they are not, it will highlight which programs need updates and, upon your approval, will download and install those updates automatically. No longer will you have to go to each vendor's website and manually download updates for particular products. Optionally, Patch My PC can also scan for approximately 85 other pieces of software and can install updates for those as well. The tool can also help you disable startup programs which could be slowing down your computer and uninstall unwanted software applications.
While Patch My PC is currently designed as a tool for computer technicians, it is simple an intuitive enough for most home users to incorporate into an overall computer security strategy. A version of the program is supposedly forthcoming. However, with the recent highly publicized security exploits, it would be wise to add this tool to your arsenal now. Click here
to download PatchMyPC.
It's simply amazing that you can buy a used laptop with Windows 7 Ultimate on Craigslist for just $129.00, especially when the Windows 7 Ultimate operating system retails for about $170.00. What's going on here? Someone is buying that used laptop, loading it with a pirated version of Microsoft Windows and then reselling it to make a profit. He or she is, essentially, stealing a copy of Windows and then selling it, along with a piece of used hardware, in an effort to make some money.
What is Software Piracy and Why Should I Care?Software piracy is the unauthorized copying or distribution of copyrighted software. This can be done by copying, downloading, sharing, selling, or installing multiple copies onto personal or work computers. In the case of the Microsoft Windows 7 operating system, which we will deal with in this article, people usually pirate the software either to upgrade their current computer to the latest Microsoft operating system without having to pay for it or they do it to increase the resale value on a used computer, as given in the example above. Consumers should care particularly about software piracy for two reasons. The first is a general, moral reason that any illegal use of a copyrighted work is wrong; it's stealing from the company that invested, in Microsoft's case, millions of dollars to develop that product. Unfortunately, though, this not enough to deter many users from installing a cracked copy of Windows 7 or buying a computer with a pirated copy of Windows 7. The second, more practical reason that consumers should avoid an illegitimate copy of Windows is that Microsoft has put several safeguards in place to detect whether or not particular copies of Windows are genuine. The Windows 7 software regularly "phones home" to report is license status. If the product key associated with the installation of Windows 7 is found to not be genuine (e.g. activated on multiple computers), the operating system can be rendered into a reduced-functionality state and users can be denied important security updates from Microsoft. If this happens, the computer will become increasingly vulnerable to malware and virus attacks, especially if it is connected to the Internet.
What are the Legal Ways to Obtain Microsoft Windows?
There are primarily three legitimate sources to buy Microsoft Windows software: OEM, retail and refurbished. OEM (original equipment manufacturer) software is bundled with the price of new computer. When you purchase a computer from Dell, HP, Lenovo, etc., and open the box, the software that is pre-installed on that computer is OEM software. A new computer will have a Microsoft Certificate of Authenticity sticker on the side or the back of the system, branded with the name of the manufacturer, which will contain the license ID and 25-digit product key for the copy of Microsoft Windows which came pre-installed on your system. If you ever needed to re-install the operating system and re-activate the Windows license, you would use the product key on that sticker.
A second legal source for software is retail or packaged software. In other words, if you would like to upgrade your Windows Vista computer to Windows 7, you could go to a store and buy a Windows 7 upgrade license, which retails from about $100-150, depending on what specific version to which you are upgrading. A retail copy of the software will contain an upgrade edge-to-edge hologram DVD, a Certificate of Authenticity sticker and a 25-digit product key code which you will need to enter during the upgrade process.
A third authorized source for Windows 7 software is a refurbished license. These can only be obtained from Microsoft Authorized Refurbishers or Microsoft Registered Refurbishers. These licenses can only be sold with a computer which has been through a refurbishment process; the software cannot be purchased separately. When a consumer purchases a MAR computer, he or she will receive a Certificate of Authenticity sticker, an re-installation DVD and a card with the 25-digit product key.
How Can I Tell if My Copy of Windows is Genuine?
As mentioned above, it is wise to make sure that you have a Certificate of Authenticity which matches the version of Windows which is installed on your computer (e.g. if you have Windows 7 Home Premium, make sure that your COA is for the same version of Windows.) Also, it is helpful to have the 25-digit product key code which is associated with your installation of Windows. With OEM software, this code will be on the COA sticker. Retail copies will usually have the product key code on a sticker inside the packaging which came with the installation disk (Don't throw that packaging away!) Refurbished computers will be sold with a card which has the product key on it. If you are not sure what your product key code is, you can usually extract it from your installation of Windows by using a software tool such as Magic Jelly Bean. Microsoft also offers a free online tool to check the validity of your installation of Windows.
In our next blog post, we will tackle the question of what to do if you find that your copy of Windows is not genuine.
The Microsoft Windows XP operating system, though far and away the most used desktop operating system in the world, is slowly beginning to sink into the sunset. First released in 2001, XP continues to dominate the market share on the majority of computers, even after 11 years. However, Microsoft has set an of support date of April 8, 2014. What this means is that after that date, Windows XP will no longer receive software and security updates from Microsoft, leaving computers running XP increasingly vulnerable to virus and malware attacks. Likewise, many software vendors will take their cue from Microsoft on or before that date and will no longer support their products running on a Windows XP computer.
How do I know what operating system I have?
The quick, easy way to determine what operating system you are running is to bring up the System Properties window. To do this, press and hold the Windows key on your keyboard and then press the "Pause/Break" key (it's on the same row as the F1-F12 keys, to the right above the arrow keys and Page Up/Down keys). If you are running XP, the window will look something like this:
Will my XP computer Still Run after that date? Yes, your computer will still run. However, it will become increasingly more difficult and expensive to repair and support Windows XP machines after this date. If you are running Windows XP on your home computer, you should begin planning now to either upgrade your current computer to a newer operating system or purchase a new computer to replace the XP machine that you have.
Should I upgrade or replace my computer?Most home computers which have Windows XP installed are likely more than 4 or 5 years old. If this is the case, then it may be wise to consider purchasing a new computer rather than upgrading. Hardware components (e.g. motherboard, power supply, RAM, etc.) can become harder to find and increasingly expensive on an older system. However, if your computer is newer, or if you wish to install Windows 7 on your XP machine, start by downloading and running the Microsoft Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. This free tool will help you determine if the hardware on your current machine is capable of running Windows 7 and whether or not there may be compatibility issues with the software currently installed on your machine. Keep in mind that when upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7, all of your programs (e.g. Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, etc.) will have to be re-installed; there is no in-place upgrade option available for XP to 7. In order to upgrade your computer to Windows 7, you will need to purchase a legal copy of Windows 7, which currently retails for about $120-$150. Home users, though, can purchase a Windows 7 Home Premium Family Pack, which can be installed on up to 3 PC's. Upgrading a computer, though, can be a daunting task for many folks. If that is the case, Sarasota Home Computers can assist. We have a flat rate price of $90 for operating system installs and upgrades.
If you choose to purchase a new Windows-based computer within the next 2 years, it will come pre-installed with either Windows 7 or Windows 8 (to be released this Fall). When transitioning to a new computer, the question for many home users is how to get all of the "stuff", music, pictures, documents, etc. from the old machine to the new machine. The software programs that were installed on the old computer must be installed on the new computer. It can also be a little bit intimidating to learn a new operating system, especially if you have used Windows XP for several years. We can help with this transition. Like the operating system re-install, we offer a new computer setup service which includes physically setting up the new system, transferring user files from the old computer to the new system, walking you through the basics of the new operating system and making recommendations about the disposition of your old computer.
For more information on this topic, please read our customer information sheet on When is it Time to Upgrade to a New Computer.
If you are currently running Windows XP on your home computer, don't panic. However, do begin planning now to transition to a newer operating system or a new computer sometime within the next two years.
These days all of the most critical data in our lives is often saved online - email, banking, bill paying, shopping, etc. Each of these sites requires a username and password. To be honest, this is an area where many of us become lazy, often using the same password, or a slight variant, to log into all of these sites. This is, however, a huge security vulnerability, and makes it easier for hackers and for malicious software to gain access to your accounts. Please consider implementing the following habits into your password routine:
In my next article we will explore some tools that you can use to help you create, remember and manage passwords.
- Use a strong password. What is a strong password? According to Microsoft, and most computer security experts, a strong password is at least 8 characters (the more, the better), has a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols, does not incorporate words found in a dictionary and does not use sequences of numbers or letters (e.g. 12345, abcdefg, qwerty, etc.). While such a password sounds difficult to create and even harder to remember, it's actually easier than you think. To create a strong password, start with a phrase or sentence that is easy for you to remember (e.g. Great people make great passwords), then remove the spaces and change or remove 2 or more letters and at least 1 symbol: Gr8peoplemak3gr8psswrds] Next, check your password strength against a password checker. (This one is great, as it tells you how long it would take a desktop computer to hack the password via a brute force dictionary attack. My sample would take about 806 Octillion years!) Once you have crafted your password, open windows notepad and practice typing your password several times. By doing this, you will help your brain and your fingers "learn" the new password. It should go without saying that you should avoid using the same password for everything.
- Your email password is probably your most important password. Though many of us may not realize it, your email password is generally the "key to kingdom". If you forget your login password for just about any site on the Internet, what is the most common way to recover or reset that password? The answer is your email account. When you initially register with most sites, you are required to enter your email address for this reason. Therefore, if someone can guess and change your email password, that person could effectively reset or get at all of your other online passwords. Consider setting a strong password for your email account. Some email accounts, such as Gmail, even offer 2-factor authentication, In such a scenario, Google would send an additional code to your cell phone that you would have to use in order to reset your Gmail password. This drastically reduces the chances of someone hacking your Gmail account.
- Don't depend on your Internet browser to save your passwords. Though this is convenient, this is not terribly secure. Saved passwords in Internet Explorer and Google Chrome are stored in a Windows registry key. Though they are encrypted, the cipher, or key to unlock the encryption, is your Windows password. If you do not use a password to log onto your Windows computer, then the passwords are effectively not protected. They can be viewed by free programs such as IE PassView or ChromePass. Presumably, if they can be viewed by these programs, they can also be viewed by any malicious software that would be running under your Windows user account. Also, keep in mind that Windows passwords are fairly easy to hack or change. Mozilla Firefox does have a built-in Master Password that encrypts saved passwords with 3DES encryption, which should be fine, assuming that you create a strong master password.
- Avoid "forever" passwords Some sites prompt you to change your password at select intervals (e.g. every 3 months), while other sites will never ask you to change your password. Passwords that never change make it easier on the customer to log into sites, but this is not a good security practice. You might want to consider scheduling a "change my passwords" day every so often in which you change all of your computer and online passwords at the same time.
- Your cell phone needs a password, too. If you have a phone, and it becomes lost or stolen, how much of a problem would it be if someone else accessed the data stored on that phone? If you have a basic cell phone, the data may be limited to names and phone numbers. However, if you have a smart phone, the data that could be compromised could include email, online banking and any other password-protected applications that you have on your device. At a minimum, you should consider password-protecting your phone in some way. For smart phones, you might also want to consider some type of remote-wiping software should your phone be lost or stolen. The same is true for tablet devices, such as iPads and Android tablets.
- No legitimate company will ever request your password. If you receive an email or a phone call from anyone requesting your username or password, no matter how legitimate it may look or sound, do not give out that information. This is known as a phishing attack, and it is designed to trick you into handing over your information. Any company which maintains a secure database of client information has the ability to access that information apart from your account.