Common Malware to Watch Out For

Common Types of Malware Infection

The term “virus” is often used to describe many different types of infection a computer might have and can describe any number of potential computer programs. What these programs have in common are they are typically used to cause damage, steal data, or spread across the network but they are usually designed for a malicious or criminal intent right from the start.

Malware (‘malicious software’) is any software used for negative purposes on a personal computer  and can actually be legitimate software, but which is being deliberately misused.

Adware

Short for ‘advertising-supported software’, adware is a type of malware that delivers advertisements to your computer.  These advertisements are often intrusive, irritating, and often designed to trick you into clicking something that you don’t want. A common example of malware is pop-up ads that appear on many websites and mobile applications.

Adware often comes bundled with “free” versions of software that uses these intrusive advertising to make up costs.  Commonly it is installed without the user’s knowledge and may be made excessively difficult to remove.

Spyware

‘Spyware’ is designed to spy on the user’s activity without their knowledge or consent.  Often installed in the background, spyware can collect keyboard input, harvest data from the computer, monitor web activity and more.

Spyware typically requires installation to the computer. This is commonly done by tricking users into installing spyware themselves instead of the software or application that they thought they were getting. Victims of spyware are often be completely unaware of its presence until the data stolen is acted on in the form of fraudulent bank transactions or stolen online accounts.

Virus

A typical virus may install a keylogger to capture passwords, logins, and bank information from the keyboard.  It might steal data, interrupt programs, and cause the computer to crash but  more commonly, includes a ‘ransomware’ package – see below.

Modern virus programs commonly use your computers processing power and internet bandwidth to perform tasks remotely for hackers – the first sign of this can be when the computer sounds like it is doing a lot of work when no programs should be running.

A computer virus is often spread through installing unknown software or downloading attachments that contain more than they seem but perhaps the most common is by links in emails.

Ransomware

A particularly malicious variety of malware, known as ransomware, prevents the user from accessing their own files until a ransom is paid.  Files within the system are often encrypted with a password that won’t be revealed to the user until the full ransom is paid.

Instead of accessing the computer as normal, the user is presented with a screen which details the contact and payment information required to access their data again.

Ransomware is typically downloaded through malicious file attachments, email, or a vulnerability in the computer system. This si the type of infection that seriously affected NHS machines not too long ago.

Worm

Among the most common type of malware today is the computer ‘worm’.  Worms spread across computer networks by exploiting vulnerabilities within the operating system.  Often these programs cause harm to their host networks by consuming large amounts of network bandwidth, overloading computers, and using up all the available resources.

One of the key differences between worms and a regular virus is its ability to make copies of itself and spread independently.  A virus must rely on human activity to run a program or open a malicious attachment; worms can simply spread over the network without human intervention.

No need to be paranoid!

So with all these types of infections, it would be easy to be put off using computers altogether and we have certainly met people that do the minimum possible with theirs, due to infection worries.

The fact is that we have found that the typical number of calls for traditional computer virus infections has gone down over recent times and that more often than not, infections today are the result of scams or insufficient security protection.

If you use common sense, a good security package (preferably paid for as opposed to a free version) and are cautious with what you do online and download, then you can reduce the chances of infection – but you must remain vigilant.

If you would like us to help  keep your systems safe from malware, give us a call on 01455 209505.

Buying Tech in Time for Christmas

Buying Tech in Time for Christmas

Christmas time is back with us again.  The latest devices and gadgets are hitting store shelves just in time to keep up with the rush.  Magazines, television, and the web are brimming with advertisements and reviews of the latest tech your money can buy – all tempting you to buy the latest ‘must have’ devices.

Before you rush out to buy the gadgets you’ve been waiting for, consider a few important questions before parting with your hard-earned cash.

Does This Technology Do What I need?

First, you must ask what problem you are trying to solve with a new piece of tech. The most important thing to consider is how adopting your new device will improve on what you had before. When you’ve answered this question, you should consider whether there is other tech or competing devices out there that can perform even better – without being unduly influenced by the logo on the device.

In some cases, a sleek new gadget or device is bought just for fun, that’s good too, but bear in mind the below.

Should I Become an Early Adopter?

Early adopters are people that anticipate the release of new tech, wait in line on release day, and pride themselves on having the latest gadgets to hit the shelves.  If you recognize yourself in this description you are likely to snap up the latest devices the day they are released.  This eager anticipation, however, is not always the way to get the best deals or the best gadgets and in some cases, quite the opposite.

Companies often rely on new product hype to give sales an early boost, so waiting for the marketing and hype to subside, even a little, can save you a lot of money as release day is always the most expensive.

After initial release, companies often mark down their prices to keep their devices attractive and sales high.  For the budget smart consumer this is an opportunity for a bargain because a device good enough to buy on launch day, is well worth waiting for if you can ignore the pressure of wanting to buy it, especially if it’s the latest ‘in’ thing that people are talking about.

Don’t forget that when newer, faster, sleeker devices hit the market, companies often cut prices to the previous model to maintain strong sales figures, although it’s understandable that you may prefer to give a gift of the latest version.

Having said that, that bargain may be a good excuse to treat yourself….?!

Have I checked The Reviews?

We are fortunate enough to have access to seemingly unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips.  Often weeks before a product is released, reviews are available across the web.

One of the best things you can do when considering a new device, particularly a high-cost purchase, is to watch and read a wide variety of product reviews.  However, it pays to be cautious of reviews that are particularly glowing, or too downbeat.

Also, ‘Celebrity’ reviews may not be independent, as they usually get paid for promoting items.

Keep an eye out for middle of the road reviews that fairly weigh the pros and cons of each device, particularly from more reputable sources rather than websites that you may not have heard of before, as some sites are set up that are actually no more than advertisements.

Have I Found the Best Deal?

There are many ways to keep an eye out to make sure you get the best deal on your device.  If you can, monitor prices over time to see how they rise and fall to find the best time to purchase.

When purchasing online, many sites include a box to add a coupon code when you are ready to buy.  It sometimes pays to jump over to Google and search the website name and ‘coupon’ or ‘voucher’ to find out if there are any good deals on. A quick search can save you as much as 10, 15, or 20 per cent on some purchases.

What about ‘Black Friday’ deals? Even major companies send out emails and adverts giving Black Friday ‘offers’ that are not offers at all, as in many cases the ‘offer’ prices are exactly the same price as in the stores normally. It always pays to check, even offers from major established companies.

Sometimes companies send out offers to appeal to groups they want to market to.  A companies Facebook page may get different offers or vouchers than its Twitter followers or newsletter for example.

Extended warranties

In many cases, manufacturers provide extended warranties for their products, so if you do want an extended warranty, it is always best to check the manufacturers price against the store price, to get the best deal.

Purchase in Confidence

If you have asked yourself these questions, done all your research, and found the answers you’re looking for then you may well be ready to buy. You can do so with the confidence that you’ve done all your homework and you’re getting the best deal and gadget for your money, at that particular time.

But don’t forget, is all starts again when the Boxing Day sales start………….!

Storage Struggles? How to keep up with the Data explosion

Storage Struggles? How to keep up with the data explosion

Even though many businesses and home users have already embraced the benefits of going fully digital, the digital boom also presents brand new problems too. By moving all our files into a digital space, the amount of storage we need to maintain has grown larger and larger just to keep up.

Moving to digital has allowed us to do more than ever before. It can save both time and money iterating over work drafts and emails as well as saving a ton of space too, eliminating the need for stacks of filing cabinets in every office. For home users, many people now have over 100GB of important data (such as irreplaceable photos), on their computers and other devices.

As digital technology has improved, the resolution, clarity, and size of the digital files we create has exploded. Items such as Xrays, which used to be printed on film are now digital files transferred by computer. As a result of the increase in both the number of digital files we use and their ever-growing size, the size of the data we need to store has exploded exponentially.

There are a number of ways in which we can tackle our ever-growing storage problem.

Local Server or Network Attached Storage (NAS)

A local server is a machine physically located within your own office or building. These are typically designed to serve many files to multiple clients at one time from locally held storage.

The primary advantage that a local network server has is that all your vital data is available to all users in one central location. This means that everyone across the network can access all the resources made available. These machines can serve files at the speed of the local network, transferring large projects, files, and documents from a central position within the network with ease.

The downside of having your own server is the costs of purchase and ongoing maintenance, as well as its vulnerability, for example if the server goes wrong, is stolen or offline for some other reason, everything stops.

A NAS has many of the same network properties, typically packaged as a smaller profile, low powered computer but at a reduced cost compared to a server. A NAS is specifically designed to enable network file sharing in a more compact package and can be available in units small enough to fit in a cupboard nook but still provide staggering storage capacity, on only a small amount of power.

Both a local server and NAS device allow for large amounts of storage space to be added to the local network. These units are often expanded with more and more storage over time. As an organization grows over time, so do its data storage requirements.

Cloud Storage

Sometimes the best option for storage is to move your ever-expanding data outside of the business or home completely. Often, offloading the costs of hardware and IT management can work out to be an intelligent business decision and one that provides freedom and flexibility in your data storage needs.

The major advantage of cloud storage comes from the ability to expand and contract your data as needed without the unnecessary overhead of adding and maintaining new hardware. Plus, they usually have multiple copies, so your data is protected to a far greater extent than if you had your own server or NAS.

By moving storage to the cloud, data can be accessed from anywhere in the world provided you have the login details. The flexibility provided by cloud storage allows limitless expansion to any number of devices, locations, and offices. Being able to access data from many locations at a single time can often provide a valuables boost to productivity that can help to speed projects along.

Not only that, cloud services such as Dropbox also provide ransomware protection as they can replace infected files with clean copies where necessary.

The main drawback of cloud storage comes from factors that may be outside of the control of the user – the main one being that not all internet connections are found to be up to the task of handling large amounts of data to and from the cloud. In some cases, the infrastructure is quite simply not in place yet to support it.

IT security regulations or other concerns can also prove to be a barrier to enabling storage in the cloud too. Some regulations either prohibit the feature entirely or you simply may not want certain types of data in an offsite location.

The Right Choice for your data

Whatever your situation, whether a small NAS, local Server or Cloud setup is best to protect your important data, we can advise on your best choices.

Give us a call on 01455 209505 to allow us to use our expertise to make the right choice for your data.

Is Your Laptop Running Hot and Loud?

Is Your Laptop Running Hot and Loud?

Laptop computers commonly heat up a little in normal operation.  Electronic components, including large capacity batteries, become warm in use.  Your laptop should never become too hot to handle though.  When a laptop turns hot to the touch or starts to sound like a jet engine, it’s likely to be beginning to overheat.  

Modern laptops use nearly silent fans to cool components and keep the system is comfortable and safe to use.  In some cases, the sound the computer makes is the best tool you have to diagnose its running condition.  Excessive heat causes the fans to work harder and faster to compensate and this jet engine sound is one of the first clues you have to indicate all may not be well.

Why So Hot

Because of their compact size and portability, laptop computers are particularly prone to overheating problems.  Electronic parts are closer together, creating less room for cooling vents and adds a heat generating battery which introduces more hot air into the system.

Most laptops have small fans that suck in cool air, passing it over metal fins to exchange heat from the case. The resulting hot air exhaust is expelled through vents, back into the room.  This process prevents heat building up inside the machine and the constant air cycle keeps the laptop running cool no matter the workload placed on it.

This process can be interrupted by any number of factors during operation.  Alongside cool air, computer fans can also suck in dust, stray hairs, even cigarette smoke too.  Smoke in particular contains thick tar which coats the fins, fan blades, and internal components.

Foreign debris inside the machine prevents components from working at their best.  Tar, dust, and hair slows down the internal fan and coats the heat generating components and cooling fins.  This coating prevents air exchange and keeping components warm as if they were under a blanket.

Causes of overheating

Sometimes the way a laptop is used can cause it to overheat too.  Resting a laptop on thick carpets, blankets, soft furnishings or fabrics can block vents, preventing the fans from sucking cold air in or blowing hot air out. Leaving the machine running on carpet or furnishings, particularly for extended periods of time, can cause overheating issues and introduce extra dust into the components too.

The best place to rest a laptop while in use is on a hard surface such as a desk, table, or lap tray.  This allows air free access to the vents and helps prevent dust and hairs getting inside the machine.

Overheating Results

As the computer starts running hotter for longer, its fan will attempt to compensate by running faster and more often.  This results in the “jet engine” noise many users report when their computer is struggling to keep up.

Unfortunately, once dust, hair, or tar has already found its way into the machine it is notoriously difficult to clean out.  The only way to reset the machine to run cool and quiet is to disassemble the base and clean out its components.

Much like a car engine, computer components have a designed temperature range in which they can safely and reliably operate without any issues.  Extended periods of running above the temperature they are designed for can cause damage, sudden failures, and drastically shorten the designed lifespan of the computer.

Unlikely Causes

Quite often, seemingly random blue screen computer crashes can be traced back to components that have been overheating inside the computer.  As heat builds up, vulnerable components start to fail, sometimes temporarily, in the hotter temperatures.

By the time the computer is rebooted and cooled down the issue is seemingly resolved.  Back in operation, the computer heats up once more and eventually crashes again.  These irregular crashes are highly inconvenient and can sometimes cause data loss too.

However, these symptoms are minor compared to a complete write-off of the machine.  For some users, the first sign that their machine is too hot to run safely is when the motherboard is burnt out or their data storage has been irreparably lost.

If your laptop is running hot to the touch or has started to sound loud or irregular, give us a call on 01455 209505.

How to Tell if You Have Been Hacked

How to Tell if You Have Been Hacked

Being hacked is the single biggest fear of most computer users. Many believe that the first sign of strange behaviour or errors on their PC is a sign that hackers have taken control. But are hackers really inside your machine, stealing your information? Or should we be on the lookout for more subtle signs? What does being hacked really look like?

There is an important distinction to make between being hacked by a person and being infected with a virus or malware. Virus software and malware are automated processes designed to damage your system, steal your data, or both. There are of course ways that we can defeat these processes, but what if we are instead hacked by an individual?

Remote Connections

Our previous blog posts have warned people about not allowing strangers to remotely access their computers unless they are 100% sure that they are genuine.

Remote Support technology is a very useful tool but if you allow the wrong people to remotely connect, they can be doing things in the background that you may not be aware of. For example, whilst speaking to you they can be downloading software that they can then use to convince you that your computer has a problem – i.e. displaying fake error messages. Needless to say, they can also be gathering information from your computer too.

They can also leave software on your machine which in many cases is very difficult to spot. You should only allow people to connect when you have approached them – never from a phone call or email coming to you out of the blue, no matter how believable or what they appear to know about you.

Logins not working

One of the first steps a hacker might take would be to change the computers passwords. By doing so, not only do they ensure future access to the account, they prevent you from accessing the system to stop them. For the hacker, this is a crucial step that keeps them in control.

Being hacked is not the only reason why you may not be able to login, but it is a possible symptom that you need to bear in mind. We always need to make sure to keep on top of our own login details and how often we change them.

Security Emails or SMS’s from online services

Many services track which device and location you logged into your account from last. If your account is accessed from a new device or a different country it might trigger an automated email or SMS to ask if this new login is your own.

If you have logged in using a new computer, tablet, or phone; an email that asks “hey, is this you?” need not be cause for alarm. If you haven’t, it may be time to investigate further. This service is an important part of information security and may be a key first step to identify someone else gaining access to your account.

Bank accounts – strange transactions

Most commonly today, hackers commit crimes to steal money. The end goal for hackers is typically to profit from their crimes by taking money from people online. Obviously it pays to keep a regular eye on your financial transactions to make sure you know what money is coming and going from your account, especially when doing online banking.

Whilst you may see a large sum missing where hackers have attempted to take as much as they can in a single transaction, this is not always the case. Alternatively small, hard to notice transactions may sometimes appear. These often account for small purchases where attackers have tested the details that they have, to make sure they work. Hackers may even wait months before attempting a transaction.

Either way, the sooner you spot unusual or unrecognized transactions, the better.

Sudden loss of cellular connectivity

Mobile network interruption is a symptom that few people expect but occurs commonly when hackers attack. Many banks and online services use a security feature known as Two-factor authentication. To do this they send a short code to your phone or app when you log in. Two-factor authentication is ideal in most cases and is a great boost to security.

Determined hackers can try to work around this by calling your mobile service provider to report your phone as lost or stolen. During this call, they will request your phone number be transferred to a new sim card that they control. When your bank sends its regular two-factor authentication code to the number registered, it goes instead to the hacker who may be able to log in. From your perspective the phone service will simply stop working.

Unusual or unrecognized icons

In many cases hacking software tries to be stealthy and not be seen, but there are some that do not hide themselves so much because the hackers believe that it may not be noticed. A common one is remote connection software that can only be seen as a tiny icon in the bottom right-hand corner of a Windows computer, which automatically starts up every time you switch the computer on. It is hiding amongst all the other small icons and is frequently overlooked.

Similarly there may be an icon appearing on the Desktop which you do not recognize or remember installing, or your normal search engine changes to something else – if a virus or malware has caused this, what else is going on?

Keeping vigilant and maintaining security

These are only some of the modern techniques that hackers can try to use to gain access to your accounts. You don’t need to be paranoid but it pays to be extra vigilant and pay close attention to the signs and signals that indicate you may have been hacked.

Also, make sure that you have a good security product installed – it makes it that much harder for hackers.

If you suspect that you might have been hacked, or would like help to prevent hackers in future, give us a call on 01455 209505 and we’ll help improve your security.

Top 5 I.T. Problems for Businesses

Top 5 I.T. Problems for Businesses

Companies that suffer security breaches nearly always have at least one of these IT security problems. Do any apply to your company?

No Backups

A shocking number of businesses are not backing up their data properly. According to market research company Clutch, 60 percent of businesses who suffer a data loss shut down within six months.

Not only should every business be fully backing up their data, but their backups should be regularly tested to work too. It’s a step that businesses miss surprisingly often. Many businesses don’t find out that their backup can’t be used until it’s already too late.

Reactive and not proactive

The world is constantly changing. The IT world doubly so. Attackers are always figuring out new ways to break into businesses, hardware evolves faster than most can keep up, and old systems fail due to wear and tear far quicker than we would like. A huge number of businesses wait until these issues impact them directly before they respond.

The result is usually higher costs, longer downtime, and harder hitting impacts.

By responding to hardware warnings before it fails, fixing security holes before they’re exploited, and upgrading systems before they are out of date: IT can be done the right way. Being proactive about your IT needs means systems don’t have to break or compromised before they are fixed. The result for your business is less downtime, fewer losses, and lower IT costs.

Weak Passwords

A surprising number of people will use the password “password” to secure some of their most important accounts. Even more still will write their own password on a post-it note next to their computer or allow everyone else to know what the password is. In some cases, many will even use no password at all.

Strong passwords act, not only as a barrier to prevent unwanted entry, but as a vital accountability tool too. When system changes are made it’s often essential that the account that made changes is secured to the right person. With an insecure password or worse; none at all, tracking the individual responsible for reports or accountability becomes impossible. This can result in both auditing disasters on top of technical ones.

Insufficient Staff Training

Humans in the system are commonly the weakest point in IT security. Great IT security can be a bit like having state-of-the-art locks on a door propped open with a milk crate. If staff aren’t trained to use the lock, it’s worth nothing at all.

Many times businesses can justify spending big on security for the latest and greatest IT defences but the very same firms may exceed their budget and spend almost zero on training staff to use them. In this instance, a little goes a long way. Security training can help staff to identify a threat where it takes place, avoiding and mitigating damage, often completely.

Weak Data Controls

Some companies can take an ad-hoc, fast and loose approach to storing professional data. Often crucial parts can be spread across many devices, copied needlessly, and sometimes even left unsecured. Client data can be found regularly on employee laptops, mobile phones, and tablet devices. These are famously prone to being misplaced or stolen out in the field along with vital client and security data.

It can be easy for both employees and firms to focus on the costs of devices and hardware purchased for the business. The reality is that the data held on devices is almost always worth many times more than the device that holds it. For many firms, their approach to data hasn’t been changed since the firm was first founded. Critical data is often held on single machines that haven’t been updated precisely because they hold critical data. Such machines are clearly vulnerable, outdated, and prone to failure.

Common problems with simple solutions

Each of these common issues have simple solutions to secure against IT failure. With a professional eye and expertise in the field, every business should be defended against IT issues that risk the firm.

If you need help securing your IT to protect your business, give us a call on 01455 209505.

Are Registry Cleaners a Good Idea?

Are Registry Cleaners a Good Idea?

We regularly see programs on customer computers that claim to be “Registry Cleaners”, “PC Boosters” or similar names, so we thought it best to talk about these so-called ‘helpful’ bits of software.

For example, a recent virus infection near Lutterworth was the direct result of one of these software programs.

You may have been alerted by popups while browsing the web, by (often flashing) advertisements claiming that your computer has hundreds or even a thousand errors requiring urgent attention to fix. Perhaps helpfully, these popups offer a solution to cure your computer with a click of the mouse and buttons marked “fix now” appear to offer a simple fix to all your computer troubles.

These advertisements are often described as “Registry Cleaner”, or by a few other names that attempt to convince the user they will somehow clean or improve their computer, such as “Optimizer”, “Tune Up” and the like. Within the IT industry they are known as “scareware” – they are software programs designed to convince you that your computer has problems that it might not have.

Are they trustworthy?

Almost all popups and advertisements that use banners saying “Fix now for free” are not trustworthy at all. They are little more than a scam attempting to take your credit card details, PC data or both. These programs might claim to scan your computer and show a convincing list of plausible sounding computer problems. Using this, they will ask for payment to “fix” these problems, to get your PC back in shape again.

At worst, these advertisements can be downright malicious. Some may attempt to use fake warnings and scare tactics to trick customers into installing spyware on their own computers. When installed, spyware will attempt to steal information in the background. Attackers may use this technique to steal usernames, passwords, emails, and credit card details and sometimes the first sign a user has that something is wrong, is when a virus scan detects software doing something it shouldn’t be.

Quite often, you can find that the program itself will automatically download further scareware or malware.

Do I need to clean the Registry?

The Windows Registry is a collection of settings that essentially cover everything on your computer, from the desktop that you see when you log in (which may be different to someone else’s) to important settings for programs that are installed. The Registry is vital to your computer and if it is corrupted or incorrectly modified, it can cause your computer to be unusable.

As professional technicians, we do not go into the Registry unless we have to and then only after backing it up first, so that it can be replaced if necessary. Even though searches on Google, Bing etc. and forums show entries routinely talking about changing this and modifying that in the Registry, we do not recommend doing so.

More importantly, we do not recommend letting any computer program do it either, but don’t just take our word for it. Microsoft do not supply a Registry Cleaning program for good reason and they actively discourage people from using one.

What about Optimising?

The Windows system and various applications installed on your PC do leave files stored your computer. These files can stay behind or go out of date even after the application that initially made them has been removed. These files can use up a little space on the hard drive and generally cause minor clutter within the system.

Despite the large amount of “scareware” and fraudulent computer cleanup scans out there, legitimate applications designed to clean your system do exist. This can be something we cover and is often done as a single small part of a complete computer tune up. Keeping up with out of date files and freeing up unused space is worthwhile and can be considered “good housekeeping”.

However, the vast speed boosts many online advertisements claim to unlock, by simply moving files around are almost always false.

Do your research before installing any program that purports to “Optimise” your computer, especially from an advert or worse still, a pop-up. Also check to see if that program has a Registry cleaning module and if it does, switch that module off.

Remember that computers are commonly upgraded and can be boosted by more conventional means. If the speed of your PC is no longer up to the task, there are ways in which we can unlock far greater gains than simple housekeeping chores.

PC “Boosters”

Some programs claim to boost the performance of your computer, but again we do not recommend letting a computer program automatically change important system settings, which may have a negligible impact anyway.

Relatively low-cost hardware components such as memory can often be added to boost the speed of even an older PC and unlock a new lease of life. Depending on the computer, upgrading the computers RAM can double the working memory available to the operating system. With extra memory, many programs can keep more information available to work with and this upgrade can reduce loading times and increases the computers ability to run more programs at once.

Another common speed boosting upgrade involves how we store and load data from the computer. Switching from an older style mechanical hard drive to a modern Solid State Disk (SSD) can bring down the startup and loading time of any PC – again depending on the age and condition of the computer in the first place.

These upgrades offer boosts in speed to rival a modern system at only a fraction of the cost originally paid for the computer. Upgrading the RAM, swapping to an SSD, or doing both will provide an instant, dramatic, and safe improvement to the speed of your PC, without introducing dodgy or po.

The most important thing to remember, is to not trust Registry Cleaning programs if at all possible and if you must access it, back up first or better still, get a professional to help you. When it comes to Tune Up programs, check the programs out by reviews and search engine research, before letting that program anywhere near your computer, let alone paying for it.

If your computer is running slow give us at a call on 01455 209505 to arrange a real and professional cleanup.

Protecting your Privacy Online

Protecting your Privacy Online

Maintaining your privacy while using the internet has become more challenging over the years. The recent Facebook privacy scandal made that abundantly clear, with users shocked at how much information had been recorded about them. While it’s almost impossible to enjoy the internet and leave zero digital footprints, there are things you can do to hide your online activities – some more effective than others.

1. Get a virtual private network (VPN)

A fancy name that means that an encrypted connection is created between your computer and the VPN company, so that when you visit a website, the website can only see the VPN company computer – not yours. VPNs aren’t just for business and downloaders now, they’ve gone mainstream and are even advertised on national TV (such as NordVPN advertisments).

The other computer could be in another city or another country, which is why some people use VPN’s to watch movies and programs that you do not get in the UK, as you can get extra content in other countries and can access that extra content if the VPN computer is in that country (although this is usually frowned upon by providers such as Netflix who actively try to block it).

You essentially run around the internet pretending to be another computer in another location. Since your connection is encrypted, even your broadband company can’t see what you’re doing online, making your usage anonymous.

The downsides: Because your internet usage has to route through another computer first, your browsing and download speed could be affected. Some (not all) can be tricky to set up and not all VPNs offer the same privacy levels (the better ones tend to be more expensive). Some websites may even block visits from people using VPNs, so you may end up switching it on/off as required.

2. Go Incognito, InPrivate or Private Window

Most browsers have a private browsing mode, each called something different. For example, Google Chrome calls it ‘incognito’, Microsoft calls it ‘InPrivate’ and Firefox calls it ‘Private Window’. Before you take the name at face value, it’s a good idea to talk about how they define ‘private’.

Unlike a VPN where you can dance around the internet anonymously, private browsing simply means it won’t show up in your browser history, or what you entered into forms. This feature is free, so you always have the option to use it, and it’s actually more helpful than you might think. Common uses include price shopping to reset sale timers, access local-only pricing and overriding usage limits on certain sites.

Some sites use cookies to control your free trials and private browsing can help you get around that.

While private browsing can help keep your internet usage under wraps, it’s not a magic bullet to cover all possibilities. Many people believe they’re invisible AND invulnerable while private browsing, a mistake they end up paying for.

The downsides: It can’t pre-fill saved passwords and it won’t help you type in the website name even if you’ve been there before.

3. Always think about who’s watching

While you might be naturally careful when using a public computer, have you thought about who’s watching what you do on your work computer? Some workplaces have employee monitoring software that tracks all sorts of data, including taking screenshots of your desktop. It helps them create rules about computer usage but it may also provide them with evidence you’ve been breaking those rules.

Stepping out to the internet cafe can be even more risky, as people can install keyloggers that record every keystroke, including your credit card numbers and logins. You’ll never know your activities are being recorded, even if you use private browsing.

The downsides: Being aware of who may be watching? None.

Awareness of the risks and the possibility of being watched ensures you’re more likely to use the internet safely.

Whatever you choose to do to protect your privacy, you’ll still need solid anti-virus and password habits to protect against threat, and to be a smart internet user who avoids suspect websites. Consider the options above as privacy-enhancing measures, not one-stop solutions.

Need help with your online privacy? Give us a call on 01455 209505.

How to Securely Dispose of Old Computers

How to Securely Dispose of Old Computers

Getting a computer can be exciting, but what happens to the old ones? Depending on the age, some people sell them, others throw them out. That’s the easy part – the problem is the sensitive data on them. There are passwords, account numbers, license keys, customer details, medical information, tax returns, browser history…. the works.

Whether it’s for home use or business use, laptops, tablets or desktop hard drives contain a treasure trove of sensitive information that cybercriminals would love to get their hands on. Unfortunately, hitting ‘delete’ on your files doesn’t actually make them disappear, nor does waving a strong magnet over the drive. These mistakes have cost businesses millions over the years.

Why hitting ‘delete’ doesn’t help

Data on a hard drive works like a book with an index page. Every time data is written, it pops a quick entry into the index so that when you need it again, it knows where to look. The index is used for files you create as well as system files you can’t even see. Sensible, right?

Except that if you delete a file it isn’t physically deleted – it’s more like changing the index to say that nothing is on page 10 and you can write something else there when you’re ready. But if you ignore the index and manually go to page 10, you’ll find that the information is still there – the file exists until it has been written over.

The only thing that is deleted is the index reference, not the file itself.

Re-using the computer

Most people are unaware that specialized data cleanup is necessary if the computer is to be reused.

A 2016 experiment proved just how dangerous the situation can be when 200 used ex-business hard drives were purchased and 67% held unwiped, unencrypted sensitive data, including sales projection spreadsheets, CRM records, and product inventories. Frighteningly, they didn’t need any special hacking skills to get this data, it was all right there and helpfully labelled.

It’s also not surprising that with simple data recovery tools, people have also been able to access British NHS medical records and defence data, all waiting patiently on a discarded hard drive.

Wiping data before re-use or selling

Data on a hard drive can only be securely deleted if the area on the drive that contains the data, has been overwritten enough. There are specialist tools available to ‘deep-read’ a drive, so the success of overwriting a drive depends on how effectively it has been overwritten.

For example the US Defence Department requires a drive to be overwritten a number of times, including using random characters, (not just ones and zeros as some programs use) before they class the drive as securely wiped.

There are software tools you can get to do it yourself, as well as dedicated security firms, but your best option is to choose an IT business you know and trust as some software does not clear the hard drive sufficiently. With that in mind, a methodical approach is required to ensure not a single drive is left untreated as you don’t want to leave data behind, or even clues that a motivated person could extrapolate any private information from.

We can migrate any needed data, backup the information then securely wipe or destroy the hard drives for you.

Data when disposing of a computer

When we supply new computers to homes or businesses, we copy the data from the old computer and transfer it into the new one, so things like documents, photos, even internet browser favourites are in the same place on the new machine, ready to use. But the old hard drive is still there, containing all the private data that you don’t want to allow into the wrong hands, so what is the best thing to do?

We give the customer a choice. We hand the customer the old hard drive so that they can either keep the drive securely at home, or at their business – not only can they be sure that the information is still secure but this has the added benefit of having a backup copy available, should it be needed.

Alternatively, they can simply destroy the drive and the rest of the old computer can just go for recycling. Computers need to be recycled as they contain metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium which is not intended for landfill or incineration. Also there are metals (including rare and precious metals) which can be recovered.

You don’t even need special equipment to destroy it, either smash the drive or use some other method of physically destroying it, such as drilling – just be very careful! If the drive is a mechanical one with spinning platters, once damaged beyond repair it is highly likely that no-one could get to your data.

Whether you are passing on, selling or just throwing away your old computer, always bear in mind that the hard drive inside it contains important and sensitive data, so you do need to make a decision about what to do with the drive.

Need help with your old hard drives? Give us a call on 01455 209505.

How to Avoid Email Overload

How to Avoid Email Overload

Email has allowed us to send and receive messages more easily than ever before. While this is a good thing, it can also lead to problems. We regularly see people that receive dozens or even hundreds of emails in a day. At this point, it can feel like you’re wasting your entire day dealing with those incoming messages.

Even worse, it makes it difficult to find important messages in your Inbox. You can quickly become overloaded with emails, especially as it is estimated that over 70% of global email is actually ‘Spam’ emails.

So how can we deal with this overload? The first step is to reduce the number of emails you receive overall and then do what few people do – manage what you keep in your Inbox! There are a few ways to do this.

Don’t just delete Spam emails – mark them as Spam first.

We have found that most people just delete spam emails when they receive them, which is the wrong thing to do, as you need to mark them as spam to get them rerouted or blocked altogether. If you don’t, emails from that address will just keep on coming.

Whether you are using an email program or just getting your email through a web browser, if you get a spam email, mark it as spam. That way your email program will automatically put it straight into your ‘Junk’ email folder and your email company will do the same if you are using an internet browser.

Restrict who you give your email address to.

Many people have at least two email addresses – one for everyday use for family and friends and one that they use just for giving to companies that they do business with. For instance, it can be useful to give a separate email address when buying things, such as at shops or online, because that way your personal (or business) email address doesn’t get so cluttered with commercial emails trying to sell you something.

Don’t forget that many companies also sell on your email address to their ‘selected partners’ that you have never dealt with before, so you may get even more emails from companies you have never even heard of.

It’s important to think carefully about who you give your email address to. For example, if you enter a lot of contests, this often automatically subscribes you to several email campaigns. If you type your email into every popup box asking for it, these add up. Reduce who you give your email to.

Unsubscribe

Go through your Inbox and unsubscribe to newsletters that you never read. If you haven’t opened one of their emails in months, chances are that you’re probably not going to start to any time soon. Similarly, if you are getting emails that you are not interested in any more, unsubscribe – it should only take seconds to do.

Turn off notifications from social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest – if you like emails from these networks, then at least adjust the settings so they email you highlights once a week or month rather than allowing them to spam your Inbox several times per day.

Do you need that notification?

If you receive emails that contain information that you can find elsewhere, switch those notifications off. For instance, you might run an e-commerce website that sends an email for every sale. If your website already has a record of this, you don’t need it in two places.

Make sure not to use your email as a to-do list. When you need to remember to do something, put that on a list elsewhere such as an online calendar, to help clear up your Inbox. If this is a hard habit to break, at least make a folder for things you need to do and move emails there and out of your general Inbox.

Change your email habits

Change your own email sending habits. If a topic is complex and will require a lot of back and forth conversation, consider discussing it in person or over the phone. Sending fewer emails will reduce how many you receive in return. Remember that you don’t need to respond to every email you receive. A response indicates a willingness to continue to conversation.

Resist the urge to send messages with a single word like “Thanks!” or “Ok” and you’ll notice others will stop sending you similar, unnecessary messages. When sending group emails, you can also remind others not to use “reply all” unless it’s information relevant to the entire group.

Start clearing emails out

This is the big one, that everyone just keeps putting off!

Start emptying out your Inbox and getting rid of any old emails you don’t need to keep. Using the word “need” is deliberate – you have to be selective about the emails that you keep. Delete old calendar invites, advertisements, or any emails where the problem has already been resolved. Respond to any messages that can be answered within only a few minutes.

Archive messages where you can so they are not clogging up your main Inbox – you can search and find these later if necessary – this has an added bonus because it can actually speed up Outlook if your archive folder is not open all the time. Put other emails into folders based on the type of email and the priority level.

From now on, all of this can be automated. You can have receipts automatically go into a receipt folder, calendar invites go into another, etc. A cluttered inbox can lead to your mind feeling just as cluttered so free up your Inbox to create more time for yourself. Let email overload become something of the past.

If you need help with your emails, give us a call on 01455 209505.