Dagscammit! On Phone Scams

“Hello, my name is Bob with Microsoft tech support; we’ve detected viruses and hackers on your computer.”

“Hello, my name is Joe with Microsoft tech support; we’re showing that your Windows license is invalid.”

“Hello, my name is Sam with Microsoft tech support; our records show that you’re eligible for a refund on your Microsoft product licenses.”

And on. And on. And on.

Phone scams from people claiming to be from Microsoft have been running rampant for the last couple of years. We see it all the time. No matter what the script, the end goal is either to weasel you out of money, or to remote in to your system, fuss around a bit, and charge an exorbitant amount for the “service.” And, of course, to sign you up for a three-year protection plan for only two hundred more dollars!

I’m sure that the majority of people reading this have gotten one of these calls. The scammers doing this are persistent, frustrating, and frequently use enough technical jargon to confuse a layperson. They hit on the key phrases that you see in the news—things like viruses, worms, Russian hackers, or Trojans. Your average person doesn’t necessarily know exactly what these things are, but that person knows one thing: they’re bad.

So what do I do? Really, the answer is straightforward: hang up the phone.

If they haven’t taken you down the path yet, you can just hang up on them. The most they can do then is to try to call you back and convince you to grant them access, and you can keep hanging up or you can block their number.

What if I already paid them? There shouldn’t be a huge concern here, either. Take your system to a repair shop (like us!), explain your situation, and leave it with them to run scans and check for open doors that will allow the scammers back into your machine. Change passwords to anything that might be compromised—if you’re the type of person who stores a spreadsheet or a document with all of your passwords written out, then yes, this means all of them. If you don’t store passwords in a document, but you have accounts that automatically log you in (if you don’t need to enter a password every time you access your email or Facebook, then the password is stored on your machine), you’ll need to change those passwords to insure your security.

The next step is to contact your bank to reverse the charges on whatever card you gave the scammers. In our experience, the banks have dealt with this kind of thing no small number of times, and it’s usually a minimal hassle to reverse the charges.

Once you’ve verified that your system is clean, reversed the charges, and changed your passwords, you should be in the clear.

What if they’re in my machine right now? Turn it off. If it’s a desktop computer, just pull the power cord from the back. If it’s a laptop, hold the power button down for 5 seconds to force the machine down. Alternatively, if you’re using a wired internet connection, you can pull the Ethernet wire from your computer. Because you’re no longer connected to the internet, they can no longer do anything.

In this case, you’ll still want to change passwords and have a repair shop scan your system for unwanted software—but at least you haven’t paid the scammers anything.

Another thing to note is that these scammers, once they think they had you on the line, may try calling back repeatedly to convince you. The thing to do is keep hanging up, ignore their calls, or block their number. We’ve also (very rarely) received reports of these guys cursing and yelling at people once they wised up to the scam, so if you’re going to confront them, then be prepared for a little vulgarity.

If you’ve had your system remoted into by a scam support company, definitely take it to professionals to have it looked at. You can always call About-Face at (413) 863-5447 if you’re uncertain whether you were scammed, or if you have any questions.

The Little Insecurities

Computers have now advanced to the point where we use them as an everyday tool, and, just like pretty much anything else that we do on a daily basis, we like to make things easier on ourselves. For example, if you’re running into a store for just a few minutes, maybe you won’t bother to lock your car in order to simplify your life when you return with bags in hand.

These same sorts of little things apply to computers, too, and just like the example above, they can lead to insecurities.

One of these insecurities is saving passwords in your web browser. This is something that many people do for their emails, social media sites, etc., so that when they go to that website, they don’t have to bother entering a user name and password. Convenient, right?

Problem is, when the browser is saving passwords, it’s incredibly easy for anyone with access to your machine to get your passwords. There are certain tools that will do this automatically, or, alternatively, if someone knows where to go in the browser settings then they can access your passwords there. This vulnerability is fine for some people, depending on use (maybe you live alone and no one else ever uses your computer), but please use it with the knowledge that it’s not secure.

There are small programs that you can use that secure all of your passwords in a database secured by a master password that can help with this minor inconvenience (we recommend Keepass).

Another insecurity that can have a detrimental effect is simply online ads. Ads are, of course, annoying. They can also slow your system down, since your machine has to reach out to whatever server is hosting those ads in addition to the webpage that you are trying to view before it can load the page.

Ads are also a substantial vector for malware. These ads can either have a small payload of software that infects your machine or they can redirect you to various sites. Some of these sites are just more advertising, but some of them want you to download junk programs. You’ve probably seen things like Your computer has 3,051 problems impacting its performance. Download now! You’ll often get redirected to this sort of garbage.

In the worst case of redirects, you’ll dive headfirst into a scam. They can take you to a page with a popup that won’t let you close it, claiming that either your hard drive is failing or your computer is infected, and Call Microsoft support at <phone number>. Note that nothing is wrong with your machine; you’re simply on a website with an obnoxious popup. If you call the number, you will not be talking to Microsoft support; you’ll be talking to a scammer. You can usually remedy this issue by rebooting your system or crashing your browser.

But why bother? You could avoid all of these little invasions from malicious ads by simply installing an adblocker (we recommend uBlock Origin for Chrome or Firefox). It’s a nice, straightforward way to keep yourself secure against junk programs and scams.

So those are just a couple of small insecurities that live out there, constant but little threats and annoyances that we deal with every day. There are ways to secure yourself against them—very small things you can install and use in order to fight back.

As always, however, your best defense is yourself and your awareness. Analyze things that you’re seeing online. Keep your head up.

If you ever run into any issues like these that you’re uncertain about, feel free to give us a call at (413) 863-5447, and we’ll steer you in the right direction.

A Couple Of Analogies

Here at About-Face, we pride ourselves on explaining various computer-y things in layman’s terms so that you can understand them and therefore understand what we’re talking about when we prattle on about gigabytes and megabits and RAM and hard drives. So, we’ve come across a couple of analogies that work to simplify the understanding of a couple of different computer terms.

RAM And Hard Drive

The best way to describe the RAM and the hard drive is to imagine yourself sitting at a workdesk. The tabletop before you is the RAM on your machine—the things that you are currently actively working on. The larger this tabletop is, the more things you can be working on simultaneously as you spread them across the tabletop.

The filing cabinets underneath your desk are your hard drive. You tuck things in them to save them and stash them away, and open your filing drawers when you need to access them and work on them. Therefore, when you need to work on something that’s filed away, you pull it from your filing cabinets and place them on the tabletop. However, fishing something out of the filing cabinet and placing it on the tabletop takes more time, right?

Well, that’s the relationship between RAM and your hard drive. When you need to access the contents of the hard drive, it takes your computer more time, since it has to rifle the data on the hard drive and find the appropriate 1s and 0s to load into RAM before it can be worked on. If, however, you’re accessing something in RAM, it takes significantly less time, since it’s already in the “active work” sections.

File Deletion

It’s possible that you’ve heard before that when you delete things off of your computer, you don’t truly delete things. This is true up to a certain points. Most operating systems have a recycle bin or a trash, and once you delete something, you can venture in there and recover those deleted files if you need them back. But what about when you empty the trash?

Still, the files aren’t truly deleted. Files are only permanently deleted off of a drive until after the drive space that the files used to inhabit has been overwritten with new files. So, here’s the analogy:

Imagine you have a sandbox, and, within it, a finite amount of sand. Over time, you utilize all of this sand to build a variety of sandcastles. Now you want to build a new sandcastle, but there’s no sand left, which means you must get rid of an old sandcastle.

File deletion is not the same as destroying an old sandcastle to build a new one. Instead what you do is you take pieces from an old sandcastle to build the new one—but there is still remaining sandcastle structure left behind after you take pieces off for the use of the sand. This remaining structure would be the files that are left over and can be recovered off of your drive. In order to completely erase the old sandcastle, you must build a new sandcastle by utilizing all of the sand from the old sandcastle. Only once you use all of the previous structure does it become unrecoverable.

So I hope these analogies helped to understand a couple of things, and as ever, feel free to call About-Face Computers at (413) 863-5447 if you want to discuss anything or if you’d like more help understanding your system!

System Restore: A Valuable Tool

Sometimes when you’re trying to do something on your computer, things just go wrong. Sometimes you want to install a program and get a whole host of other programs (that you didn’t want) along with it, sometimes your computer goes through that Windows is updating, please wait… message, and then things are either different or working incorrectly. The point is, a whole host of things can go wrong and change settings on your machine.

Enter System Restore. System Restore is a valuable tool that restores the registry (essentially, the backbone of the system) to an earlier point in time. System Restore does not change any files you may have saved, but it will eliminate programs that you have installed, or even help to save your computer when an update or installation renders your machine unbootable. In all versions of Windows, you can just type System Restore into the search box, and it should take you there. Below, I will assume your machine has been rendered unbootable by an installation or by (grr) Windows Updates, and I will go through the specific steps for Windows 7 and 10, bearing in mind that the steps for Windows 8 and 8.1 are almost exactly the same as Windows 10.

If you are attempting this repair, please read through all of the instructions carefully before you begin the process. If you are in any doubt, please feel free to call us at the shop at (413) 863-5447 and we’ll clarify whatever steps you’re in doubt about.

Windows 7

                For Windows 7, the first step is to power the machine off. If the system is not booting, this will have to be done by holding down your power key for a good 5-10 seconds. You should hear fans and things stop moving inside the machine. Then, you’ll power it back up, and repeatedly rap the F8 key as it boots. This will take you to a menu with options like Safe Mode, Safe Mode With Networking, etc. You’ll want to select Repair Your Computer, bearing in mind that without a mouse, all menu navigation is done with the arrow keys on the keyboard and then hitting the Enter key when your selection is highlighted.

The machine will go through a loading process, and should come up asking you what language you want to use. Click the next button (the default language is English), and then it should ask you for a username and password. Users are in the drop down box at the top (It will probably default to something like $HomeGroupUser$, but just ignore that). Select your user name, enter your password, and you should be in! If you have no password on your computer, leave the password field blank and it should work the same way.

This will take you to a menu with all kinds of repair options, one of which is System Restore. Select it, and a new box will pop up. Simply click the Next button until you’re presented with a list of dates, select the most recent date that the computer was working properly, and tell it to proceed with the restore. Note that sometimes in this Repair Mode, System Restore will falsely report that it failed. If this happens, go ahead and try to reboot the machine anyway. If System Restore worked, then viola! Your system should be working again.

Windows 10

                Windows 10 can be a little bit more tricky. In order to access the Repair Options easily in Windows 10, you need the machine to actually boot, then hold down the left Shift key as you restart the system. As we know, this isn’t always feasible. With Windows 10, eventually the machine will keep crashing and you’ll see a black screen that says Attempting Automatic Repair. If not, you can always manually crash the system by starting to let it load, then hold the power button down and force it to think that it crashed—although this option is not recommended. More often than not, Windows will tell you that it couldn’t fix your problems automatically. You’ll have two buttons to click, Restart or Advanced Options. Select Advanced Options. The next screen you will see will have options to Reset this PC, which is not recommended as it will wipe all of your programs and potentially your data. Underneath that, you’ll see Troubleshoot. Select Troubleshoot. Once more, you’ll see all kinds of options, with System Restore being one of them. Select System Restore, and from there a new window will pop up and the steps should be the same as Windows 7, including (but not always) requiring your user name and password. Simply select the date that you want to restore to and tell it to proceed, then reboot and see if it worked.

Please note that System Restore will not fix everything, and if it doesn’t do the job then it may be time to bring the machine in to see us at About-Face. This is, however, a solid first step in troubleshooting that can get rid of either unnecessary clutter or a machine that has been rendered unbootable. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to call us at the shop or send us an email. We’re happy to help!

LibreOffice: The Free Replacement Application for Microsoft Office

Getting tired of paying for Microsoft Office?

There are many free office suites out there. The one that we recommend, LibreOffice (which can be found at http://www.libreoffice.org), has the ability to save files in the same file extensions as Microsoft Office (for example, it can save in Word’s .docx format or Excel’s .xlsx format). This allows for cross-compatibility, which means you can write a document in LibreOffice and email it to someone who will open it with Microsoft Word. The only difference is that you downloaded LibreOffice for free and saved yourself $120-$300.

Some of you may have heard of OpenOffice, which is (or was) one of the most popular free office suites. Unfortunately, OpenOffice is currently not being updated. OpenOffice and LibreOffice are close cousins. LibreOffice has the ability to type documents, create slideshows, and create spreadsheets, among other things. You may recognize these abilities as the core three components of Microsoft Office – namely, Word, Powerpoint, and Excel.

The only real drawback to LibreOffice is that it doesn’t have a mail client that emulates Microsoft Outlook (although there are other free programs that do!). But if you use your office package for simpler tasks, LibreOffice is worth looking into. The only caveat is that we’ve run into some minor compatibility issues, mostly regarding formatting, when a LibreOffice document is opened with Microsoft Office. If you’re engaging in simpler word processing and spreadsheet documents, LibreOffice could be perfect for you. If you like to use a lot of formatting (fancy fonts, pictures, and the like), then it could be problematic.

If you decide to install it, come on in and talk to us for some advice on how to tweak some settings to make it a seamless transition. If you’d like to install it, please simply visit www.libreoffice.org. We have no affiliation with LibreOffice, we simply think that it’s a great program.

You might even save yourself some money!

Analog Thinking for a Digital World: Making Sense of Your File System

Since Windows 10 has come out, we’ve had many customers who have trouble functioning within the operating system. It seems that for the past two new operating systems, Microsoft has been changing things simply for the sake of changing things. Simple stuff, such as getting rid of the Start Menu, including apps instead of just programs, and changing the Settings layout—these are all things that have changed, but the changes aren’t as intuitive as Microsoft was hoping. If you’re used to using Windows XP, Windows Vista, or Windows 7, and suddenly need to make the switch to Windows 8 or 10, then things aren’t where you’ve learned or expected them to be. So a little basic thinking structure can make the use of almost any operating system that much easier to use with regards to file saving and organization. We can do this by applying thought patterns that don’t include the technology in front of us, but that associate it with non-tech things well enough that we can draw a comparison to different parts of the operating system. We can dive into different parts of your system to draw these comparisons.

Take, for example, the desktop. The desktop would be the very first screen that you see upon booting up your machine. It may seem obvious, but the desktop on your computer can be likened to an actual desktop that you do work on. Imagine you’re working in an all-paper office. You sit at a desk and have various things that you’re working on. What sits on your desk? Primarily, it’s two different things: office supplies that you use a lot and items that you are currently working on. Programs that you have placed on those desktop are like the tools that you use to get your work done: pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, reference books—you keep them on the desktop because you use them often enough that it doesn’t make sense to pack them away. The files that you keep on the desktop—documents, spreadsheets, presentations—these are the projects you’re actually working on, and it helps to keep them handy, right on the table in front of you, so that you can easily access and continue to work on them.

After the desktop, we deal with the folder structure. The Documents folder, for example, is your filing cabinet. Once projects are done, or when they get paused or stopped, you can file them away. This makes them less readily accessible once you sit down at your desk (or boot up your machine), but they’re still there and available, and you can pull them out any time you want to. They’re simply sitting in a folder in a drawer instead of right in front of you, and you can organize and label these folders in whatever way works best for you and the expediency of your work.

To break from the “paperless office” analogy and focus more on things you may have at home, Pictures are like your photo album. You close it and put it somewhere, but when you want to revisit those memories you open it up and take a look. Just like Documents, they can be organized in whatever way you’d like—thematically, by date, by specific trips you took, etc. In this case you can use folders the same way that you would use your photo album in the paper world. Videos are like your DVD collection. Again, they sit on a shelf until you want to watch them. Similarly, Music is like your CD collection.

It could be argued that either Contacts or Favorites are like a Rolodex. I prefer to compare Favorites to the Rolodex, since it’s a tool that gives you a list of commonly-used resources that would be extremely difficult to remember yourself. Since Contacts is usually contained within email as opposed to floating in the system’s file structure, it’s more like your personal phone book in which you’ve written down information about friends and family.

I’m sure you get the gist; I wouldn’t want to get too pedantic on you. The point is, you can apply your thoughts for things that aren’t related to technology, draw comparisons to the structure of the system you’re using, and maybe connect a couple of synapses that will make the system that much easier to use for you.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this was a help.