Tag Archives: Backup

Pay Up Or Else!

J003-Content-RansomwarePerhaps you’ve heard of “Your money or your life?”

Well, now it’s “Your money or your data!” It’s a new form of online extortion known as Ransomware. When it is installed, it immediately begins to encrypt all personal files; Pictures, documents, videos, and music are all at risk. The encryption is essentially unbreakable, and you get a message on your screen something like these:

Ransom3-November2015 Symantec-ransomware-image cryptolocker-100222101-orig

kovtor-ransomware-100222098-orig 3

This is very bad news.

Despite the fact that some of the examples above are displaying various law enforcement images, they are all the work of criminals that want to extort money from you, hence the name, ransomware. Instead of kidnapping you, they kidnap your data. Even some Police departments and hospitals have been forced to pay up (typically $200-$500, sometimes more) to get their valuable data back. It’s often impossible to retrieve the data any other way, and, of course, sometimes the criminals may not even hold up their end of the “bargain” after being paid. It’s much, much better (Not to mention cheaper), to not get into this situation in the first place.

Yes, your antivirus or anti-spyware program might find and delete the offending program… But by that time, the damage has been done, and deleting the program will not un-encrypt your files!

Your very first line of defense is to be very, very suspicious of anything that wants to install itself unexpectedly. This includes files that purport to be media players, games and  security software. These often use social engineering to con you into installing them; for instance, “See naked pictures of (fill in name of celebrity here), or any other link that can be classified as Clickbait (defined as a link so provocative, scary, prurient, or otherwise so interesting in a juvenile sort of way you almost can’t help clicking it!), When you click on such a link, you might get a message saying, “You need to install (media player or other program) to view this content,” or sometimes “Virus detected! Install (Name of software that looks vaguely security-related).”

All of the above applies to email attachments and links as well.

Never, Never, Never install anything from a pop-up or similar message.

Second, there are browser add-ons that can help warn you about malicious sites. My favorite is Web of Trust, which can be installed on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Chrome (but currently not the new Edge browser that comes with Windows 10).

Third, there is User Account Control (UAC), on all current versions of Windows. This is that annoying box that

User Account Control message.

User Account Control message.

spoils your fun when all you want to do is play that latest game or video. It is there for a reason. It’s to inform you that whatever you’re trying to do will make changes to the computer. This is your last chance to change your mind about installing things that might contain malware.

Fourth, there are a few companies building software to “immunize” your machine against ransomware. Malwarebytes, one of my favorite programs, has an anti-ransomware program in beta right now: https://forums.malwarebytes.org/topic/177751-introducing-malwarebytes-anti-ransomware-beta/

and BitDefender has one also: https://labs.bitdefender.com/2016/03/combination-crypto-ransomware-vaccine-released/

These programs do not absolve you from due diligence. Just as air bags in your car should not be construed as a license to drive recklessly, do not think you can do anything you want if you have one of these installed.

Finally, a good, frequent, tested, backup plan can help in this and many other disasters. Choose a backup plan that has versioning, so that even if your system backs up the encrypted files, it should also have the last “clean” version available. Read my post on backups here.

More info:




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Hardware or Software??

Oh, No! Something’s just gone horribly wrong with your computer! Is all your data lost? Your precious pictures? Noooo! What could be wrong?

Don’t panic. A majority of the time, your data is still there, even if you can’t get to it. It would be nice to know, though, whether the problem is hardware (the hard drive and other physical parts of your computer) related or software (The programs, including Windows, that make your computer run) related.

Here’s a (relatively) easy way to find out.

Let’s back up a minute. When you turn on your computer, the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) on the main board (motherboard) goes looking for some source of boot software. Normally, it looks to the hard drive and finds some version of Windows, and boots from that. If Windows has gone south for some reason, the BIOS usually has no alternative. You can, however (in most cases) also provide an Operating System on a CD or USB stick, and have the computer boot from that. Enter the Boot Disk.

If there’s nothing wrong with your PC’s hardware, a boot disk will allow you to start it even if your Windows installation is completely hosed. This will not work if your PC is getting no power, the video has failed, or the motherboard or processor has gone bad. It will work even if your hard drive is shot, but in that case, you will probably have to go to a profe$$ional for the data recovery. Since roughly 95% of computer problems are software-related, it’s worth a try.

There are a number of options – free and paid – for boot disks. You can boot from a Windows installation disk, which might tell you whether your computer hardware is working properly, but won’t help you get your files back.

What you need is a CD (or USB drive) that has a self-contained operating system so you can back up files as well as see if your hardware is working. Sometimes these don’t work for a variety of reasons, but often they do, especially on older machines.

Two that I use frequently are Hiren’s boot cd and a popular version of Linux known as Ubuntu. Now, both of these are pretty huge downloads, so if you have a slow connection be prepared for a couple of hours of downloading. Your completed download will be an .iso file, and you cannot burn this directly to a CD. You’ll also need a program such as Imgburn to “unpack” and burn the file to a bootable CD.

If you don’t have a CD drive, you’ll need a tool such as Rufus to make a USB drive bootable.

You’ll also need to configure your BIOS to look for an operating system on the CD or USB drive. It’s not a bad idea to do this ahead of time. Just set the BIOS to always look for boot media on a CD or USB first, and the hard drive second. If it finds nothing to boot from in the other drives, it’ll go straight to the normal Windows installation. Note that this will slow down the boot – by a few seconds – as the BIOS looks in those other places.

Whew! Now you have an alternate way to start your computer, just like the pros do! While both of the OS downloads I mentioned earlier do not work exactly like the Windows you’re used to, either will allow you to copy, read, and delete files, as well as possibly diagnosing whatever problem you might be having.

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It Died on the Operating Table

A relative of mine recently was having strange things happening with her computer. It ran very slowly, and various errors occurred. This is usually a symptom of either malware or just poor maintenance, but there can be other reasons, too.

Turned out in this case, despite the fact that 95% of all computer failures are software-related, this was a member of the 5% – an imminent hard-drive failure. After a couple more startups, the machine refused to boot.

Did she have a backup, I asked. Umm, ‘fraid not. That’s it, You’re Fired! Well, you can’t really fire your relatives (Especially when they’re paying you!), so I told her I’d get her important data off the old drive.

When a computer will not boot, all is not lost as far as accessing the hard drive’s data. The machine can be started with a Boot Disk, a CD or flash drive containing an independent operating system. If even this doesn’t work, the hard drive can be removed from the computer and hooked up to another, working computer. I did that, and copied her documents to a folder on another drive. When the copying procedure was at about 80%, the drive died completely, so she got most of her data back, but not all.

Let this be a lesson. Your computer’s hard drive is where everything, including those “Baby’s first steps” photos, and everything else important to you is stored. If you haven’t backed up (copied, not moved!) that important stuff to another location, you will be heartbroken if your hard drive fails without warning. Sometimes, data can be retrieved from a failed drive, but that requires a specialist and can run into thousands of dollars. Protect your data!

Lesson number two is that hard drives can be monitored for general health. All modern hard drives have something built into them called S.M.A.R.T. (Self-Monitoring And Reporting technology), which monitors around two dozen parameters of the drive’s health and can sometimes predict a failure before it occurs. (This does not absolve you from doing backups!)

If you like to keep your system clean and not install any more software than absolutely necessary, there is a way to use a built-in tool in Windows to check SMART attributes:

First, open a Command Prompt window.  (Press the Windows key, type Command Prompt, and press Enter.)

In the black Command Prompt window, type the following commands, pressing Enter after each line:


diskdrive get status

If all is well, you should see “OK” displayed for each drive on your computer. Admittedly, this is a little geeky. For a more informative and user-friendly way to monitor your hard drive, I can recommend two free programs.

My favorite is Crystal Disk Info, an easy to understand program that gives you status on your drive(s) and can run in the background for continuous monitoring. The only con about this program is the “installed” version comes bundled with adware, so I recommend only downloading the “non-install” version from the above link. This is a zip file that can be extracted to a folder on your hard drive and then run.

A very close second, and one that is free of any adware, is Acronis drive Monitor. This one is also very easy to use and will show drive health in percentages. It also can monitor drive health in the background. They do ask for a name and email address before downloading; they will undoubtedly send a few emails advertising their backup products (which are quite good- although they don’t have any free backup programs).

More info on backup strategies here:


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The Spittin’ Image!

In the last two installments, I talked about System restore, refresh, reset, and recovery. Now we’ll discuss recovery from a System Image.

A system image is an exact copy of your entire Windows system at a moment in time. Unlike all the other recovery options discussed, this preserves your installation including all customizations and installed programs. Of course, make sure the system is running perfectly before doing this.

A system image does not replace regular backups, but is a supplement to get you up and running quickly in the event of a hard drive failure or major malware infection.

System imaging tools are now built in to Windows 7, 8, and 10. To find the tool in Windows 7, click Start and type Backup and restore in the search box. In Windows 8 and 10, type File History in the search box. In either case, the left panel of the resulting window will have a link titled Create a system Image. When you click this link, the first question you’ll be asked is “Where do you want to save the backup?” You will not be able to choose the same drive Windows is on. I recommend you save to an external hard drive. You can also save to DVDs, although you’ll need several of them, and you’ll need to change them periodically.

Next, you’ll be asked what you want to back up. The system drive is checked already; this should be all you need. You will then get a confirmation screen telling you how much space the image will need. Start the process. It will take some time, probably 30 minutes or more, depending on your system.

When the process completes, you’ll be asked if you want to create a system repair disc. Do so. This will require one CD or DVD. This disc is what you’ll use to boot the computer if it won’t boot from the hard drive. You would use the “System Image Recovery” when you use the system repair disc. This will return the computer to the exact condition it was in when you made the image.

You can make as many images as you have drive space for. Some folks do it once a week or month, keeping several and deleting the oldest. I recommend keeping the initial image for as long as you own the computer, and making new ones as often as you think you need to. Remember, though, this is an all-or-nothing deal; You still need to have some kind of system for backing up your files, as well.





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Saved! All About Removable Storage

“That file’s too big to email! I’ll just put it on a flash drive and run it across the hall!”

Huh? Let me explain.

Removable Storage is an important new category of computer accessory. External hard drives and flash drives are handy for making backups, transferring files, and unloading camera memory cards on the go. Most such devices use USB as the connection type, meaning they are plug and play on most computers less than 10 years old. They show up in “My Computer” as an additional drive with a new drive letter. Some models have network connections. A drive hooked up as a network drive can be used by any computer on the network just as if it was installed in that computer, thus you can back up all your computers to one drive.

External hard drives come in large (3.5″) and small (2.5″) physical sizes. Large in this case means slightly larger than a paperback book, and small is pocket size. Storage capacities vary from 250 GB to over 2 Terabytes (A Terabyte is 1000 Gigabytes), with prices to match. The 3.5″ drives use the same type of drive found in desktop computers and need an AC adapter for power. Pocket size drives use the same drive used in laptop computers and can usually be powered by the USB cable. It’s not a bad idea to get the biggest size you can afford, but I don’t recommend getting the very biggest one, because it may be slightly less reliable.

3.5″ drives are most useful as home backup devices. Many come with some sort of backup software to make this vital operation easier. Unlike backing up to a second internal hard drive, an external drive can be quickly disconnected and taken off site for security or in the event of some disaster requiring evacuation. Of course, they can also be used to transfer files, but unless you have a huge amount of data to transfer, they can be awkward, since you have to move not only the drive but the power and USB cable.

2.5″ drives will do anything 3.5″ drives can do, but at a higher cost (per Gigabyte) and a somewhat smaller data capacity. The portability factor often outweighs the added cost. You usually still need to carry a USB cable with the 2.5″ drives, but you won’t need a power cord, and there are carrying cases to make it easier.

Flash drives (also known as thumb drives, because of their small size) are the ultimate in data portability, completely replacing floppy disks. They work exactly the same as a portable hard drive, but they are much smaller and have no moving parts, making them very durable. They cost somewhat more per Gigabyte, and are not available (yet!) in as large a size as hard drives. Available in capacities up to at least 128 GB, they allow you to carry your entire digital life on a keyring. Many popular programs are also available in a portable version, allowing you to do all sorts of work even when you don’t have your own computer available.

In summary, if you need to back up massive quantities of data, and you don’t need much portability, get a 3.5″ drive; It’ll have the lowest cost per Gigabyte. If you need portable backup or large storage, get a 2.5″ portable hard drive. The cost per Gig is still pretty low. If you need something to carry your most important files everywhere, or if your backup needs are minimal, get a flash drive. Watch out, though, those flash drives are so small they disappear easily!

If you are an adventurer or James Bond, there are also ruggedized flash drives, and some portable hard drives have very good encryption built in if you carry sensitive files.

Since we live and die by the quality of our data, don’t try to save a few bucks on off brands when buying external storage. Stick with name brands, especially when it comes to flash drives. Sandisk, Memorex, and PNY are reputable brands. For hard drives, the big two are Seagate and Western Digital, although Toshiba, IBM, and Hitachi are just as good.

More info on backing up:


For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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Jesus Saves, and so Should You!

A story goes around that Jesus and Satan were having an ongoing argument about who managed to get the most out of his computer. This had been going on for days and God was tired of hearing all of the bickering. God said, “Cool it. I am going to set up a test that will run two hours and I will judge who does the better job.”

So down they sat at the keyboards and typed away. They moused away.

They did spreadsheets,
They wrote reports.
They sent faxes.
They sent out e-mail.
They sent out e-mail with attachments.
They downloaded.
They did some genealogy reports.
They made cards.
They did every known job.

But just a few minutes before the two hours were up lightning flashed across the sky. The thunder rolled and the rains came down hard. And of course the electricity went off.

Satan was upset. He fumed and fussed and he ranted and raved, all to no avail. The electricity stayed off. But after a bit the rains stopped and the electricity came back on.

Satan screamed, “I lost it all when the power went off. What am I going to do? What happened to Jesus’ work?”

Jesus just sat and smiled. Again Satan asked about the work that Jesus had done. As Jesus turned his computer back on the screen glowed and when he pushed “print,” it was all there.

“How did he do it?” Satan asked.

God smiled and said, “Jesus Saves.”

The moral of the Story? Save early and often!

That Great American Novel won’t inspire anyone if it vanishes into the ether before you can publish it. Many/Most folks don’t save their work nearly as often as they should… They maybe have too much trust in their computers not to do something ugly. I don’t trust my computer any further than I can throw it.

A good rule of thumb is save every five minutes, and whenever you get up from the computer. If you can’t remember to save every five minutes, at least when you pause to think about your next thing (Next paragraph, for instance), Save! It takes less than a second. The keyboard shortcut is Ctrl-S. Also, pay attention to where you’re saving something. The default save settings are usually either My Documents or My Pictures, but these can be changed in most programs. Give your document a name that you can remember, and that’s relevant to the content. “Document 1” doesn’t do any of that, but “2014 Master Budget” does.

When writing something online, such as this Blog, a neat trick that will prevent you from being held hostage to their system is to periodically copy and paste everything from the website window you’re writing in to a Word Processing document and save that. Just use the Ctrl-A and Ctrl-C commands to copy all, then Ctrl-V to paste into your own document. Warning: If you’re doing this and you still lose everything, you have no one but Yourself to blame!

Some Office programs have an Auto-save setting. Find out if yours does, and get familiar with it. Someday, you’ll be glad you did.

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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Quick, Hit the Kill Switch!

Is This a Good Idea?

The bureaucrats in our country and others are now calling, in their usual shrill fashion, for smartphones and tablets to have a so-called “Kill Switch,” enabled by default, in all new smartphones and tablets. It looks like this will happen by 2015. The idea is that a phone or tablet could be remotely disabled in the event of theft or loss.

The rationale goes something like this: “A large percentage of violent crimes now involve smartphone theft. If the thief knew he couldn’t use or sell the phone because it had been “bricked” (rendered inoperable) by the owner or carrier, he wouldn’t steal the phone.”

Anybody here buy that??

Kill Switch

Given the fact that a lot of thieves are stupid scum, do you really think they would stop stealing phones like magic? Or that the (slightly) smarter ones among them would not find workarounds for the kill switch? Or just sell the parts?

Given the proliferation of recent hack attacks, does anybody think the Kill-Switch system would be immune to outside interference? I don’t.

Imagine waking up one morning to find out that not only was your phone inoperative, making your data inaccessible, but every phone on your carrier, or in your town, was suffering the same fate. Did you have a backup? Yes? Good for you. But what about all those other people that never thought of that? What about police and other authorities that depend on their phones? This could result in something far worse than mere theft.

The proponents of this Big-Brother system think that the carriers are against it because they would lose revenue from selling replacement phones and phone insurance. They won’t, for two reasons: First, people will still lose and break their own phones. Second, a stupid thief, when he finds out the phone is useless, will undoubtedly smash it or otherwise destroy it, and the owner will still need a new phone.

Kill switches can be a good idea, considering the amount of personal data that folks now keep on their phones. But such a thing should always be voluntary, reversible, and only under the control of the owner of the device. There should also be competition among the makers of such programs, so you’re not stuck with whatever the phone manufacturer decides you need, and won’t let you turn off! I want to be in command of my own affairs, and I will always resist this kind of Nanny-State BS.




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