Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Irresistible Cuteness of Wallpapers and Screen Savers - *sigh*

It's such a temptation when we see some of the wallpapers and screen savers that are geared for the holidays. It doesn't matter much which holiday it is... Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Independence Day... but the Christmas wallpapers and screen savers are the ones that are really, really enticing.

Normally, I can resist this sort of stuff because, like sweets, I know they aren't really good for me or my computer. But, this last Christmas season was particularly difficult. I have never seen so many tempting wallpapers and screen savers. I was passing by a colleague's desk one morning and saw that he had this really great animated Christmas wallpaper. The smoke was curling out of the chimney, snow was on the ground, and bunnies, deer and birds were frolicking in that winter wonderland. It was lovely. I expected carolers to come 'round the corner of the beautiful country home at any moment. Each time I had to pass his desk, that wallpaper called out to me. Finally, I asked my colleague where he had found his holiday wallpaper, and he gave me the address of the website. I jotted it down and decided I'd take a look at home that evening.

Well, I keep my home computers locked down pretty securely, and one of the things I use for security is the MVPS Hosts file, which keeps known bad sites from loading. When I tried to access the website in question, my Hosts file blocked it. That was a big "Ooops!" Things weren't looking too promising for my adorable holiday wallpaper at that moment.

Determined not to be so easily deterred, I decided to look around for another wallpaper site. Surely, I reasoned, there had to be a site that had wallpaper that was both adorable and safe. Right? Sure there was... I found exactly what I wanted on what looked to be a clean website, downloaded it, and then I started to install it. At that point, my trusty anti-virus, NOD32, reared up and said, "Oh, no you don't!" and promptly quarantined the installer file. Ooops! again. Two "ooops!" in one day were just too much for me. I decided I could live without the adorable holiday wallpaper. I didn't need it enough to risk infecting my computer.

The next day, I noticed that a number of people had my colleague's holiday wallpaper on their computers. Apparently, my colleague had been generous in sharing the bounty of his discovery. That was the last day before Christmas vacation. Oh well, at least by the time I returned, I reasoned, the holiday wallpaper should be long gone and I could stop obsessing about it.

I was right. The wallpaper was gone on my return. What wasn't gone were the unpleasant things that came along with the wallpaper. It seems those computers that were running the adorable holiday wallpaper were not equipped with a Hosts file nor protected by an anti-virus as strong-willed as mine. To make a long story short, for two or three days, there was a lot of computer clean-up going on.

There's a lesson here... although cuteness is often very tempting, it's important to keep in mind that cuteness may be masking something very ugly. Malware vendors discovered quite some time ago that they can get the public to click on or install just about anything as long as it's cute enough, like dancing pigs and flying monkeys. But cute just doesn't do it for me... not unless it's both clean and cute.

You can learn more about the MVPS Host file here:

Jane Edwards, MS-MVP
Consumer Security 2006 - 2011

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Importance of Installing Security Updates

Is Your Windows Operating System Secure?

If your computer is using an operating system that is no longer supported, such as Windows 95, 98, or ME, updates are no longer being provided, and you should strongly consider the value of installing a more current operating system if your computer can support it.  If you are using Windows XP and you do not have Service Pack 3 installed, updates are no longer being provided for your system, and you are urgently in need of installing Service Pack 3 so you can install those needed updates.  If your operating system is Windows Vista, Service Pack 2 is now available, although not yet required for obtaining other updates; however, Service Pack 1 is required. (Be aware that support for Windows Vista Service Pack 1 (SP1) will end on July 12, 2011. To continue support, make sure you've installed Windows Vista Service Pack 2 (SP2). 

If your computer is running an operating system that can no longer be updated, and you are accessing the Internet with that computer, it will become infected.  Infection is inevitable unless you upgrade and/or update your operating system so that it is able to receive important security updates.   Those updates will help secure your computer against the vulnerabilities inherent in an unpatched operating system. 

It does not matter how careful you are.  It doesn't matter that you never open e-mail attachments.   It doesn't matter that you use a good firewall, antivirus and anti-spyware.  It does not matter if you sprinkle yourself with chicken blood and chant naked by moonlight.  If your operating system is unpatched, sooner or later it will become infected.  

If you have an operating system for which security updates are available but you're not taking advantage of the availability of these updates, you need to remedy that situation as quickly as possible.  Go to the Microsoft Update site and download and install all critical updates.  If you haven't been updating, this may take quite some time, but it's time well spent.

For Windows XP Users:  

Windows Update or Microsoft Update?

Note that the above link is for Microsoft Update rather than Windows Update.  Although obtaining your updates from Windows Update will provide you with the updates for your operating system, it will not offer you updates for other Microsoft software such as Microsoft Office.  Microsoft Update will.  Microsoft Update will offer you updates for more than your operating system.  If your system has Microsoft Office components installed (Excel, Word, Outlook for example) when you scan for updates, you will also be offered the available updates for those products.  There is an exception, however.  If you are running an older version of Office, e.g., Office 2000 or older, you will need to go directly to the Office Update site to scan for updates for those products.  

Once you have verified that your system is ready and capable of receiving updates, set it to do this automatically.  Just go to your computer's Control Panel, open the Windows Security Center and verify that Automatic Updates is turned on and set to receive and install all future updates.  

For Windows Vista and Windows 7 Users:  

Go to Start, Control Panel, then click on the Windows Update icon to open the applet.   From the menu in the left-hand panel, select "Install all updates automatically (recommended)."   All the boxes should be checked but the last one, which is optional.   When finished, select "OK" to approve your new settings.  

What about other updates?

OK, when is the last time you updated Java, Adobe Reader, QuickTime or any of the many other applications that are probably installed on your system?  If the answer isn't that you're 100%  certain that all your applications are updated and secure, then please use the link below to access the Secunia Software Inspector for a free scan that will tell you if your applications are in need of an update.   No,  they won't try to sell you something or sneak something onto your system that you don't want, and they're not going to put you on a mailing list and send you SPAM.

Why update?  Where once you only had to be concerned about opening an e-mail attachment, visiting  a bad web site, or clicking on a link, it is now possible to get infected just by visiting a good site that unknowingly has had a bad Java applet planted that is now running and infecting visitors to that site who are using a vulnerable version of Sun Java.

Unless you're  100% certain that all your applications are updated and secure, use the link below to access the Secunia Software Inspector for a free scan that will tell you if your applications are in need of an update.   It doesn't cover everything, but it does cover a lot. 

Secunia Software Inspector:

The Secunia Software Inspector (online scanner version requires Java) covers the most common/popular end user applications:
  • Internet browsers
  • Internet browser plugins
  • Instant messaging clients
  • Email clients
  • Media players
  • Operating systems
It's a good thing. 
Jane Edwards, MS-MVP
Consumer Security 2006 - 2011

Friday, October 10, 2008


Vista... love it or hate it?

Change is difficult.  We all like shiny new things, but we also like the familiarity of things we've grown used to having around us.  We like that sameness that allows us to perform a task quickly and efficiently because we know exactly where everything is and just what we need to do with it... and then along comes a shiny new operating system!  It's pretty, and has lots of "eye candy," but it's not familiar.  It upsets our apple cart.  Things have been changed somewhat, and we don't like change, do we?  We want everything to be nice and new, but at the same time we want it all to be in the same familiar place.  That's human nature, after all.

Beta testing is different... it's a fun thing... kind of like a test driving a new car.  A test drive doesn't mean you're going to buy it, you're just trying it out.  Actually switching over to a new operating system is serious stuff.  It's not just a test drive anymore... it's a real commitment.  

At the time Vista made it's debut, I was in no particular rush to switch to a new operating system.  My two desktop computers were doing just fine with XP Pro, so I felt there was plenty of time before I would need to think about a switch... at least that's what I thought.  However, as fate would have it, my XP Media Center laptop determined otherwise.  The display kept going blank and so my laptop was sent out for repair.  After I got it back, it worked fine for a few days and then the display went blank again.  The machine was still under warranty, and I was offered an upgraded replacement... complete with Windows Vista.  I took it. 

Well, I admit it took a bit of time to get used to the different way some things are presented in Vista; however, in the long run, I've found the layout to be more intuitive than in Windows XP.  I've also found that Vista is far better at finding and fetching new device drivers than XP, and setting up and/or networking a new Vista compatible printer is a snap.  Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could install and network our old HP Officejet printer that originally was purchased for and used with a Windows 98 machine.  I have also found that I have more and better management control with Vista than I do with XP Pro. 

Vista has many features, far too many to mention here, so I'll just list a few of my fun favorites.  Some of the built-in features I enjoy in Vista that are not available in XP are the Snipping Tool, Sidebar, Dreamscene wallpaper (Ultimate only) and the built-in calendar.

The Snipping Tool is a handy tool that makes quick and easy work of screen shots and also has highlighting and drawings tools. 

The Sidebar is a handy place for a vast array of gadgets or just keeping up with newsfeeds. 

Dreamscene (Vista Ultimate only) is just amazing if you're into animated wallpaper, such as cascading waterfalls surrounded by an abundance of trees with their branches and leaves waving in the breeze.  I really like this fun feature. 

The calendar is convenient and readily accessible.  Not everyone uses an e-mail program that comes with a calendar.  Even if you do, there may be some things you'd prefer to keep separate from your usual calendar.  This will do it. 

Vista is a more secure, more powerful operating system than Windows XP.  It requires more RAM and a good video card.  (I recommend 2 gigabytes of RAM for Home Premium and Ultimate versions).  Don't buy a $300.00 machine with 512 megabytes of RAM and expect it to run Vista Home Premium or Ultimate well, because it can't... and you won't be happy with it.  Don't assume that a poorly appointed, cheap machine is going to work just fine for you because, "The computer manufacturer wouldn't have built it that way if it wouldn't work right."  Unfortunately, that's not true.  Supply and demand often create a market for substandard devices.  Save yourself a bucket of headaches by first deciding which features are a must-have for you, then you can select the Vista version that will best suit your needs.  After doing that, you'll be better equipped to evaluate and determine the kind of hardware you need to properly support that version and its features. 

The bottom line is, I have found that many Vista complaints are due more to the poor shopping decisions made by the consumer and less to the operating system itself.  Many people have purchased substandard systems and many have upgraded XP systems to Vista without first running the Windows Vista Upgrade Advisor. 

Do yourself a favor, be a smart informed shopper and you'll be a happy computer owner.

Jane Edwards, MS-MVP
Consumer Security 2006 - 2011