Tag Archives: #malware

Why Computers and Commuters Both Need Coffee

Computers slow down from too much traffic

The best explanation for why Windows is slow that I’ve heard was an explanation of ‘building funnels” from a state highway engineer. Roughly: “That commuting route is beyond planned capacity. Yes, we could add lanes to it and increase the capacity, fit more cars, and even increase the speed limit if we make it limited access. No problem there. But these commutes don’t end in highways, they end in neighborhoods, in areas we can’t control, county roads and other states. So adding capacity encourages more use, which results in building funnels at both ends of the commute where the extra lanes are taken away, and the funnel and resulting merges back up the traffic.”

And then, darker, “Sure, we could co-ordinate work with other states to extend things, but why should we invest anything to encourage building in areas that don’t give us any tax revenues but add to our highway costs? And worse, developers build homes on a much shorter timeline than we can plan state highways, let alone fund them and build them.”

Of course, the people who live alongside these racetrack routes, the worst of the commuter single-lane state highways, have things to say on these topics.

But back to technology. This is the classic Windows stupidity of running background tasks when the system is slow, but not in sleep mode. So let’s set a service, we’ll call it “Street Cleaning” just to make it non-techy, and say “We don’t want that to run during rush hour. Let’s have it run whenever the controller sees that traffic is low. Can’t do it when there is no traffic at all, because we’re turning off the streetlights when nobody’s on the road. So when the streetlights come on, check recent traffic, see that it’s zero, and start cleaning the streets. Excellent.” 

This, of course, turns on the streetlights based on a motion sensor, and sequentially starts  “Street Cleaning” at the moment that a car enters the parkway. Or triggers some service to start doing complex background stuff because you woke the computer and started typing. Or set twenty to fifty services to start running and phoning home for updates when the computer is first turned on. Which leads most users to start the computer, and then start the coffee pot, and not come back until both computer and operator have been thoroughly woken up. 

Preventing Startup Buildup

Old computers aren’t always slow because they’re old. If they were not budget computers on day one, they shouldn’t act like junk in year three. If they do, and the hardware tests out OK, the remaining cause for ‘slow’ or ‘erratic’ is generally “too much software trying to run at the same time.” That’s a traffic condition, background junk that does not need to be there. Some of it is malware, and a lot of it is just un-needed junk that is not remotely evil. But all auto-starting software adds to startup time.

So, to prevent that, you have to avoid software that adds auto-starting stuff to the system. I’ve told many of you this before, here it is again. It’s important: When you install software, always choose the Custom install. Always. Even if you have no plans to change anything, even if you’re afraid of even touching it. Always. And then read the screens during the setup, and pay attention to the options. The default options will work, they’re tested heavily, but they were not tested on every possible computer configuration. 

What you’re looking for in those option screens are the choices that mention “Also install this…” or “Start with Windows”. Those always require a moment of asking why would that be a good thing? Why allow that? Why allow a Hewlett Packard printer to run a program at startup that phones home to Hewlett Packard for a new driver, waiting for an overloaded server to respond, for the life of the computer? Think about that–not the life of the printer, and not the life of the printer warranty, but forever. Now multiply that by a dozen, and that’s a typical HP printer setup. 

Auto-running software is a problem

Now all of these startup items are not available to “just say no” to during setup, and I can follow up later during a tuneup to remove the useless autoplays, but for those choices that appear, if you won’t need a listed feature, don’t install it. And if it’s a third-party program, as in “we also recommend,” that’s a malware installation tactic. While not all software that arrives in that way is evil, you didn’t go looking for it, so you don’t need it, so don’t let it install. 

There are a lot of small utility programs that suggest ‘Run with Windows.’ OK, let’s see, it’s a little utility that you have never needed before, that converts something to something else, and it wants to start with Windows because you will need it every day, forever. No. Just say no.

As the Printers Die

Reminder: If you bought a new printer to replace another, go to Control Panel, Uninstall a program, and remove the software that installed with the former printer. Also check the printer list, in Settings, Devices, Printers & scanners, and remove the old driver there. It’s easier to do that before installing the new software, especially if the new and old printers are the same brand. The rule is like any other cleanup rule: Demolition before rebuilding. Make space before organizing. Remove that old plumbing before adding the new pipes. Or wires, or software. That helps you identify the old stuff, wipe it out before adding the new stuff. 

Other old software should also be removed. Any program that has an annual version can cause problems, so don’t allow them to build up forever. If you will never use these products past, say, year 3, then delete the “three years back” version when you add the latest version. 

Do Hard Drives Fill Up?

The answer is generally “not from saving documents.” But software can fill them, as can video editing in high resolution, or Windows errors that cause log files to never ever go away–that’s currently a recurring issue in Windows 7. If there is very little software on your system, but there are ‘full’ warnings in Windows, it can be the log files–call for a cleanup.

Caution: Your Computer is in a Bad Neighborhood

A reprint from the PC410 Security Newsletter:

Fake tech support popup

Here’s what that bad neighborhood looks like. there’s a scary message on your screen. it is designed to make you panic. There’s a hardware error message starting with a blue screen of death, but the blue screen message isn’t full-screen. It’s a fake. There is a urgent message to call a toll free number to have a Microsoft certified technician fix the problem immediately.

Microsoft does not, ever, place phone numbers in error messages. Most big technology companies don’t want phone calls, and their phone numbers are only on their support and stock holder pages. There may be an exception for sales and training events, but not much else. Every other phone call is an expense, and they will do everything that they can do to prevent you from calling them.

Next , Microsoft does not give away technical Consulting Services, or free computer repairs. They provide lots of reference materials on their websites, and free training for partners in various categories. For example, I am a Microsoft partner in their OEM and Refurbisher and Technical Sales programs, and have been through training in those areas. But even I can’t just call Microsoft and ask for a free diagnostic of a system, most of which consists of other companies’ hardware. If you actually reach them, don’ t expect more than a link to: http://support.microsoft.com/en-us

Beyond this point, there is malware. (And dragons)

But enough about Microsoft. Amazon is involved here. If the web address is visible on the popup, there’s a good chance that it includes aws.com, or Amazon web services, which is basically a web host with massive and scalable computing power, online and for rent. To anyone, anywhere, with computer approval based on the validity of your payment. In other words, gun for hire. Yes, they have terms of service that prohibit use for anything illegal or tasteless, but they are applied retroactively, and there is no approval process for new pages going up. You pay your money and you put up your page, and if someone complains, then a human being will look at it and if it doesn’t comply with their terms of service, it will go down until the authors create a new account and start again.

Now I’m going to pick on Google and Bing and all the other search engines. Not every page you find on a search engine result is a safe page. There are poisonous results all over the place. The worst web results are for this search: “tech support phone number (company name).”

Nearly all searches for tech phone numbers lead to scam companies that will want to log into your computer, show you the event logs, and claim that the lengthy list of routine messages means that you need $249 to $399 of repairs and an annual service contract. Never search for tech support phone numbers: Go to the company web site, and follow the menu links for support, or call me for help–I have additional resources for many tech companies.

But how do these bad phone numbers end up at the top of a Google page? Google can be fooled, temporarily, by a black hat SEO campaign (basically, evil search engine optimization). When a search engine sees a thousand links to a site means it is popular, and it isn’t recognized as good or bad; that happens later after Gooogle has found and indexed what appears to be a keyword-heavy page, with ‘tech support phone” used repeatedly, which will never be the case of a real technology company web site. Later, Google will see that the links were identical and planted in web sites by malware, and will remove the search result, but it’s a numbers game, and it all starts again.

The bad guys do more things. They buy up expired domains that previously had moderate traffic, and they put their fraudulent sites up. The search engines mostly fail to remove the old site descriptions and search results because they’re not always checking to see if the web page is suddenly on a new server somewhere else than where it started. They catch up eventually. The bad guys are also buying up bulk misspellings of popular web sites, so typing in any popular site with an extra letter is probably going to land you on random and dangerous garbage.

Now do I blame Microsoft/Bing, Google, and Amazon? Well, it’s an arms race, largely based in parts of the world where there are no internet laws. They could say, “We want you to trust us, but first be sure that what you are visiting is really us. Here’s is how to tell the difference.” They don’t.

Years ago, Google’s official policy was to index all of the web without any commentary or analysis, ranked as best they could to guess the intent of the searcher. Now, of course, they block criminal activity in a few categories, but they’ll still show blatantly illegal content, scams, fake news, and so on.

In all fairness, the search engines want a way to decide if a site is illegal, without any risk of being sued for de-listing sites that retain lawyers. Yes, the larger illegal sites have legal counsel. So if there is any chance that a site that looks like a service company is legit, and can only be proven as a scam by doing business with them, that site remains in search results.

And you need to stay far, far away. Stay suspicious. When it’s too good to be true, it’s a scam. And when it looks like a company with no history of phone support is giving it away for free on random web pages but not on their own pages, it’s not them.

Jerry Stern
Chief Technology Officer, PC410.com