Think Your Clever Password Is Secure?

May 28th, 2013

Ars Technica recently wrote a great article on how easy it is for password crackers to guess your clever password. Let’s say you want to create a password based on your dog, Sparky. Just using “sparky” would probably be easy to guess, of course, so you decide to replace the S with a $ and the A with an @ to get $p@rky. That’s not bad, but it’s a little short. So you come up with the idea to add Sparky’s birthday to the end and you get $p@rky2006. “No one’s ever going to guess that!” you say, but just to be extra safe, you even make a few of the letters uppercase. Your final result is: $p@RkY2006

It doesn’t get any more secure than that, right? Wrong. If you were targeted by a hacker, or if the site the password was stored on was hacked, this password would be cracked in a few hours tops. That’s because hackers run special programs that guess thousands of passwords per second. It would still take way too long for them to try every possible combination, but in this case they wouldn’t have to.

Unfortunately for you, your clever password used common patterns that plenty of other people use as well. Letters at the beginning, numbers at the end, replacing letters with symbols… hackers know people use these tricks and take advantage of this knowledge when running their brute-force attacks. By focusing on different variations of these commonly used patterns, a hacker greatly reduces the total number of passwords they would need to guess before finding $p@RkY2006.

So the password you came up with wasn’t so secure after all, but it gets worse! Not only is your password easy for a hacker to guess, it’s also incredibly difficult for you to remember! Was that a capital K or was it lowercase? When was Sparky born, again? Which symbols replace which letters? As if you didn’t have enough stuff to remember already, now you’ve got to remember all these little details as well. What if you don’t have to login to the site everyday? Will you really be able to remember your clever password 3 months later?

Luckily, there’s a solution to the madness. Instead of trying to come up with (and remember) your own passwords, use a “password manager” to generate and remember passwords for you. These wonderful pieces of software generate long, completely random passwords that are virtually impossible for hackers to guess in a reasonable amount of time. They then store them on your computer (or in the cloud) and protect them with a master password that you create. Make sure to use a long master password that you’ll be able to remember. In fact, many people use an entire sentence for their master password–complete with punctuation.

When you want to login to your site, you simply enter your master password into your password manager to retrieve the random password it had generated for that particular site. This way, your passwords are secure and you don’t need to remember them.

As an extra security benefit, using a password manager will also let you have a different random password for each site you visit. This way, if your password on one site were to get hacked somehow, the passwords on all of the other sites you visit will still be perfectly safe.

Checkout Ars Technica’s article Anatomy of a hack: How crackers ransack passwords like “qeadzcwrsfxv1331” to learn more about how easy it is for hackers to crack clever passwords. More importantly, though, stop using anything other than truly random passwords, and make sure they’re at least 12 characters long. The easiest way to do this is by using a password manager such as LastPass or 1Password. Stay safe out there!

Avoid Crapware When Installing Software

October 23rd, 2012

When downloading and installing new software, it’s easy to get duped into installing bundled crapware at the same time. That’s because a surprisingly large number of software vendors hide these annoying add-ons in their installers and deliberately try to trick you into allowing them through. Weblog FreewareGenius and Lifehacker.com have some tips on avoiding these sneaky tricks in the future. The most popular tricks you’ll run into include:

  • Making the crapware look like it’s the original program’s privacy policy, which you (of course) agree to
  • Hiding the choice under “Custom Installation,” so the “Typical” installation gives you the toolbar automatically
  • Offering you crapware multiple times throughout the installation, perhaps with different wordings

Be sure to pay close attention during the installation process. If you’re given an “Advanced” or “Custom” installation method, use it! Watch out for these dubious tricks or you’ll likely end up with a mysterious new web browser toolbar or search engine alongside the next piece of software you install.

Checkout Lifehacker’s article or the post by FreewareGenius for more tips!

Microsoft System Sweeper Review

July 6th, 2011

Microsoft has released an easy-to-use bootable malware removal tool called Standalone System Sweeper. This makes the once complicated process of using a bootable virus scanner simple enough for even the technically inclined to handle. If you have a virus infection that simply won’t go away, give System Sweeper a try!

At it’s core, Standalone System Sweeper is simply Microsoft Security Essentials wrapped in a bootable environment. You can download it on a working computer, and it will walk you through the process of burning a CD, DVD or preparing a USB drive. I would recommend using a blank CD or DVD, since USB drives can be difficult or impossible to boot to on some older machines.

Once you have your CD or DVD burned, put it in the infected computer and boot to it. Usually this will happen automatically when you restart the computer with the disc in, but sometimes you’ll have to press a key (most commonly F12) right when the computer is first starting to boot up. You’ll then see the bootable Windows environment start to load. This boot process will probably look similar to what you would see if you were booting a normal Windows 7 machine. However, there’s actually a full (but slimmed down) copy of Windows 7 on that disc which System Sweeper will run on. Your infected hard drive isn’t being used to run the computer at all at this point. This way, the virus that was previously stopping you from running virus scans or opening programs will have absolutely no chance to start running and getting in the way.

Once System Sweeper starts, you’ll be able to update the virus definitions (under the Help dropdown menu) and run a full scan of your hard drive. Again, this is basically the same Microsoft Security Essentials virus scanner running, but this time it’s running in a clean environment without any active viruses to get in it’s way. After the scan, you can click “Clean Computer” to have System Sweeper clean all of the infections it found on your hard drive.

And that should be it! Take the disc out, restart your computer and you should boot back into your normal copy of Windows with everything nice and clean. You might notice some strange files or settings left over from the infection, but there shouldn’t be anything major stopping you from cleaning those up manually or with other virus scanners now. Bootable anti-virus for the people!

Happy New Year!

January 1st, 2011

I know it’s been awhile since our last post, but we were extremely busy with computer repair this year! So much so, that it’s been hard to find time to keep this blog updated with our latest virus removal, data recovery, and computer maintenance tips and tricks. I don’t see this changing anytime soon, and I want to say “Thank you” for it. That’s right. Because of you, we’ve been able to keep our little business growing slowly and steadily–and in the middle of a recession, too! I can’t thank our customers enough for making this possible, and we look forward to serving you all in 2011.

Speaking of 2011, we’ve got big plans coming up! Our service area has already been expanded to include areas around Lake Orion, Oxford and Clarkston, and we’ll be adding more friendly technicians soon to expand even further. This helps us keep our already low prices down to a minimum, as more technicians means less driving time for us and less money spent on gas. It also means that more and more people have access to affordable computer repair–a service that becomes increasingly necessary in our community everyday. We’re very happy to be providing it and can’t wait to meet our next set of happy customers!

We’re also in the process of finalizing a unique service plan which we’ll be offering to our residential customers soon. We’re really excited about it and can’t wait to make an official announcement, but I suppose I should leave it at that for right now. Be sure to subscribe to our RSS feed, facebook, or twitter to keep updated!

Thanks again for a great year, everyone. We hope you all had a fun and safe New Year’s Eve and have a great 2011. Happy new year!

Play Anything With VLC Media Player

May 25th, 2010

The next time your computer complains about missing codecs or plugins when trying to play a video or audio file, give VLC Media Player a try. Unlike almost every other media player available for Windows, VLC doesn’t rely on just the right mix of audio and video codecs being installed to do its magic. Instead, it has support for just about every file format you’ll likely run into on the Internet built right in. It also supports DVD movie playback–an important feature that was missing from Windows Media Player on Windows XP.

Like most of the software we recommend, VLC Media Player is simple to use, free and open-source. It’s also highly portable and available for MacOSX, Linux, and Windows XP, Vista and 7.

Make The Windows 7 Taskbar Perfect

May 18th, 2010

So you’ve finally gotten your hands on Windows 7, but aren’t entirely thrilled with the new taskbar? No problem! Lifehacker has a great set of articles on how to tweak the Windows 7 taskbar to exactly your liking. A couple fixes I simply could no longer live without are…

Display thumbnails instantly when you hover over an icon
By default, there’s about a half second delay between the time you hover over an icon and the time its thumbnail previews popup. This makes your workflow a little less efficient and gets really annoying really fast. The following registry hack will make previews popup instantly!

  1. Run regedit (Windows Key+R, type “regedit”, click OK)
  2. Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\Advanced
  3. If it doesn’t exist already, add a new DWORD (32-bit) value named “ExtendedUIHoverTime”
  4. Double click ExtendedUIHoverTime and set the value to the number of milliseconds you want the delay to be. The default is 400, but I prefer setting it to something really small, like 50, for an instant thumbnail preview
  5. To apply the change, restart the computer (or just explorer using task manager)

Left click icons to cycle through active windows:
This one goes hand in hand with the tweak above. By default, left-clicking an icon on the taskbar will popup its thumbnail previews, but now that we have previews showing up instantly on mouse-over, that’s a little redundant. So why not simply have the last window in the icon’s group show up when you left click it instead? Here’s how to do it…

  1. Run regedit (Windows Key+R, type “regedit”, click OK)
  2. Navigate to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\Advanced
  3. If it doesn’t exist already, add a new DWORD (32-bit) value named “LastActiveClick”
  4. Double click LastActiveClick and set the value to 1
  5. To apply the change, restart the computer (or just explorer using task manager)

As always, be sure to take extra care if you venture into the Windows registry to perform any of these tweaks. If you’re unsure about what you’re doing, stop and get help from someone who knows their way around!

So what’s your favorite Windows 7 hack? Have any tweaks that you can’t live without, or is everything fine right out of the box? Let us know in the comments!

Zoodles: A Free, Safe And Kid-Friendly Browser

May 12th, 2010

Much like the kid-friendly educational software of yesterday, free web browser Zoodles gives young kids an easy-to-use window into the Internet while keeping them (and your computer) safe. For ages 2-8, Zoodles attempts to always deliver safe, fun, and educational content through a dead-simple interface that can even get more complex as your child grows and learns.

Zoodles is available for Windows and Mac, and comes in either a free version or a $7.95/month premium version which gives parents extra functionality such as enhanced ad blocking, content filtering, and activity monitoring. A free trial of the premium membership is included with the download.

If your kids are older, you should definitely teach them how to use a computer properly without special software installed. However, kid-friendly browsers such as Zoodles are a great way to introduce younger children to the computer and provide them with a safe and enriching experience.

Free Rock Solid Virus Protection

February 21st, 2010

Your favorite helpful nerds are starting a series of youtube videos with simple tips and tricks to keep your computer running at its best. Check out the first in the series, where we show you how to stay protected while browsing the web using totally free software!

The Future of Anti-Virus

February 2nd, 2010

The problem with your typical signature-based anti-virus software is that it relies on virus signature definitions to do its detection. It works sort of like a vaccine. You get vaccinated against the latest threats, which should protect you should you happen to run into them, and your “vaccinations” come in the form of downloadable updates to your virus signature database. Unfortunately, hundreds of new viruses are released every single day–that’s just way too much for the “vaccination makers” to keep up with. By the time you download the latest virus signatures, they’re already out of date and you’re still left unprotected against the latest threats. That’s where sandboxing comes in.
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Net Neutrality Favored Nearly Unanimously

October 29th, 2009

The FCC has given Internet users an open forum to express their views on proposed Net Neutrality policies. This is great, as it provides more transparency in the policy-making process and allows at least some form of discussion to take place between the FCC and the people it will be affecting.
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