Sunday, December 18, 2005

‘Tis the Season… for Spyware!

‘Tis the Season… for Spyware!
- by David Matthews 2

Christmas is coming, the coffers are getting fat…
Please put some spyware in the old man’s hat.

Okay, so I’m no Charles Dickens, but I am pretty good at seeing certain trends, and one of them is fast upon us.

Christmastime is always the best time for people to get computers. Stores are eager to pick up sales, people are willing to spend more money than at any other time of the year, and with a new Windows operating system on the horizon, computer prices are lower than they have ever been before. So if you’ve never had a computer before, or if you need to get a new computer, now is of course the BEST time to get one.

Unfortunately Christmastime is also the perfect season for really nasty and unscrupulous cyber-people to strike. They like to call themselves "intelligence collectors" or "marketing specialists" or "information marketers" or "digital research specialists" or any number of cute corporate-sounding names that make what they do seem innocuous. But we know them best as virus-writers, spyware-senders, Adware-senders, and SPAMMERS.

Christmastime is the perfect storm for these digital parasites. They know that we’re eager to spend money now more than any other time of the year. They know that there are plenty of markets willing to pay them to hawk their wares. And most importantly, they know that with all of these people getting new computers, there is a fresh crop of cyber-newbies that are the easiest targets to their plans.

Once upon a time, virus-writers were interested in how much chaos they could cause. They were looking to take over as many systems as possible so they could use them to destroy other computer networks and prove just how "powerful" they are. Some are still doing that, but the bulk of the virus-writers now call themselves "marketers" and they sell themselves as being able to sell a client’s wares to the masses. They’re not interested in destroying your computer, per se, because that would hurt their bottom line. Instead what these people want to do is to take over your computer so that it becomes their advertising machine.

Here’s a little oddity for you… you buy a new computer, you sign up with a new service like AOL or Earthlink, you start surfing the mainstream websites, and a few weeks later… that ultra-fast computer is suddenly getting slower and slower. Not only that, but little pop-up windows start to appear, even though you have a whole plethora of pop-up blocking programs in place. You could even be offline and those pop-ups will magically appear!

Congratulations! You’ve got Adware!

I’m sure that some of you are scratching your heads, wondering just how the hell this happened. You didn’t surf to any strange websites. You didn’t open up any stupid email programs. You didn’t visit the newsgroups… if you even knew what or where newsgroups are.

And that’s the thing… Spyware and Adware senders aren’t lurking in the fringes anymore. They’re hiding in plain sight in mainstream websites. You know those otherwise innocuous ads that you see on the news websites and the weather websites and the sports websites? Those ads don’t really reside on the website. Those ads really reside on a separate web server, which the web page calls upon when you download their page. (Note: every webpage that you visit is actually downloaded to your computer, albeit temporarily.) Hidden programming tells your browser to download all of the programs needed to "best view" that page, and imbedded in that programming is usually a Java script or ActiveX control that also tells your computer to download the Adware or Spyware program. The next thing you know, your anti-virus program has been disabled, your anti-spyware program has been disabled, and you’re getting more pop-ups than ever before because all of those pop-up blocking tools on all of those browser toolbars people love to give you have been bypassed.

It’s also important to note that the people who run those mainstream websites with all of the Adware often have no idea what’s going on. All they know is that these advertising companies are paying them to put up their ads, and possibly letting them know how many people visit their site. And if they DO know that these advertising companies are doing more than just sending ads, then they’re usually nonchalant about it. After all, it’s not coming from THEIR servers, so why should they be concerned?

So what do you need to do?

Well for those of you who are getting a new computer this holiday season (or for any time) here are a few things that should be added to your "must get" list along with the obligatory bushel of batteries.

Invest in an anti-virus program and check it regularly! America Online users can get a free version of McAfee’s VirusScan, but they have to manually look for it and download it to their computer. It sucks, but at least they’re offering it for free. Be sure to check with your service provider to see if they offer any kind of free security packages. If not, then make sure that your new computer includes some kind of security package. If it doesn’t, then buy one. It’s worth the cost. And once you do get it, make sure that you check it regularly so that you know that it is not only updated but also working. Remember that some Spyware and Adware programs are designed to disable anti-virus programs if you’re not vigilant about their use.

Download "Spybot Search & Destory" and "Ad-Aware"! These are FREE programs that look for and remove Spyware, Adware, and even certain tracking cookies that can be used to track your web surfing habits. And like the anti-virus programs, these are programs that you have to be vigilant about in regards to updates and regular scans of your hard drive.

Download Mozilla’s Firefox Browser and the "Adblock" extension! This really should be your preferred browser for any kind of personal web surfing, especially for visiting the so-called "mainstream" websites. The people at Mozilla are the same ones who created the original Netscape browser (before they sold it to America Online) and elements of that browser were later incorporated into Internet Explorer. The Firefox browser is completely FREE and can be customized in ways that neither IE or Netscape could. One unique extension is called "Adblock", and it is probably the most effective tool for online users, because it allows you to block images and certain scripts that pertain to advertising. You can even use it to block whole servers, so that no advertising can ever reach your computer from that server. Not only do web pages upload faster once the advertising has been removed, but it also blocks the commands that would order your computer to download spyware. (You may also want to consider using Mozilla’s Thunderbird email program, since it also has built-in Spam-blocking tools and the same level of customization as Firefox.)

Of course as more and more people jump to Firefox, the greater the chances are that Adware and Spyware creators will come up with ways to sneak their wares in through this browser as well. But right now having this edge over the digital parasites helps keep your computer clear of their programs.

Adding these things to your new computer’s gift list will help make sure that your holiday present doesn’t become an expensive holiday paperweight by New Year’s Day. And of course the best part is that most of these software toys are FREE… which is good because getting your computer cleared of that nasty Spyware, Adware, and viruses is pretty expensive. You certainly don’t want to be spending even more money than you have to.

And for those of you who are already online, now is certainly the perfect time to make sure that your online protection tools ARE already in place and updated. Remember that this is the time of year that the "marketers" have been waiting for, because it’s Christmastime for them when they can usurp your computer.


David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in Georgia. He has been around computers in one form or another since the 1980’s.

This article may be distributed freely only so long as it is reprinted in its entirety, with all proper credit given to the author.

2005 – Get Brutal Productions

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Moving to Vista? Not on THAT computer!

Moving to Vista? Not on THAT computer!
– by David Matthews 2

After five years of talk and five years of teasing, Microsoft has announced that they are ALMOST ready with their new operating system: Windows Vista.

So… what the hell does that mean to you?

It’s a fair question to ask. After all, it’s been a while since people were concerned about a new operating system from Microsoft. So here’s a quick word of advice to anyone even considering getting the latest and greatest in Windows…

Save your money now!

I’m serious. You’ll need that money to buy brand new computers, because whatever computer that you’re using now will not be powerful enough to use Vista!

The key thing about any major upgrade in operating systems is that they demand a whole lot more from your computer than their predecessors ever did.

Today, you can get away with running Windows XP on a computer with an Intel Pentium III processor, 128MB RAM, 20GB hard drive, and 32MB video memory. It may run slowly, and you probably wouldn’t want to play any games on it outside of the simple ones pre-installed, but you can still use it for whatever simple applications you’re working on. Compose a letter? Absolutely. Surf the web? Sure.

But that kind of computer won’t even BEGIN to handle the requirements of Windows Vista. It wouldn’t even be able to get past the Vista startup screen. The installation disc would probably even spit out of its drive in disgust.

In fact, the ONLY computers that will be able to handle Microsoft Vista will be the high-end expensive ones you see on the shelf from now until its official release. Yes, we’re talking the computers that you see on the shelves today that run anywhere between $2000 and $5000, and the high-end computers that have YET to be created and put out to market.

Why, you ask, is there so high of a requirement hurdle? Well it pretty much has to do with what we EXPECT that operating system to do.

Back in the days when computers were only used by geeks (back when Bill Gates was just millionaire and not a billionaire), operating systems had a very limited function. They basically served as gateways to the programs you used.

But now we’re asking those same operating systems to do a lot more for us. We expect that operating system to manage our files and deal with multimedia applications like music, sound clips, and video. We expect our operating system to integrate and utilize multiple applications and deal with more than one program running at any given time. We expect our operating system to handle the Internet and all of the applications involved with it.

And on top of that, the computer is now being used by more people who AREN’T geeks. People who take great PRIDE in calling themselves “computer-illiterate”. People who don’t know how to defrag their own computer or run regular systems checks, or even know how to go out to Microsoft’s website and download the latest software patches and security upgrades. People who EXPECT their computer to be smart enough to deal with spyware and viruses. THEY don’t know how to do these things themselves, and they lack the mental discipline to remind themselves to do these things, so they expect their computer’s operating system to do it all for them.

That’s a lot of work. And the more that people expect of their computer’s operating system, the more resources that are needed to do all of those additional features.

And let’s not forget some of the other little things that just look nice for an operating system. Themes, icons, shortcuts, a customizable menu, taskbars, allowing any image file to be used as a desktop wallpaper… even the little button that says “Start” requires little bits of complex coding. Programmers call this stuff Graphical User Interface, or GUI. Well the earlier Windows programs had some relatively simple GUI. Windows XP made it a little more complex, but Vista will have even MORE complex GUI to deal with… such as transparent toolbars so you can see the desktop and the desktop wallpaper. The end result will look really neat, but in order to pull it off, Vista will require more resources than your average computer can provide.

Then again, there’s the OTHER big reason why the debut of a new operating system is considered a special occasion: because it encourages people to get brand new computers! All your computer stores and media outlets know that people will be curious about Vista, and they’ll want to see if it is as good as Microsoft expects it to be.

And believe me when I say that the store managers and salespeople are SALIVATING at the opportunity to tell their customers that THEY WILL have to get brand new computers to play with Vista, because by then they’ll have those new computers on the shelves. And let’s not forget the big companies that pride themselves in having the “latest and greatest”. They’ll want to make sure that they have Vista on their computers, if nothing than just for bragging rights. Corporate executives and salespeople LOVE being able to tell their friends and clientele that they’re up-to-date with technology.

So go ahead and start pricing those high-end computer now and start saving your money. The good news is that those high-end computers out today will not only be able to use Windows Vista when it comes out, but by the time Vista does get released, those same computers will be a whole lot cheaper. But if you’re still using the same computer for over a year, don’t even THINK of being able of using it for the next operating system.

David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in the greater Atlanta area. He is a longtime computer user and has been involved with computers since the 1980’s.

This article can be distributed freely provided that it is unaltered and all proper credit is given to the author.

2005 – Get Brutal Productions

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Sorry Spammers... you lose

A new feature has just been included that will cut down on the comment spam that's been here. It will take an extra second or two out of your posting, but it will prove that you're a real human being and not a spambot.

I told you, I have NO TOLERANCE for Spam!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Netizens: Help Yourselves Out By Helping A Newbie

(The following has been reprinted from the Brutally Honest website with permission of the author)

Netizens: Help Yourselves Out By Helping A Newbie
– by David Matthews 2
"The march of science and technology does not imply growing intellectual complexity in the lives of most people. It often means the opposite." - Thomas Sowell

You know, one of the more annoying things about being a techno-geek is this belief that yours truly knows EVERYTHING there is about computers! I suppose it comes with the territory. I’ve surrounded myself with computers and computer-related subjects since the 1980’s. I was playing with Apple computers before the birth of the Macintosh. I was writing BASIC code on Digital mainframes. I played on the network that would become what we all know today as the Internet. (I just didn’t realize it back then.) So it’s sort of expected that I would know SOMETHING about computers.

But I also know that just about every computer user gets asked by someone less knowledgeable than them to do the same thing. It gets so absurd that one website that caters to my fellow techno-geeks has a popular tee shirt that says, "No I will not fix your computer". (I may actually order two or three of those!)

In fact, I’m sure many newbies will get pissed off when I mention this, but the geek community has some colorful abbreviations for them. For instance, the most common problem that exists is known as PEBKAC, or "Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair". Think about that one for a minute. Then there is RTFM, or "Read The (Frelling) Manual". It seems to be the universal solution to many of the PEBKAC problems.

Of course, the attitude is understandable. You see… once upon a time, the only people who would ever have anything to do with computers ARE the geeks and nerds of the world. The Internet, email, online chatting… those were all OUR domains! But then it became more and more affordable for your ordinary people to get computers, so they did. Then your online services like America Online started offering Joe and Jane Six-Pack easy access to the Internet; and that pissed off the old-school geeks, because now they’re having to deal with these newbies who like to type with the CAPS LOCK on, and know more about football than they do their own computers.

At the same time, there is a general attitude when it comes to many a newbie that just infuriates your seasoned geek. Newbies seem to revel in their technical stupidity, taking great pride to admit that they are "technically illiterate" and how they need to ask their neighbor’s 8-year old kid to program their TiVO, much less figure out how to get their email. That is just unfathomable in the minds of your typical seasoned computer user who is used to figuring these things out for themselves. (You know, that little book called "Users Manual" isn’t just there for decoration.)

So I would like my fellow seasoned netizens to consider this little nightmare…

We all hate Spam, right? That’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. We detest Spam! We hate it and we hate the scum that use it! The only people who like Spam are the advertisers themselves, but then again they love shoving their wares in our faces to begin with, no matter what the medium is.

So imagine all of a sudden that your online service is hit with a fresh deluge of Spam messages. Maybe some of them can be filtered out. Maybe some of them make it through to your inbox. But even if they don’t make it to your inbox, the sheer volume of Spam messages coming in is enough to slow down your provider’s mail servers, or maybe even crash them.

Where are these new messages coming from, you ask? Well they’re coming from all of those newbies out there!

Every year right around Christmas, hundreds, if not thousands, of new computers are purchased and go online. Sure, people buy computers at any time of the year, but it’s only during Christmas that there is a specific concentration of new purchases. Thousands of computer users go online for the very first time, and they start surfing the Internet like crazy. These brand-new users are simply unprepared for some of the viscous little tricks the advertisers have waiting for them. The advertisers will send out viruses and spyware programs, knowing full well that these new users wouldn’t know how to defend against them, even IF they had the right tools.

As a matter of fact, you may have even noticed a wave of new virus-laden emails that came right after Christmas. Coincidence? Hardly! It’s a blanket assault by Spammers specifically timed to go after all of those new netizens while they’re still ignorant enough to surf without any kind of protection.

Oh sure, some new computers will have anti-virus programs already installed. But probably not the computers you get from your local mom-and-pop computer shop. Remember that not everyone can afford to buy the top-of-the-line models. Many of those computers are lucky to just have the bare-bones OEM operating system. And even IF they have the programs installed, how many of these users would know enough to use them, much less see if they’re updated? Not many of them.

It doesn’t take long for Spammers to have a brand new army of "zombie" computers at their disposal. With these computers, Spammers can both send out new Spam messages and use those computers to carry out illegal attacks on anti-Spam efforts.

And here’s the twist: most of these newbies will have absolutely no idea that they’re being used that way! Why should they? The most effective and notorious of the spyware and zombie-virus programs are so sneaky that their victims don’t even know that it’s on their system to begin with! All they’ll know is that their brand-new computer is gradually slowing down, and they really won’t know why.

So let’s get brutally honest here… if we’re going to beat the Spammers and the other unscrupulous advertisers, then we have to reach out to the newbies and offer to help them.

If you know someone who just got a new computer and they don’t know the difference between RAM and ROM, offer to help them get things set up! Ask them if they know whether they have anti-virus and firewall programs on that brand-new computer. Offer to help them get the basic online skills they need to spot Spam messages instead of blindly opening them up.

Now I know what some of you are thinking right now… "Why should I give a damn about these newbies? I’m not in tech support! I found this stuff out the hard way, and so should these people."

And that’s exactly what the Spammers are counting on! They WANT the newbies to be ignorant, and they EXPECT the seasoned netizens to simply watch the newbies fall prey to viruses and spyware. And so far that tactic has rewarded us with BILLIONS of Spam messages hitting our mail servers PER DAY! Nice going guys. Great plan. Keep up the good work.

And it’s equally easy for us to simply fob all of this off to online providers like AOL. After all, AOL is going ahead and giving away free anti-virus programs and free anti-spyware programs and free firewall programs. Most service providers are also providing free tools. Even Microsoft is getting into the game by putting in its own firewall and buying its own anti-spyware program. These companies are also spending big bucks suing the pants off of the Spammers… if they can be tracked down and sued, that is. Remember, these Spammers love to hide behind false accounts and zombie computers.

Yes, the tech giants can provide the tools, but all of the tools in the world are useless if the user doesn’t know they’re out there or how to set them up and turn them on. AOL does give away McAfee Virus Scan for free as part of their new "Security Edition" version, but you have to download and install the program yourself. It doesn’t come pre-loaded. And again, your typical newbie wouldn’t know that… unless they’re keen on reading fine print.

That’s where the seasoned netizen comes in. We may not all have those glorious certifications, but we do have the knowledge and the experience. And unlike those 1-800 tech support people, we can actually be there and take the time to explain things to the new user in a way that THEY can understand. That certainly beats having them turn to a seventeen-page web document put out by Microsoft programmers that only other programmers can understand.

And helping the newbies become more knowledgeable netizens pays off for us in the end, because the more net-aware they are, the less likely that Spammers can take over their computers to be used to send US more crap. Every newbie that gets helped by a more experienced netizen translates into one less computer that can get exploited by Spammers. That gives the Spammers fewer resources to abuse, and that translates into fewer Spam messages in OUR inboxes!

We need to remember that we were ALL newbies once upon a time. Sure we could figure this stuff out ourselves, but geeks need to admit that not every user is that talented. Computers and the Internet are no longer the stuff of geeks and nerds.

And who knows? You might actually LIKE helping these newbies out! After all, you may not consider yourself to be an "expert", but right now you certainly know more that these newbies, so in their minds, you’re the closest thing to an "expert" that they’ll probably ever encounter. There’s a certain amount of ego-gratification that goes with having that little tidbit of knowledge, and it’s high time that my fellow netizens put that little perk to use.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Easy Computer Tips For Newbies

Easy Computer Tips For Newbies
– by David Matthews 2

Every year, thousands of people join the online world. Some will buy their own computers; others will simply be given them either as a gift or for work or school purposes.

Unfortunately, every year, we also see a new influx of computer viruses, snooping programs, and illegal schemes to deprive the online users of their money and/or their identity. These threats are bad enough of an annoyance for your more seasoned computer users, but to a new computer user, these threats can turn their new gift into a nightmare. Some new users have become so traumatized by these threats that they have literally abandoned their computers, vowing to never use one again.

With that in mind, I have come up with a few tips that should apply to most new computer users. Of course, I know that not everyone uses Microsoft products, but a few tips should also apply for those of you playing with Macs and Linux.

RTFM: Read That (Fine) Manual! – The biggest tool at your disposal is a book (and in some cases it really IS a book) that has all of the essential information about your computer. This book is called a MANUAL. I know we all hate to read… unless it’s our paycheck, or a sales circular… but this is one book that you should get to know. Take the time to go over this book and get to know the particulars about what your computer has and doesn’t have.

Upgrade and check often! – Even though you may have Microsoft’s Automatic Updates turned on, there are some patches and upgrades that you still have to download and install yourself. Visit Microsoft’s Windows Upgrade website ( on a regular basis, even if you have Automatic Updates turned on. Also, some updates may be available BEFORE the Automatic Updates feature gets around to doing your computer. Virus writers don’t wait until Microsoft gets around to coming up with a patch before they exploit the holes, so don’t wait for MS to get around to you!

Learn to like Microsoft! – Whether you think that Bill Gates is a genius or the devil incarnate; whether your love or hate Microsoft; if you’re using Windows, you better learn to LIKE Microsoft!

Visit their website ( regularly because they have some great tools that go beyond your standard system upgrades. One of the best little free trinkets is a program called Tweak UI, which helps you make little changes to the Windows XP system so you can customize things to your liking.

Microsoft also has their Knowledge Base, which is a repository of technical support documents of all of the various changes, updates, and problems that may occur at any given time. You’ll find that many companies will simply defer their Microsoft-related questions to the Knowledge Base. Trying to get the result you need may take a bit of time, but just like an Internet search engine, if you phrase the question right then the Knowledge Base SHOULD come up with the right answer for you.

Check your anti-virus program! – What sort of anti-virus program do you have? Do you have a whole suite of security programs? Are they running? How do you know it’s running? You’ll usually see an icon over by the taskbar showing what is working in the background.
If you bought a computer from a retail store or from one of the major computer stores like Dell or Gateway, then they will probably throw in at least an anti-virus program, if not the whole suite of security tools. The same, however, cannot be said if you bought a second-hand computer or one from a local mom-and-pop computer store. So make sure you check to see if you have an anti-virus system installed, and if you do not, then you better make sure to get one and install it as soon as possible.

The latest version of Windows XP (Service Pack 2) has a new feature called the Security Center. This monitors things like firewalls anti-virus programs and makes sure you have the latest version, and if you don’t then it will let you know. This version of XP will also come with its own firewall program, which is turned on by default.

If your anti-virus program has a schedule feature, set up a time every week to have it automatically scan your computer. Set it for a time when you know that you probably won’t be using the computer too much, such as very late at night or very early in the morning. That way your computer will be checked regularly for viruses while not interfering with your day-to-day activities.

Get multiple anti-spyware programs! – Yes, some anti-virus programs will offer anti-spyware protection as well. But that is usually not enough. Spyware programmers are notorious for designing their programs to avoid detection by some of the most popular security programs, sometimes even disabling those services to open the door for more programs to be downloaded and installed without your knowledge or permission. So it’s always best to have a second or even a third opinion in this matter.

There are two FREE spyware-detection programs available online. Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware will check your computer for spyware and other potentially dangerous programs. Install them and set some time in the week to have them run. (Not at the same time, though. That would really slow things down.) Do so once a week if possible, and make sure that these programs are updated with the latest data before using them. Remember that Spyware programmers are always looking out for new ways to hack into your computer.

Check your pop-up blocking programs – Pop-up windows are those advertising windows that either pop up in front of or behind your browser window. Pop-ups are a nuisance to people because it shoves all sorts of advertising on their computers, wasting computer resources and also slowing down your online browsing to any given website. For instance, you could visit a news website, and it could take forever for the page to load. In most instances, it’s not a problem with the page itself. The actual page itself could load in half-a-second. It’s all of that advertising being downloaded to your computer that’s slowing it down.

Some online services will provide you with free pop-up blocking software that will work on MOST forms of pop-up and pop-under advertising. Users of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 have a built-in pop-up blocker with their Internet Explorer browser. Browser toolbars from America Online, Yahoo, Google, and Earthlink will also have pop-up blocking features included. Unfortunately these programs aren’t instant cure-alls, and while they will block most pop-up and pop-under windows, they will also block essential pop-up windows that are not used for advertising.

Keep in mind that this is an all-or-nothing setup. Blocking programs cannot tell the difference between a legitimate window and junk advertising, so it will block everything unless you tell it otherwise.

Holding down the CRTL key while surfing through a page or clicking on a hyperlink will usually temporarily suspend the pop-up blocker. If you’re looking for a more permanent solution, your blocking program may allow you to include certain websites as "acceptable" locations for pop-up windows. Check with the program’s "options" to see how this is done, since the method can vary from program to program.

Watch the CAPS LOCK! – It’s very easy for people who have very little typewriting or data entry experience to leave the CAPS LOCK button on. But in the online world, especially when it comes to instant messaging and chatrooms, leaving the CAPS LOCK button on is considered SCREAMING AND SHOUTING AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS!

It’s very annoying to the seasoned computer users and it makes you look like an idiot.

You don’t want to look like an idiot, do you? Of course not! So mind the caps lock.

Beware Friendly Attachments! – This one is a little hard for people to pick up, but this is how many of those viruses get spread around. You get an email, supposedly from a friend, or a family member, or a coworker or even just someone you know, and they have some sort of weird attachment with it. They claim it’s a new screen saver or some graphical display that you MUST check out. Only it’s NOT what they claim it to be. It’s a virus, and by the time you realize it, your computer is already under the control of hackers and Spammers.

Just like parents tell kids to never talk to strangers, you need to remember to never open up strange attachments, even if they supposedly come from people you know. At the very least, double-check with the sender themselves to make sure they really did send you that email. If they don’t know anything about it, then their computer may be infected with the virus itself. Be sure to delete the email in question, go offline, and run your anti-virus and anti-spyware programs IMMEDIATELY. Don’t go back online until you know for certain that your computer hasn’t been affected.

Also, if your email program has what is called a "Preview Pane", make sure this feature is turned off as soon as possible. The preview pane was a nice feature once upon a time, but then virus writers learned how to exploit it, allowing viruses and Spyware programs to be installed just when the message is previewed, without the actual message even being opened. So now this neat little feature has become a liability to users. (Note: Users of Microsoft’s Outlook and Outlook Express will find that the Preview Pane feature is turned on by default.)

Check your time zone – Double-click on the clock and check to make sure that it’s showing you in the right time zone. By default, Windows is set on Pacific Time. (Because Microsoft’s headquarters is on the West Coast, in case you’re curious.) If you’re not on Pacific Time, though, several clock settings for things like email will be screwed up. Make sure that Windows reflects the RIGHT time zone that you’re in. And if you’re in one of those areas that doesn’t recognize Daylight Savings Time, then make sure that the option box is NOT checked. (That feature is checked on by default.)

If your computer runs on Windows XP, connected to the Internet regularly, and you’re not on a company network, there’s a little feature that you way want to try out called "Internet Time". This allows your computer to coordinate its clock with one of several atomic clocks in the world to ensure precise time. You can set it up to check every day at a certain time, and you can even manually tell the computer to check it. (Note: if you’re connected to a network, you might find this option is either disabled or simply not available.)

Beware the pitfalls of multi-tasking! – Yes, you can have multiple programs and windows open, but bear in mind that each active program gobbles up computer resources, even if you’re not using it at the time. (And yes that includes that cute little screen saver you may have running when you’re not around.) Once the easily accessible resources (RAM) are used up, then the computer has to dip into some space on your hard drive, which isn’t as easy to play around with and slows things down considerably. So unless you’ve got plenty of RAM to spare, you may want to start closing down those applications that you’re not using.

Guard your personal information! – Identity thieves try all sorts of tricks to get you to give up your personal information. They look to steal things like your credit card numbers, bank account numbers, Social Security number, and even your home address and phone number. Their most notorious trick is to impersonate a bank or an online store and tell you that you need to correct some sort of error in their records. This scam is called "phishing". (Yes, that is how it is spelled, and not to be confused with the sport that involves a rod and reel.) Their deception will take you to a website that will even look like the real deal, but the only thing they are interested in is getting your information, and then exploiting you and bleeding you dry.

Banks and online services WILL NOT ask you for your personal information or passwords via email. If you have any suspicions about an online account, DO NOT follow the link given by email. Instead do a search yourself for the website and visit it. If everything is as it should be with your account, then the email is just another phishing trap, and you should delete it immediately.

Keep in mind your specifications – If you happened to get a brand-new, top-of-the-line computer, then you should be able to play most programs on the shelf today. But if you got one that’s been on the store shelf for a few months, or if you got a second-hand computer, then you really need to keep in mind what sort of setup you have. Most, if not all, programs have a list of specifications of what your computer SHOULD have at the very least in order for the program to run. Some will even have both a minimum and an optimal standard. If your computer is leaning closer towards that minimum standard, then you may still be able to run the program, but it will probably be quite slow or you’ll have limited functions.

The key things you need to know about your computer are the operating system, RAM, video memory, and not only your hard drive space, but also how much space you have left on your hard drive.

Power games demand MORE! – High-graphic computer games can be fun, but keep in mind that they are notorious for demanding the latest-greatest computer specifications. One well-known simulation game that came out a few years ago was so advanced for its time that it demanded that users have computers that weren’t even AVAILABLE yet.

Some game specifications will recommend a certain kind of video or audio card to get the "optimal result". Part of that is a subtle push to get you to either buy a computer with that hardware or to upgrade your current system with that hardware. Will the program still work if you don’t have that exact brand? Probably, but it may not look or sound as good as what you see on the box.

Oh, and if you’re still one of those who has dial-up Internet access, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of those online games. Most of those programs are designed for people with high-speed broadband access.

Many game designers will presume that ALL uses of their programs have the same kind of computers as they do. So if they have the latest, greatest, most recent computer system, then they believe that everyone else does too, even if that hardware still costs upwards of $3000. Call it the "Jones Principle", as in "Keeping up with the Joneses". (By the way, you’ll find that many web designers also operate under the "Jones Principle".)

Watch out for your kids! – We all hear about online predators who try to entice kids. But what doesn’t get reported is how much of this problem is the fault of parents who simply do not keep an eye on what their kids do online. Some parents will even make the critical mistake of letting their kids have an Internet-capable computer in their bedrooms. This is akin to having them play in the middle of a busy freeway.

As a parent, it is YOUR responsibility to make sure that your children are using the Internet properly. It’s not the responsibility of your online service or the various websites to watch out for your children. There are plenty of tools available for parents to help monitor computer use. Some of these may even be available through your online provider. But the best tool at your disposal is simply good parenting. You don’t have to be a software expert to figure out what your kids are doing online… just be a parent.

Read "Idiot" and "Dummies" books! – This isn’t to insult anyone’s intelligence, but rather to point out that there are books that are designed for those people who take pride in calling themselves "computer illiterate". You don’t have to default to your eight-year old neighbor to figure out where the power button is. There are plenty of books to help you out of that "technically-challenged" category, with the best ones being either "For Dummies" or being an "Idiot’s Guide". They’re very informative and they’re designed specifically for people with little or no technical experience, and they’re a whole lot cheaper than the computer courses at your local college or computer store.

Backup if possible – If your computer has a CD or DVD burner and you have something stored on your computer that you really want to keep, then it would be to your advantage to back it up to a disc. This includes things like any documents or family photos that you may store on your computer. If something were to happen to your computer, such as a virus attack or if your hard drive crashed, then you won’t have to worry about these things being forever lost.

And finally…

The computer is not smarter than you – That box full of silicon, copper, plastic, and electricity may be a wonderful device, and it can do a lot of things all by itself faster than a human being. But it is still not smarter that a normal human being. Keep that in mind before you start throwing your hands up in frustration, screaming and shouting about what that computer "won’t let you do".

Every program in your computer was written by a human being, and it only does what it is told to do. It can’t guess what you want it to do. It can’t even figure out what you MIGHT want it to do. It just works on whatever it is programmed to do along with whatever commands you give it, and that’s only if it understands the command you give. In that regard, even the most intelligent computers are still pretty dumb compared to the human brain.

And yes, that includes those of you who consider yourselves to be "technically-challenged".

David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in Georgia. He has been around computers in one form or another since the 1980’s.

This article may be distributed freely only so long as it is reprinted in its entirety, with all proper credit given to the author.

2005 – Get Brutal Productions

Saturday, January 01, 2005

About Spyware

What You Need To Know About Spyware
– by David Matthews 2

Of all of the things that annoy Internet users, the big three are Spam emails, viruses, and spyware. Of those three things, the most insidious is spyware.

You don’t have to be an expert to know when you’ve been infested with Spam emails. Most viruses can be contained with some common-sense applications and good software. But most people have absolutely no idea that their computers are infested with spyware. Some computer users will even have dozens, if not hundreds, of spyware programs running on their computer, and they would never even know it until something specifically happens to affect their use of that computer.

What is Spyware?

Spyware is essentially a program that is installed on your computer that gets information about you, the web sites you visit, the words that you search for online, and any other kind of data that can be used for information-collecting or advertising purposes.

"Spyware" goes by several names. The most common is "Adware", because the most common use of these programs is for advertising. "Spyware" is often used to describe those programs used to collect the information on your computer. But since "Spyware" has a negative connotation to it, some companies that use such programs are eager to sue anyone who dubs their software as such. (The more annoying of these companies have demanded that such programs be henceforth referred to as "Valueware".) The more malicious of such programs are referred to as "Malware". These are programs that basically operate like destructive viruses, causing havoc on infected computers. The best examples of "Malware" have to be the "mouse-trapping" websites, where programs would be used to disable your mouse or to prevent you from closing certain pop-up windows. Or if one window would close, five more would appear.

The whole purpose of Spyware is to collect information about you and your computer, and to shove advertising culled from that information in your face. Companies pay big bucks to get advertisers to shove their wares in front of your face, and they don’t care how it gets shoved in front of you.

For the most part, it comes in the form of pop-up advertising. You may have pop-up blocking software running, but for some reason you still get pop-ups. Sometimes you may get pop-up windows for no reason, even when you’re not connected to the Internet. When that happens, you know that Spyware is involved. Advertising may also appear at the bottom of certain function windows. For instance, you go to print a document, and when the print window appears, the window extends to ask you if you need to buy some more ink. Or if you try to save a document, the "Save As" window expands to ask if you want a new hard drive or need some more floppy disks. These are all visible examples of Spyware in action.

Sometimes Spyware will even overlay ads on top of other ads on a website. Or you may get ads from companies that compete against the website you visit. For instance you may visit the website of a certain brand name cola, and instantly you get a pop-up ad from the competing brand. That’s Spyware in action. No name-brand company would ever allow their website to display an ad to their competition.

Why is Spyware so notorious?

Three reasons. First, because Spyware is often installed without your knowledge. Most Spyware programs are bundled in the installation program of another file. For instance, you hear about this really neat screensaver program, so you download it from a website. It has a self-installing program, which you have to run in order for it to work on your computer. Bundled in with that program is the Spyware program, and it also gets installed without so much as an introduction, much less your permission.

However, if you ask the Spyware companies, they will tell you that YOU DID give your permission for any and all Spyware programs to be installed on your computer. Then they’ll point you to some obscure piece of legalese in the Terms of Service agreement for the screensaver program, which says in a roundabout way that if you agree to install the screensaver, then you also agree to have Spyware installed on your computer. Yes, it’s deceptive. Yes, it’s devious. Yes it’s unethical. Yes, the people behind this stuff should be flogged and keelhauled, but it’s also quite legal.

Sometimes, though, a Spyware program may be automatically installed just by VISITING a certain website. Well, you know, if the webmaster feels that he has a right to put data cookies in your computer, then he should also have a right to put in any other kind of program on your computer… especially if that program will generate money for him.

Some computers even have Spyware pre-installed! It’s on your computer even before you take it out of the box.

The second reason why Spyware is notorious is that it self-regenerates. It comes back to haunt you, even if you use the Add/Remove Programs feature in Windows or one supplied by the program itself. Not only are some Spyware programs scattered all over your computer and all over your Registry files, but if even one portion of the program is intact, it is instructed to go back to the website and download and reinstall the rest of the program. Next thing you know, the Spyware program is back like Freddy Kruger, ready to resume the nightmare. And it is hard to remove every aspect of Spyware by yourself. One such instruction to remove every line and every hint of a certain popular Spyware program is over forty pages in length! (And yes, you DO have to remove every single piece in order to be free of these things!)

The third reason is that Spyware isn’t just relegated to some obscure porn websites and file-sharing groups. These things show up on so-called "mainstream" websites, including those run by major corporations. The list of companies that have engaged in partnerships with those that develop and distribute Spyware programs reads like the who’s who in Fortune Magazine. These are major players with dibs on as many computers as they can get their cyber-mitts on.

Why is Spyware bad for your computer?

At best, Spyware is an annoyance. Pop-up windows showing up when you don’t want them to… extra windows being generated to push advertising when you don’t want them to… Pop-up windows automatically opening even when your computer is off-line can be embarrassing, especially when they’re for pornographic websites and it’s on a workplace computer.

At worst, Spyware invades your privacy. It collects sensitive information about you and your online habits. It can track your keystrokes, grab passwords, bank accounts, email addresses and anything else it wants to, without your permission, and sends this information to other people to use at their discretion, again without your permission.

Plus, Spyware can bog down your system, wasting system resources and online bandwidth grabbing needless advertising to shove in your face. And because most of it operates without your knowledge or permission, you don’t even realize why your top-of-the-line system is suddenly slowing down.

What can you do if you think you have Spyware on your computer?

First, mutter some well-needed colorful remarks at the advertisers and programmers who burden us needlessly with their trash. It won’t fix the problem, but it will vent some frustration.

Next, get some programs to scan your hard drive and completely remove the spyware. And I do mean "programs" in the PLURAL sense.

There are two FREE programs available that will do the job quite well. The first one is Ad-Aware, and it was developed by a company called LavaSoft. The other one is called Spybot Search & Destroy, and it was created by Patrick Kolla. Both of these programs will thoroughly search your hard drive for Spyware, tracking cookie files, and even vulnerabilities in your Windows registry. You can find both of these programs through any search engine by searching under the name of the program.

Now unlike anti-virus programs, you shouldn’t just pick one Spyware-hunting program or the other. In fact, it’s advisable to have both programs on your computer, because some Spyware programs are designed to evade any one of the most common Spyware-detecting programs. So to have two or more systems will increase the odds that you will find whatever elusive program is hiding in your computer. (Just don’t have the multiple programs running at the same time, because that will really bog your system down.)

Yes, there are a plethora of other programs out there that you can buy that will do just as good a job or better. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to make the investment. Obviously someone running a business will want to make sure they have ample protection in a way that some of these other programs will provide. But for the average home-user, Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy are the best way.

There are some companies that will also claim to scan your computer online and make the necessary fixes for a nominal fee. I’d be somewhat skeptical of those. It’s way too easy for some fly-by-night company to offer such a program, tell you there’s something wrong with your computer, and then pretend to fix it, and either do nothing, or worse yet scan your computer, copy your important information, and actually install Spyware.

Check with your Internet provider. Some providers offer free Spyware-detecting software in addition to virus protection and pop-up blocking software.

Speaking of virus protection, some of the major virus protection companies like McAfee have included Spyware-detection as part of their regular service. They properly recognize Spyware as being a threat to the computer.

But whatever group of programs that you use to check your system, make sure to use them regularly. Just like viruses, Spyware programs change and new ones are developed, so make sure that you get the latest updates for your detection programs. Ideally, you’ll want to set aside a block of time when you know that you aren’t going to use the computer and then run your detection programs.

Also, if you’re surfing the Internet and suddenly you see a "Terms of Service" window open, say NO to whatever it is immediately. That’s Spyware trying to get installed. Get yourself offline, start up those Spyware-hunters, and start scanning your hard drive.

If you do come across a website that tries to stick you with Spyware and you don’t want to part with the website itself, there is a way to block the Spyware from being installed while still visiting the website. You can add the website’s address to the "Restricted Sites" list in your Windows Explorer Internet Options, which will block all automatic downloads and ActiveX components on that site from running on your browser.

The other thing is that if you come across the program or website that you know is spreading Spyware, make sure you warn other people about it. If you found the program through a service like which offer user reviews, use that to warn people about the Spyware. Believe me, you’ll be doing other users a huge favor by getting the word out on these things.

Spyware: Not a good trade-off!

The companies that use and include Spyware in their programs claim that what they are doing is providing a convenience for computer users. They believe that allowing others to snoop into your computer so they can force-feed you advertising is a fair trade-off for providing free programs. Of course if they were so confident of that belief, then they wouldn’t be sneaking the Spyware programs into our computers. They’d tell us up-front that this is the condition for having their "free" programs on our computers. They wouldn’t hide this inside weasel legal language that most people won’t see, much less understand. But then again, it wouldn’t really be a "free" program, would it?

The important thing for people to understand is that they now have one more thing to look out for online besides viruses and email scams. And while the various bodies of government are weighing possible new laws and regulations to try to reign this stuff in, online users will just have to be wary of these things from now on, not even being able to completely trust mainstream websites. A near impossible but very necessary task to perform, from a medium that once prided itself on blind trust.


David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in the greater Atlanta area. He is a longtime computer user and has been involved with computers since the 1980’s.

This article can be distributed freely provided that it is unaltered and all proper credit is given to the author.

2005 – Get Brutal Productions

Welcome To Brutally Tech

Welcome to Brutally Tech: The Blog for tech-oriented articles by yours truly, David Matthews 2.

As a freelance writer, I normally write stories and commentaries, but as someone who has been around computers since the 1980's, I constantly find myself facing certain tech issues. And the more complex computers get, the more complex the issues.

Adding to that is the fact that this tech world is now the daily home to millions of people all around the world. Sure it's the programmers and the tech-heads that keep it going, but it's no longer just our domain anymore. It sucks, but you know, that's life.

Anyway, this Blog is dedicated to tech-oriented issues. I don't plan on doing daily updates like some other Blog pages do, but the stuff I do post will be important.

If you would like to know more about me, please check out my profile, or visit the wonderful wacky world of Brutally Honest. In the meantime, surf safely.

Quick Word About Use: Unless otherwise noted, the articles in this blog are the property of yours truly (David Matthews 2) and Get Brutal Productions. They are made available to you, the netizens of the world, in the hopes that you will be enlightened and informed. Feel free to send these articles to your friends and family members so that they too can be enlightened and informed.

There are only 2 conditions: that the article be used in its entirety, and that all proper credit be given to the author (that's me). Those are the only conditions to using these articles. That's pretty reasonable if you think about it.