Do Not Pass Go… without a good password

Information Level: Basic

Account theft, credit card fraud, not to mention full-blown identity theft, are becoming an ever more serious threat to everyone. Your first line of defense is the passwords you use online… are they up to the challenge?

If any of your passwords is a single word that can be found in the dictionary, the answer is NO. Such simple passwords can be “brute forced” with a dictionary attack easily – a criminal simply sets up a program to guess all the words in the dictionary, and will find the right one in minutes.

To make sure you have strong passwords, follow these rules:

  • All your passwords should be longer than six characters and include a mix of uppercase (ABCDE), lowercase (abcde), numbers (12345), and special characters (?!@#$%^&*).
  • Your password should never be a name, a slang word, or any word in the dictionary. It should never include part of your name or your email address.
  • When possible, use passphrases instead of passwords. Even if you’re limited on the number of characters you can use, turn a long phrase into a jumbled short one. “Soup and salad go together” can become “SaSg0T0g3th3r!”.
  • Use a DIFFERENT password for every single account you access, so that if the company you have the account with gets compromised, the criminals will not have the password you use for all your accounts.
  • Use STRONGER answers for “security questions” than the passwords you make – don’t make it easy for a criminal to simply reset your password by guessing the answer to an easy security question.

Now that you have good passwords, don’t write them down or allow your programs to save them! If you allow applications to save your passwords, anyone with physical access to your PC can use them and access your accounts. Even assuming that the people in your house, and those you allow into your house, are trustworthy enough not to ever steal your passwords, your computer/laptop is a prime target for burglary/theft.

Once you allow an application to “Remember Password,” it’s all over. Even if your Windows account is password protected. Once someone has physical access to your computer, they can easily circumvent the Windows login security and recover saved passwords from Outlook, Instant Messenger, Wi-Fi, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, or any number of other applications.

Since you shouldn’t let you applications remember all those passwords, and writing them on a sticky-note stuck to your monitor is a BAD idea, how do you keep track of them all?

There is a secure way to store all your passwords: use a “password manager,” a program that stores all your account passwords, but keeps them safe by encrypting them. There are several great password managers to choose from. The one I use and recommend is Keepass. It’s free and it works great. Use it to store you passwords, combined with a STRONG master password to protect the rest of your saved passwords, and now all you have to remember is one master password.

Another tool I use to store passwords is Firefox – it has a full password manager built right into the application. I know I said earlier that checking “save password” in an application is a very bad thing. Well, here is the exception. You can use use Firefox to save the passwords for all your web accounts – as long as you enable a Firefox Master Password by going to “Tools” –> “Options” –> “Security” and checking the box for “Use a master password.” Once you’ve done this, Firefox will safely store all of your online passwords, encrypted so only you can access them – just make sure you use a master password with more than 10 alpha-numeric characters.

Now, each time you start Firefox and go to a site that requires a saved password, you’ll be first prompted for your master password. By default, the master password authentication will be active for the entire session, so you won’t have to enter it again until you close and restart Firefox.

The most important thing after making sure you have your data safe (BACKUP!) is making sure no one else can get it. Using strong passwords goes a long way toward doing that, and using a password manager lets you do that without having to remember dozens of passwords.

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Backup Follow-up…

Information Level: Basic

Have you backed up your valuable digital data yet? One thing I am sure of: backup is easier than recovery. So, here are a few more tips on how you can properly back up your date.

  • The Minimum: You have a flash drive with a second copy of all the files you would weep and babble incoherently for if your computer suddenly exploded.
  • The Ideal: You have your essential files backed up on a flash drive, as well as a scheduled daily or weekly backup of all your personal data to an external hard drive/online backup service. Also, you have an image of your hard drive taken within the last year, which backs up your operating system and programs. If your hard drive dies in this situation, by restoring your image & backup data you can be working again within hours of having a new drive installed.

Aim for the ideal backup, don’t fall below the minimum. Even the lightest computer user of you would be irked if you lost all your favorites/bookmarks, so back them up.

The options:

Scheduled local backup – set up a regular automatic backup to your local external hard drive with either the built-in Windows Backup or a free backup utility. I recommend Cobian Backup, used with great success by a number of my clients.
Cost: $50-$150 for external hard drive. Time: 1/2 hour to set up backup, automatic after that.
Advantages: Set it up once, then don’t worry. No recurrent costs.
Disadvantages: Only backs up data – Operating system (Windows) and your programs (Word, Quicken, TurboTax, etc.) are not backed up, so keep your original disks handy and/or image your whole drive.

Scheduled online backup – if you have a decent internet connection, and don’t want to bother with an external hard drive, an internet backup service may be for you. Mozy and Carbonite are good options, and with Mozy, you can get 2 gigabytes of backup space free – plus an extra 512 megabyets with this link, or by using coupon code 2YBJY1 (click “Products,” then “Mozy home backup,” then “Learn more” under “2 GB of 100% free backup space” on the left). Use those 2.5 gigs to try out online backup, and if you are a light computer user, that might be all you need to backup your favorites and documents.
Cost: $0-$60 per year. Time: 1/2 hour to set up backup, automatic after that.
Advantages: Set it up once, then don’t worry. Your data is encrypted and accessible anywhere with an internet connection.
Disadvantages: Only backs up data – Operating system (Windows) and your programs (Word, Quicken, TurboTax, etc.) are not backed up, so keep your original disks handy and/or image your whole drive. Requires internet connection to backup.

Disk imaging
– Imaging is the ultimate form of backing up, copying *everything* on your hard drive to an external drive image file. If something goes wrong on your computer, restoring the image file returns the PC to the exact state it was in when you made the image. Acronis & Drive Image XML both do a great job. Acronis is commercial software, but with its step-by-step interface and scheduling options, it’s well worth the price. Drive Image XML is free for personal use, and can do almost everything Acronis can, plus the handy ability to image your operating system hard drive while you are using it (you don’t have to turn off your computer and boot to a CD to image your computer).
Cost: $50-$150 for external hard drive, $0-$50 for software. Time: 1/2-2 hours to image drive.
Advantages:  Everything is backed up when a drive is imaged – programs and data. No recurrent costs.
Disadvantages: Requires more space and time than data backup.

Whether you run a small business, or just use your computer for browsing the Web, be safe and backup your data. If you would like personal advice for your situation, as always, let me know.

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New years resolution #1: Backup your data!

Information Level: Basic

Happy New Year to all of you. Now, start the year off right, and make sure you have a backup of all your important data.

1. All of your irreplaceable digital photos, your mp3 music collection, your college papers and/or office documents, and your business/financial information, is stored on what is basically a glorified cassette tape! The hard drive is susceptible to magnetic, electronic, and physical damage… not to mention the motor may simply burn out.
2. Archiving is NOT the same as backing up. If you simply archive your data by moving it from your computer hard drive to an external storage medium, it is still only stored in ONE PLACE, and that one place may break in any of the aforementioned ways, or just get lost.

The Three Levels of Data Backup, plus one bonus:

For the casual computer user:
If you use your computer relatively lightly, mainly browsing online, word-processing, and some family photos, you can simply back up all of your data to a thumb drive. Thumb drives are small (thumb-sized), cheap (often less than $50), and are less likely to break because they have no moving parts, but they are more easily lost and have limited capacity.

I have a few of these SanDisk Cruzer Micros kicking around, and they have served me well. Most of your data is probably in your “My Documents” folder. Get a thumb drive, copy everything in “My Documents” to it, now you have a backup.

For the more frequent computer user/music lover/video collector:
If you use your computer more than a little, you may have a lot more data than will fit on a thumb drive. All of you with an extensive iPod music collection: this means you. You can follow the same procedure as with thumb drives, but with an external hard drive

For hard drives, I recommend Seagate – they can fail like any hard drive, but they’re well made, and have one of the best warranties around.

For the business computer:
For the business computer, data loss is not an option. Business computers can hold the most valuable data, while working harder than the average computer in less than ideal conditions… for such mission-critical systems, you should backup your data daily, as above, and “image” the entire drive regularly as well, so if disaster strikes, all your data as well as the operating system and your software can be restored in a couple of hours. Either an internal or external hard drive will do the trick.
Hard Disk Light Effects
Hard Disk Light Effects‘ by Matt and Kim Rudge via Flickr

Contact if you would like further assistance/advice on a backup solution for your data. We’re here to help!

Bonus solution – Internet backup for your part of the internet:

What happens if Facebook crashes? Or Twitter? Or Gmail? Do you have a copy of all your images/status updates/emails? Probably not. That’s what Backupify has stepped into the breach to do. Backupify is an online service that will automatically backup all your online accounts, and let you browse & download the backups. Backupify is a new service. I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks, and it looks pretty good. The best part is that if you sign up before the end of this month, it’s free! If you have invested time and energy into your online life via Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, etc., check them out.

Please, start the new year right. BACKUP your data. Data recovery is very expensive, and never a sure thing.

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New Site up, new firewall recomendation, and Word errors fixed…

Information Level: Basic/Intermediate

In The Short List I recommended Sunbelt Personal Firewall (free version) as my firewall of choice. I have since discovered two problems with it: 1. It presents a nag screen every once in a while, asking you to upgrade to the paid version, and 2. It does not work with Windows Vista (don’t know about 7). PC Tools Firewall Plus has neither of these drawbacks, and is still effective and light on system resources.

If you only use your computer at home, behind a broadband router that has a built-in firewall, the Windows firewall is good enough for you. However, if you use your computer at public/campus Wi-Fi hotspots or the like, you should install PC Tools Firewall Plus, or another third-party software firewall that monitors traffic both ways.

I do not recommend ZoneAlarm, Norton, or McAfee – All can be major resource hogs, and while they are all pretty good at protecting your computer, making your computer less useful kinda defeats the purpose.

Do you get an error message when you start up Microsoft Word? Most weird Word errors are caused by a corrupted template file called “” It loads when word starts, and if something is wrong with it… you get an error. Fortunately, if you simply delete this file Word will create a new and un-corrupted one. For versions of Word through 2003 it is located in:
C:\Documents and Settings\ (Your Username) \Application Data\Microsoft\Templates
Navigate to this folder with hidden files visible and delete “” then restart Word…
Or simply download and run wordfix-normal.bat.

Finally, if you are reading this through a syndicated feed, you may not have seen lately. Have a look, it has gotten a major face lift, and I’d love to hear what you think.

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The Short List – Must-have Software for Windows…

Information Level: Basic

All good, all free. Everyone running Windows should try out this software. Period.

Keep Secure:

Stay Tuned up:

  • Advanced SystemCare Free – Best allround tune up (be sure to un-check “start with windows” in the options after you install it).
  • Revo Uninstaller – For completely removing software you don’t want.
  • Defraggler – Defragment your hard drive every month, and use this.

Now get stuff done:

  • Firefox – Faster and more secure web browser than Internet Explorer
  • Thunderbird – Faster and more secure email client than Outlook/Outlook Express
  • – A full office suite for starving students and frugal businesses alike
  • Paint.NET – Great image editor, for all your picture-cropping-and-red-eye-removing needs.
  • Google Earth – See Earth from above (not to mention the Moon and Mars)!
  • VLC media player – Not flashy, but it can play almost anything… even corrupted or incomplete media files.
  • Sumatra PDF or Foxit Reader – Both are way faster and, again, more secure than the standard Adobe Reader.
  • CDBurnerXP – Great free CD and DVD burner.
  • 7-Zip – Open pretty much any compressed file you come across online.

There is, of course, lot more great free software out there, but I would call this a good baseline selection.

What must-have free software do you use?

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AntiVirus – Now you (and I) really have no excuse…

Information Level: Basic

Well, I am impressed. The latest entry in to the realm of free (as in beer) antivirus software, Panda Cloud Antivirus, is closer to the Platonic Ideal of AV-ness than any I have seen before. Here’s why:

1. It works – PC World said in August that it was “the best app at blocking known malware,” and I can confirm it fulfills this essential function well.
2. It does not bog-down your PC in the process of doing it’s job. This is my main problem with antivirus software… and why as often as not I have had the bad habit of not running AV on my personal computer (I know, shame on me). But Cloud Antivirus has a diminutive >16mb ram footprint. Even I can live with that.
3. How it manages to do both 1 and 2 is darn clever. In a nutshell, all the serious antivirus processing and updating is done on Panda’s servers, they stream the latest signatures hashes to your client in real-time while collecting information on the latest threats from clients all over the world. Distributed intellegence comes to antivirus.
4. Oh, and it has a very simple and easy to use user interface. You won’t be able to accidentally disable your internet connection with it.

It WORKS, your PC still WORKS, it’s EASY to use, and it’s FREE. This makes Cloud Antivirus my new provisional favorite AV software, and the one I’ll be installing & recommending to my clients.

So, what are you waiting for… Go get it!


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