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Data Doctors Advice Columns



Computer Advice and Answers to Reader Questions



 



I'm ready to upgrade my iPhone, but I can't decide which way to go. Any tips?

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) There has never been a better time to be in the market for an iPhone as the current selection includes 8 different models - the entry level iPhone SE, 6s, 6s Plus, 7, 7 Plus, 8, 8 Plus and their top line X - that range in price from $349 - $1149.

Start with Screen Size

If you haven’t already done so, make sure you hold each of the phones in your hand and slide it into your pocket or pocketbook to determine the best fit from a form factor standpoint.


Budget minded consumers that don’t care about larger screens, can opt for the 4” SE - the size of the original - for the new reduced pricing of $349 - $449 depending upon your storage needs (32GB – 128Gb).

If you want a slightly larger screen (4.7”), then your choices are between the iPhone 6s, 7 and 8.

If you want a phone with the largest screen size, then your choices are between the 6s Plus, 7 Plus, 8 Plus and X.

Cameras

iPhones have long been heralded for their camera technology, and unless you’re really into photography or super hi-res video, every model has a 12MP camera that can shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second (fps).


If you’re a big selfie or Facetime fan, you’ll want to stick to the iPhone 6 or better as the front facing camera on the SE isn’t great.

Water and Dust Ratings

If you spend a lot of time outdoors, especially near water and you want something that can take a bit more abuse, you’ll want to go for an iPhone 7 or higher as they all have superior water and dust resistance ratings.

Despite the ratings for having your phone in 1 to 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes, you really shouldn’t plan on swimming with them.  Exposing your expensive phone to salt and chlorine water isn’t something I’d recommend without something like a LifeProof case (http://lifeproof.com).

Newest Features

If things like wireless charging, fast-charging, 60 fps 4K Video and the most powerful processors available are important to you, then you’ll probably be able to justify buying the iPhone 8, 8 Plus or X.

Apple’s comparison site is an easy way to compare up to 3 different models at a time to help you weed through the specs: https://goo.gl/JeJJ7V.

Purchasing Options

There are a plethora of options for buying new, used or refurbished iPhones, starting with Apple itself.

Apple offers an annual iPhone Upgrade Program, which is best for those that have to have the latest model every year: https://goo.gl/vknWpT, look into their trade-in program for your older iPhones: https://goo.gl/W2nEQ3 or shop for deals in Apple’s refurbished inventory: https://goo.gl/M1CSFg.

If your current phone is tied to a specific cellular provider, check to see what their current promotions are based on your eligibility.

If you don’t mind a used iPhone, besides your cellular provider, there are a number of reputable resources that I’ve used to pay cash for a used phone including Glyde (https://glyde.com), Swappa (https://swappa.com) and Gazelle (https://gazelle.com).




Is it true that if I enroll in the free Equifax protection program that I can't be part of a class action lawsuit?

Fri, 8 Sep 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) In what may be one of the most damaging data breaches to date, Equifax - one of the big three credit bureaus, announced that 143 million US based consumers may be affected by a data breach that occurred between May and July of this year.

What makes this breach so damaging is that the most sensitive personal information including Social Security numbers, birth dates and home addresses was part of the breach.

Equifax TrustID Premier Enrollment

In an effort to provide some level of protection to impacted consumers, Equifax has launched a special website (https://equifaxsecurity2017.com) to explain what has happened and to offer their ID theft and credit monitoring service for free to anyone that wants it.

Many have pointed out the irony of going to the very organization that couldn’t keep its data secure to protect you from further damage.

These types of ‘free’ services typically only last for a year, which doesn’t really do you any good in the long run since you can’t change your social security number very easily.

The ‘Terms of Use’ for TrustID Premier has a pretty common arbitration clause that includes:… A WAIVER OF THE ABILITY TO BRING OR PARTICIPATE IN A CLASS ACTION, CLASS ARBITRATION, OR OTHER REPRESENTATIVE ACTION.  (You can read the entire statement at https://goo.gl/1ZtvgD.)

UPDATE: Equifax has updated their FAQ on this question with the following: The arbitration clause and class action wavier included in the TrustedID Premier Terms of Use applies to the free credit file monitoring and identity theft protection products, and not the cybersecurity incident.

Enrollment for the free one year subsciption ends on November 21, 2017

‘Pretexting’ Concerns

One of the most disconcerting aspects of this breach is that the sensitive information that was stolen is extremely useful for a form of ‘pretexting’ that could have nothing to do with your credit file.

Pretexting refers to the act of pretending to be someone in order to gain access to private or sensitive information.

In this case, your information could allow a perpetrator to pretend that they are you to convince your bank, utility, cellular provider even the IRS to change something like an email address or physical address because the typical information required to prove your identity is in the hands of the bad guys.

Tax Filing Concerns

Another big area of concern will be for the tax-filing season next year. The filing fraudulent tax returns has become a billion dollar problem and this breach just made it easy for this problem to grow.

Make a note in your calendar to file your tax return as quickly as you can next year to avoid the mess that’s created if a fraudulent return is filed before you file your real tax return.

Children’s Credit Files

ID thieves covet the Social Security number of children because it’s a lot less likely that anyone is monitoring the credit of a young child.  Whatever you decide to use to monitor your own credit files, don’t forget your children as well.

Credit Freeze

One of the best ways to lock down your credit file is to put a freeze on it with all 3 credit bureaus: https://goo.gl/kfKWw2




Where do I turn off the constant location tracking in my smartphone?

Thu, 31 Aug 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Our smartphones have become a virtual human ‘electronic tag’ that instead of being installed under our skin, is in our pockets and purses.

Precise locations, dates, times, durations and what we did before and after opening an app or website are just the beginning of what’s being tracked.

The very design of the device allows this to happen whether we want it to happen or not.  Your cellular provider, for example, always knows where you’re at on their network, because your phone is checking for the strongest cell tower roughly every 7 seconds.

Turning off all of the location tracking systems on your smartphone would essentially render it useless, but you can somewhat control what gets shared or stored.

Personalized Services

Both Google and Apple will espouse their ability to provide their users with ‘personalized services’ by allowing your smartphone to constantly track your location.

For example, it can detect that it’s the time of day you usually leave for work and automatically estimated your commute time and best route based on the current traffic conditions.

Apple’s frequent location data is only stored on the iPhone, while Google stores your location history both on your Android handset and in your Google account.

For the most part, someone would either have to gain access to your smartphone or your Google account to see your detailed location history.

Keeping Location Data in Perspective

Frankly, if someone does gain access to your smartphone or Google account, your location history should be the least of your worries.  Your email account and its contents are far more valuable to a cyber-criminal than your location data.

If your concern is that your spouse will be able to see your every move, then that’s a completely different situation that may be dictated by your relationship.

Whatever your reasons are for not wanting your location data tracked and stored, it’s pretty easy to turn it off.

iPhone Frequent Locations Setting

Most iPhone users are likely familiar with the ‘Location Services’ options in the Settings menu (Settings/Privacy/Location Services) that allows you to individually control which apps have access to Location Services.

If you scroll down to the bottom of the listing of your apps, you should see an option for ‘System Services’. Tap it and look at the bottom of the next screen of options to tap on ‘Frequent Locations’.

You should now see a toggle to turn on or off ‘Frequent Locations’ and the current ‘History’ that’s stored on your phone with an option to Clear History if want to wipe the data.

Google Location History Setting

Android users will need to adjust setting in two different areas: on your smartphone and in your Google account.

Android devices have slightly different Settings menus depending upon your device, so look for (or search for) ‘Google Location History’, which is usually under a Privacy or Location submenu.

When you toggle the switch to off, it simply stops storing your locations but does not delete your history.

For complete instructions to manage or delete your Location History, go here: https://goo.gl/gKuAs3.




Is a paid Password Manager necessarily better or safer than a free one?

Thu, 24 Aug 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Passwords are a daily source of frustration for all of us, because so much of our lives are tied up in the online world.

As everyone should know by now, using weak passwords especially the same weak password on all your accounts is a really bad idea.  Password managers solve both of those common problems for you.

How Do They Work?

All password managers work in the same general way; they provide you with a secure ‘locker’ that contains all your passwords that is protected by one master password.  These lockers incorporate very high levels of encryption, so even if someone were to gain access to it, it would take an extraordinary effort to crack the locker.

They also provide a way to generate a different long complex password for each of your online accounts, so you don’t have to come up with all of them yourself.

Where The Locker Lives

The location of the ‘locker’ determines both security and convenience, so understanding the difference will help you understand which approach makes the most sense for you.

From a security standpoint, if the encrypted locker lives on your own machine, you’ll never have to worry about whether a third-party service company ever gets hacked.

One of the more popular free tools that stores your password database locally is KeePass (http://keepass.info).  The downside to this open-source tool is that it requires a lot more manual configuration and could become confusing for non-technical users.

Another minor inconvenience is that if you want to use KeePass on a computer that you don’t own, you’ll either have to sync your database to an online storage service or store it on a flash drive that you have to carry around.

Security fanatics like this approach because they get to control all of the aspects of the security.

A popular free option that stores your encrypted locker online is LastPass (http://lastpass.com).  The advantage of storing the encrypted file on their servers is that you aren’t beholden to a single computer or required to carry a separate device around for authentication.

You simply install it on all your devices – desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet which are synced up – or login through their website if you’re on a device you don’t own.

On its face, storing all your passwords on the Internet may seem scary, but the reality is that these companies are going to be much better at securing the locker then most users.

Even if the company gets breached, the stolen information would have to be decrypted which would take a bit of time.  A  simple reset of your master password and saved passwords would render the stolen information useless.

If your personal computer gets breached, you may never know it happened.

Free vs Paid

The competition in the password manager world is pretty fierce, so many of the more popular options have gone to a ‘freemium’ model.  This means that they provide a basic level of service for free and offer premium features that vary for each program for a fee.  The security level is exactly the same, so you’ll be paying for the extra features only if you want them.




Trying to decide which smart thermostat to install in my home.

Thu, 17 Aug 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Programmable thermostats have been around for a long time and provided you take the time to actually program them, they can save you money.

‘Smart’ thermostats take energy saving to another level because they don’t solely rely on your initial programming.

The main ways that they can save you money is by detecting when no one is home and automatically adjusting the temperature to your lower energy ‘away’ setting and by allowing you to remotely control them.

Heating or cooling your home when no one is home will add up over a year’s time, which is why a lot of these smart devices can pay for themselves over time.

Nest – The Learning Thermostat

Nest was the first real advance in smart thermostats because of its sleek design, simple interface and it’s unique approach to the programming portion of the setup.

Instead of sitting down to guess what temperature to set for each day and day-part, the Nest system simply has you adjust the temperature the way you would an old-school thermostat and automatically builds a schedule for you.

Nest also has a built-in motion sensor that helps it determine when no one is home, so it can automatically change the thermostat to a pre-designated ‘away’ temperature.

This is a huge benefit to anyone that has an irregular schedule but it also helps Nest ‘learn’ your patterns for better scheduling.

Nest was acquired by Google a couple of years ago and has become their platform for the smart home.

If you have or want to include Nest security cameras, smoke/CO detectors, smart lights, doorbells and control everything with voice commands via the Google Home smart speaker, you can see all the offerings at https://store.nest.com.

EcoBee – With Remote Sensors

The EcoBee thermostats (https://ecobee.com) don’t have the ‘learning’ ability of the Nest, but they do have the same motion sensing capabilities.


For those that have larger homes, having a single motion sensor like the Nest offers may not be the best way to monitor movement.

EcoBee offers various models that include remote sensors that can be placed in the rooms that you use the most.  This is helpful for those that might work for long periods of time in a home office, for example. 

The recently launched EcoBee4 system also has a built-in microphone and native support for Amazon’s voice-technology, so it extends your ‘Alexa’ voice command range in the house.

Honeywell – Value Options

Honeywell has a long track record in the thermostat business, but they lack some of the ‘smart’ sophistication of the other two.

If you’re looking for lower cost options with remote controls and programmability, there are many options to choose from at: https://goo.gl/5hjNa4


Installation and Compatibility

Installation can range from simple to a complete nightmare depending upon the age of your HVAC system and your technical skills, so proceed accordingly.

If you plan on expanding your smart home to other devices, make sure you review the compatibility of the thermostat with the smart platforms you are interest in using. 




I mistyped a web address while following setup instructions for my printer and ended up at a scam support site. How can these guys get away with this?

Thu, 10 Aug 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) One of the oldest tricks on the Internet is something called ‘typosquatting’ or the registration of misspelled websites.

Since so many users manually type in web addresses every day, all it takes is one character to be off for this scam to be effective. Instead of going to your intended location, you’ll end up at a potentially harmful site that may look close or even identical to the site you were seeking.

Is It Legal?

Typosquatters aren’t always using the misspelled sites for malicious activities and unless a trademarked name is part of the address, there’s no laws being broken.

Registering commonly misspelled websites and redirecting the errant traffic to a legitimate website is perfectly legal and a common practice, especially by a competitor of a large brand.

The more popular a website is like Facebook or Google, the more likely there will be many misspelled versions of it registered to try to take advantage of sloppy spelling errors.


Typically, sites that engage in malicious activities can be brought down by the company that’s hosting the site, but it’s so easy to switch to another host, create their own webservers or switch to another misspelled address in this ongoing game of ‘whack-a-mole’.

Dangerous Misspellings

Anyone that’s ever been in a hurry when typing in a web address has accidently missed a letter like the ‘c’ in ‘.com’ or typed c before the ‘.’ in their haste.  The resulting web address ends with .om which is the country code for Oman. Hundreds of well-known names have been targeted by .om typosquatters.

Another well documented domain that has popped up as a variety of scams over the years is ‘goggle.com’ prior to Google’s long battle to finally acquire the domain.

This highlights one of the problems with regulating website registrations. Clearly ‘goggle.com’ benefited from the misspelling of ‘google.com’ but because it’s a generic word, it didn’t violate any of Google’s trademarks resulting in the long process of acquiring control of it.

Protecting Yourself

The obvious tip is to slow down and make sure you’re spelling things correctly. If it’s a site you’ll be visiting frequently, create a bookmark or shortcut to it for future visits.

If you aren’t sure about the spelling of a website, type the web address in without .com so that it turns into a Google search.  Google’s autocorrect, page ranking algorithm or ‘did you mean’ engine will kick in to most likely point you to the legitimate resource.

As far as legitimate support from a specific company goes, try typing the company’s web address followed by /support (ex: hp.com/support) as this is a pretty standard method used by tech companies.

The best way for companies to protect themselves against typosquatting is to register the misspelled versions themselves and redirect the traffic to the proper address.  Facebook, for instance, registered commonly misspelled versions of their site like facebok.com and facbook.com which redirects users to Facebook.com.  




Is it true that the Amazon Echo records everything I'm saying to it and that someone has figured out how to hack it?

Thu, 3 Aug 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image)

The popularity of ‘smart speakers’ that are voice controlled has grown to over 35 million users and Amazon’s Echo is far and away the most popular.

The small cylinder with a seven-microphone array is powered by the Alexa intelligent personal assistant so users can interact with it via voice commands to control a wide variety of services ranging from music to smart home devices.

Is My Echo Storing My Voice Commands?

Just about any device that you use via voice commands (Echo, Siri, Google Asisstant, etc.) may retain your interactions as a way of identifying you and improving its comprehension of your commands.

Both the device and a remote web server will likely have your recorded commands as a means of personalizing your interactions.

Humans communicate in all types of accents, clarity and tone, so the audio data that is collected is useful in improving the accuracy of the ongoing interactions.

What is Actually Being Stored?

Most voice-controlled systems are pretty much always listening to you waiting for you to say the ‘magic word’ but not recording anything.


Once you use the wake word such as ‘Alexa’ (which can be changed to Amazon, Echo or Computer in the Alexa app) the Echo knows that you’re giving it a command and it stores every command that you’ve ever given it by default.


The stored recordings actually include a brief moment just before the wake word, so this means that it’s possible that your recorded command includes small bits of a conversation preceding your use of the wake word.

How Can I Hear What’s Been Recorded?

Amazon makes it pretty easy to hear and manage what the Echo has recorded through their Alexa app (https://goo.gl/7jASW9).

Just tap into the ‘Settings’ menu and scroll down to the ‘History’ option to see everything in reverse chronological order – the most recent commands will be at the top.

When you tap on any entry in the History, you will be able to see the date and time of the command along with a play button if you want to hear it.  If you want to delete the recording, simply tap the ‘Delete Voice Recordings’ bar and it’s gone.

Every command also has the question: ‘Did Alexa do what you wanted?’ which when you respond, will help the system get better at recognizing your way of speaking.


Hacking the Echo

A recent report by a British security researcher detailed a method of modifying older versions of the Echo by physically interacting with it.


This ‘proof of concept’ hack required that they be in physical possession of the device so they could disassemble it, solder in a connector and insert code via an SD card and this only worked on pre-2017 models.

These requirements eliminate the possibility of a random remote Internet hacker turning your Echo into a snooping device, but it does underscore that buying a used pre-2017 Echo from a stranger isn’t such a good idea.




What should I do to keep my Roomba from sharing any information?

Thu, 27 Jul 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) A recent New York Times article (https://goo.gl/Dtk69g) reported that iRobot, maker of the popular Roomba line of automated vacuum cleaners, was considering the sharing of user floorplan data to third parties such as Amazon, Apple and Google.

This speculation arose from a Reuters interview about the future of the smart home with iRobot’s CEO, Colin Angle (https://goo.gl/kZo35v) that appears to have been misconstrued.

Which Roomba Models Send Data?

iRobot has been offering robotic vacuum cleaners since 2002, so unless you have a relatively new model that has a built-in Wi-Fi connection, there’s no way for it to share any information with others.

The primary models being discussed in the NYT article are the 960 and 980 models which have iRobot’s latest mapping technology.

Even if you do have a model with built-in Wi-Fi, such as the 690 or 890, it doesn’t have the ability to create a floorplan of your home like the 900 series.

What Data Is Being Sent?

All Roomba models that can talk to the iRobot Home app have the ability to show users data on how the device performed.

Usage data such as how long it cleaned, how far did it went, if it encountered any error codes and if it functioned correctly gets sent to their Cloud server so it can be processed and shown on the mobile app.

900 series devices also have a low-resolution black and white camera that helps it better navigate your home and create maps, but the camera has no connection to the Internet and images captured by it are not sent to the Cloud according to iRobot’s Privacy and Data Sharing policy (https://goo.gl/669gBx).

Their privacy policy goes on to say “No data is sold to third-parties. No data will be shared with third-parties without the informed consent of our customers. iRobot's privacy policy allows customers to share data with third parties for the customer's benefit, if they provide consent. For example, customers can currently choose to share limited data to enable voice control of the robot using Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. Customers would have to knowingly consent to sharing this data with Amazon or Google, and the data shared would be limited to only the data required to enable the voice control service.”

What You Can Do

If you’re concerned about data collected by your Roomba, there are simple steps that can be taken to manage your privacy.

If you don’t care about using their app, you can reset the device which will clear out the Wi-Fi connection along with any stored data. If you never setup a Wi-Fi connection on your Roomba, nothing was ever shared.

If you do want to use the iRobot Home app, but don’t want cleaning reports processed by their cloud server, you can turn it off by going to the Settings menu and toggling the ‘Clean Map Report’ option.

If you want data that’s been shared in the past removed from iRobot’s Cloud servers, you can contact their customer service department (https://goo.gl/znQmKb) to make the removal request.




Do I need to do anything to my laser/copier/fax printer before I get rid of it?

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Most of us are very aware of the dangers of disposing of our computers, smartphones and tablets without first wiping it clean of our personal information, pictures and files but not so much with our printers.

Depending upon the type of printer you have, you may very well have to take steps to ensure that your private information isn’t still being stored in the device’s internal memory.

What’s At Risk?

It may not be that obvious, but your printer/fax/scanner can potentially be storing some of the most sensitive information that you have ever printed, scanned, faxed or copied.  Everything from tax returns to medical forms to insurance documents have likely passed through your printer over its life.

More sophisticated network printers that can e-mail documents directly can also be storing sensitive e-mail server configuration and passwords that you’ll want to wipe out.

Consumer Printers

Most consumer grade printers have very little storage memory and it’s generally considered ‘volatile memory’ which means that when the power is turned off, whatever it was storing is gone.

If your printer has no fax or copier functions, it most likely won’t have any type of persistent memory storage that needs to be reset, but just to be sure, check your printer’s ‘Settings’ menu for any options that allow you to reset the device to the factory defaults.


If you ever get a message during the reset process warning you that all your data will be lost, you’ll know that it was storing personal information.

If your device has memory card slots for things like camera cards, don’t forget to check to see if you’ve left any old cards in there.

Networked Multifunction Printers

While most consumers aren’t likely to have printers with internal storage, virtually every business grade copier/printer/fax device is highly likely to be storing a large amount of sensitive information on a persistent storage device.

If your company printer has the ability to receive faxes and route them via e-mail to the proper recipient, it first has to store the incoming faxes in some form of internal memory.

If your device can store addresses for sending scanned documents, you should assume that it can store more than just addresses.

Private printing, which refers to the ability for a printer to hold a print job until you are physically in front of the printer and type in a code, certainly points to an internal storage device.

The ability to re-order print jobs that are in the queue is another indication of internal memory capabilities.


Protection Suggestions

Most of today’s printers that include large internal storage devices also include secure wipe options in their settings.

If you can’t find the reset instructions for your printer, a simple Internet search that includes your exact make and model with the word reset after it should yield the directions.

If you can’t find any info from a general search, try checking at http://resetprinters.com and if you can’t find anything there, you probably have nothing to worry about.




What can I do to be safe when using public Wi-Fi?

Thu, 13 Jul 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) The convenience of public Wi-Fi networks has become somewhat of an expectation when we’re away from our primary home and work connections, but it’s important to understand the risks.

Anytime you share a connection with strangers, whether it’s at an airport, on an airplane, in a coffee shop or at a hotel, anyone else on the network can use a variety of tools to capture the traffic floating through the network.

Rented Space

Think of public Wi-Fi as a rented space, like a hotel room - where you have no idea who else has access to your stuff.

Leaving valuable items in your hotel room while you’re out has inherent risks, even though in most cases nothing bad will happen. Using public Wi-Fi also has inherent risks which are greater because of the ease in which compromises can occur.

Any activity that requires you to type in a username and/or password is best avoided on any public Wi-Fi connection.

Man-In-The Middle Scams

While sharing a connection with strangers is a very real threat, a bigger threat is getting fooled into connecting to a rogue connection posing as a legit one.

The off-the-shelf technology available to quickly setup a fake Wi-Fi connection runs less than $100 and fits in your shirt pocket.

Originally developed as an audit tool for IT administrators, these devices have been repurposed by cyber-thieves to setup the hard to detect Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) scams.

They connect to legitimate Wi-Fi connections and then mimic them or they’re setup as an alternative ‘free’ connection in areas where users are generally required to pay.

Thieves know that everyone wants to connect to free Wi-Fi, so they will often call their connections ‘free Wi-Fi’ in airports or in congested urban areas.

VPNs and Private Hotspots

If you’re a regular user of public Wi-Fi, you should consider installing a tool known as a VPN (Virtual Private Network - https://goo.gl/FBGEGc) which will essentially make your data invisible while you’re connected.

The very best way to stay safe in public places is to use your own cellular connection by turning your smartphone into a hotspot (be sure you turn off the Wi-Fi first!)

By tethering to your smartphone, you will be the only one on the connection, therefore bypassing the ‘stranger danger’.


Private Hotspot Issues

Two things to keep in mind if you are going to use your smartphone as your hotspot: battery life and your data plan.

I always find a power outlet whenever I turn on my smartphone’s hotspot because it’s a battery killer.

If you’re on a limited data plan, sharing your phone’s connection with your laptop or tablet can eat up your data in a hurry.

Another option, especially frequent travelers with multiple devices, is to use a separate personal hotspot such as Verizon’s MiFi (https://goo.gl/FpU65P) or Karma’s pay as you go option (https://goo.gl/xo6ZoL).

Both will have exponentially longer battery life as hotspots, so you won’t have to find a power outlet and they won’t eat into your smartphone’s data plan.