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Data Doctors Advice Columns

Computer Advice and Answers to Reader Questions


I'm interested in adding smart devices to my home but have heard horror stories about security. What should I know before I get started?

Wed, 22 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Smart or connected devices such as doorbell cameras, thermostats and home security webcams are growing in popularity, with estimates that over 24 billion internet-connected devices will be installed by 2020.

If you plan on installing these devices in your home or business, understanding the security issues is pretty important.

IoT - The Internet of Things

Often referred to as the ‘Internet of Things’, these everyday items generally incorporate Internet connections to allow for remote access, monitoring and control.

Getting alerts on your smartphone whenever a webcam detects motion or when someone rings your doorbell as well as having finite control over your thermostat and lighting from just about anywhere has tremendous appeal.

As someone who loves to travel, I personally love the added benefits as they provide pinpoint control as long as you have an Internet connection.

Access is Access

The thing to keep in mind is that if you can access your devices from outside your home, technically, so can anyone else.

The Internet is one huge global network of devices all connected to each other, so you can be next door or on the other side of the ocean and have the same access.

The primary thing keeping unauthorized users from accessing anything you install on your network is whatever security has been setup by that device.

The Default Password Problem

Usernames and passwords are the primary line of defense you have against unauthorized access and making sure they are secure is always your first task.

There have been lots of stories over the years, especially when it comes to web cameras, showing how many of them are completely open to the world because the user didn’t change the default username and/or password.

If you've already installed smart devices on your network and want to see if they are publicly accessible via websites like Shodan, checkout BullGuard's IoT Scanner:

Using any Internet connected device with the default administrative password will make you a sitting duck as every default password for just about every device ever made is readily available online at sites like:

Don’t Be Afraid

Lots of Internet security experts have written about the ‘security as an afterthought’ approach that the industry has taken, and rightly so.

Security should never be taken lightly by anyone using anything connected to the Internet, but it can also be overhyped or agenda driven.

No different then driving a car that could potentially kill you every day, empowering yourself with knowledge is the key.

If You Don’t Understand It, Get Help

Nothing is 100% ‘hacker-proof’, especially if a malicious party is motivated, but unless you’re a celebrity or a politician, you’re much more likely to become a victim from a ‘random act of hacking’.

This means you made it really easy for an outsider to take advantage of you because you skipped simple security measures like updates and patches that can appear too complex for non-technical users.

For the average user, the convenience benefits far outweigh the risks when it comes to most IoT devices, so don’t let the ‘horror stories’ keep you from educating yourself and using them.

What are the pros and cons of using ad blockers in my browser?

Wed, 15 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Ads on the Internet are a fact of life that frankly speaking, help pay for many of the ‘free’ services that we all enjoy.

Having said that, the way that ads are delivered via third party networks often causes slow loading of pages or makes it difficult to find the actual information that we seek.

Mobile users on a limited data plan can reduce the amount of data they use by eliminating the bandwidth required for loading ads.

Throw in the potential for ‘malvertising’, which are legitimate ad networks that have been infiltrated by malware-laden ads and you have plenty of reasons for wanting to limit ads while you surf the web.

How Ad Blockers Work

Ad blockers employ similar filtering techniques to anti-virus programs for identifying scripts which are then compared to a list of known sites and scripts that are blocked based on the programs pre-set parameters.

They can also simply hide certain HTML elements of the page from your view even if your browser loads them.

It’s far from a perfect technology, but by and large, they do a pretty good job.

Ad blockers are not limited to your desktop or laptop computer; you can also use them on just about any of your mobile devices.

The Downside of Ad Blockers

While the reasons for using an ad blocker may be many, there are some side effects you should be aware of.

The most obvious side-effect will be on pages that rely on scripts that when blocked can totally ‘break’ the page and dramatically change what you actually see.

For hardcore privacy advocates, there may be data privacy risks as some of the free ad-blocking tools collect your browsing behaviors for third-party use.

There’s also the very real issue of using a 'free' site that can only provide its content if they can pay for it through delivering ads.

Technically speaking, if everyone on the Internet used ad blockers, it would essentially destroy the business model that is the basis for what we all take for granted on a daily basis.

One way to use the technology but support your favorite websites is to use the ‘whitelisting’ option most of them employ, which allows ads on just the sites you choose.

Popular Options

One of the most popular browser add-on called AdBlock Plus ( works with most major browsers and offers apps for both Android and iPhone users.

The Opera ( browser for computers and Opera Mini for mobile devices has an ad blocker built-in, so you can install it as an alternative browser for when you want to use ad blocking.

Firefox fans have long used the NoScript plugin ( to manage a variety of scripts that range from ads to malware attacks, but I would only recommend this more elaborate tool for tech savvy users.

Fans of Google’s Chrome browser can also try ScriptSafe ( to offer similar features to NoScript, though it’s not nearly as powerful.

Do any of the Facebook blockers work to block political posts?

Wed, 8 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) A lot of people that use Facebook on a regular basis are very likely to be suffering from some form of ‘political post’ fatigue.

There are a number of ways to better manage what appears in your newsfeed that can range from basic measures to drastic action.

Start with Unfollow

For those friends that seem to obsess over every twist and turn of this unprecedented political environment, you can simply stop following them so their every post does not appear in your newsfeed.

On your computer, you can easily do this by floating your mouse over their profile picture and changing the ‘following’ button to ‘Unfollow’.

On mobile devices, you can click on the small down arrow in the upper-right corner of anything they post and tap the ‘Unfollow’ option from the menu.

When you unfollow someone, there is no notification to that person, so you don’t have to worry about offending them.

Hiding Certain Sources

There are lots of allegations of ‘fake news’ being thrown around by all sides, but you get to decide which sources you want to see.

When a post is shared by a friend for a resource you don’t particularly care for, you can click on the small arrow in the upper-right corner of the post and select the ‘Hide all from…” option.  This will keep anything shared by anyone from that resource from appearing in your newsfeed.

Browser Add-Ons

If you don’t want to completely unfollow someone but attempt to filter out politically oriented posts, there are a number of options available for your desktop browsers.

One created for the Chrome browser that’s been getting a lot of mentions is called Remove All Politics From Facebook (  In my tests, it didn’t work very well, but many comments from users claim that it does help, so your mileage may vary.

A more powerful tool that’s been around for a while is called Social Fixer ( and works with every major browser, not just Chrome.

Social Fixer lets you choose pre-existing filters (like politics or superbowl) or create keyword lists of your own, giving you a lot more control over what you see.

If you really want to shut down everything and only see posts from specific friends, News Feed Eradicator for Facebook (Chrome only) will do the job. 

Once you install it, you‘ll get an inspirational quote where your newsfeed normally appears, so you have to manually go to individual profiles in order to see any posts.

Keep in mind, all of these browser add-ons are at the mercy of Facebook’s code, so any updates or changes by Facebook can impact the effectiveness of them all.

The Nuclear Option

In some cases, you may feel it’s ‘healthier’ to completely disconnect from certain friends so you can ‘unfriend’ them by going to their profile on either mobile or desktop devices.

If things have really become problematic, you may want to completely block them from anything you post as well by going to your account settings menu and selecting the ‘Blocking’ option.

What age should I allow my children to start using social media?

Wed, 1 Mar 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Raising children in the digital age is forcing parents to deal with questions that can’t be answered by a previous generation of parents.

I can remember when my daughter was 10, she proclaimed that she was the only one of her friends that wasn’t allowed to watch PG-13 movies.  Today’s parents are going to be faced with this same proclamation for a myriad of adult-oriented social sites like Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.

As with many other aspects of parenting, the answer to the question “when are they old enough?” is going to be different for each child and situation.

The child’s maturity level along with your relationship with them should play a big role in making the decision.

Starting this process off with a discussions about the pros and cons of engaging in social networks is a much better approach then just telling your child “No, because I said so”.

Technical Age Limits

Most popular social networks require that a child be at least 13 to sign up for an account, but it’s not necessarily a parental guide.  Most networks are doing so to comply with the FTC’s COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), which was created to prevent companies from gathering certain types of information on minors.

Despite that, there are plenty of experts that believe that until the age of 13, most children lack the cognitive ability to fully understanding adult-oriented social situations.  Keep in mind, this is a general guideline (like PG-13 movie ratings) and not a line in the sand for all parents. 

For a better understanding of the typical 13-year-old’s mindset, checkout Common Sense Media’s overview:

Accessing your child’s ability to understand things like the context of a post (many adults still have a problem with this!), cyber-bullying or inappropriate content should be your primary guideposts.

Age Appropriate Platforms

Waiting until a child is 13 to engage in any type of social platform isn’t necessarily the best approach in the digital age.  Pretending that they won’t be exposed to social networks until you decide it’s time isn’t very realistic, so it’s best for you to be the one to introduce them to it.

There are plenty of age-appropriate and COPPA compliant platforms for children under the age of 13 like Lego Life ( and Kudos ( or you can create your own private social network with options like Gecko Life (

Getting together with other parents to create a controlled network with only friends and family is another method of introduction to social media you may want to consider.

(A comprehensive list of kid safe options is posted at:

Setting Guidelines Early

The earlier you start setting up the guidelines for your child, the better.  Making sure they have a grasp of things like privacy issues, mindful posting, identity theft, what cyber-bullying looks and feels like and an open ongoing dialogue with you is critical.

Making sure you have access to everything they use, following them on the same networks and limiting their connections to people that you know in the real world are essential early in their development.

Any suggestions on going paperless at home?

Wed, 22 Feb 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) We’ve been hearing the promise of the “paperless office” for over 30 years, but very few of us have taken the time that it takes to make the transition.

The good news is that going paperless at home is a lot less complex than doing so in a business.

Going completely paperless isn’t realistic, but going less-paper is entirely feasible with today’s various options.

Getting Started

One of the easiest ways to cut down on the amount of paper that gets sent to you is to opt for electronic billing and statements whenever a company offers it.

While there may be certain situations where you do want to have paper copies sent to you, start looking at every paper bill or statement you’re currently getting to figure out which ones can become electronic from the source.

Are You Disciplined Enough?

The next question you need to ask yourself is are you willing to adopt the behaviors required to be successful in converting all your paper documents into electronic copies?

You’ll have to completely change your ‘workflow’ as it pertains to all the paper that comes into your household.

You’ll also have to go through the learning curve on an electronic storing and filing system so you can find items when you need them down the road.

A Good Scanner is Critical

You’ll need an appropriate scanning device that makes converting and filing your documents efficient or else you’ll never do it.

Cheap flatbed scanners that require you to manually place each page on the scanner won’t do the trick; you’ll need a device with a decent document feeder.

You’ll also want one that can scan both sides of the document (duplex scanning) and wireless is a nice option for flexibility in where you can use it.

Fujitsu has long been a leader in high-quality scanners that will hold up to the workload that ‘going paperless’ will demand, but less expensive options are available from companies like Brother, Epson, Neat and Doxie.

Creating Your Workflow

The best way to stay on top of this new task is to have a physical ‘inbox’ next to your scanner where all your important papers get staged for scanning.

The single most important decision you’ll have to make is which electronic filing system you’ll use.

If you don’t create a solid filing, naming and tagging system, you’ll end up with a mountain of scanned documents that will be nearly impossible to search through.

Most document scanners have direct support to automatically send documents to both Dropbox and Evernote or others like Doxie and Neat offer their own integrated filing software.

Evernote provides a lot of flexibility for managing the documents and since it automatically converts everything to a searchable standard, it makes finding documents based on keywords much easier down the road.

Detailed Advice

If nothing that I’ve outlined so far has scared you off, there are some excellent resources that are much more detailed from Abby Lawson (, Refind Rooms ( and Document Snap (

When can we expect 5G for our smartphones?

Wed, 15 Feb 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) The race to provide the next generation wireless technology is in full swing.

With the increase in devices connecting to the Internet expected to more than triple (to over 20 billion) in the next four years, improving the wireless infrastructure is critical.

What is 5G?

In short, 5G stands for fifth generation technology. The wireless industry coined the phrase 1G for the technology used in the early 90’s as its first generation technology, which essentially allowed for wireless phone calls.

With major improvements to the infrastructure came 2G, which allowed for text messaging, then 3G, which added basic web browsing and finally 4G, which increased the speeds to allow reasonable usage of streaming video amongst other improvements.

4G also got the LTE (Long Term Evolution) label to signify a marked increase in performance and consistency through a totally different technical approach over 3G.

As video goes from HD to UHD to 3D to 4K and we all add new data hungry devices to our lives, data speeds and capacity are going to need to increase in order to keep up.

How Much Better Will 5G Be?

5G won’t just focus on improving speeds, it will also be adding capacity for more devices in the same area.  We’ll need it to accommodate the huge increase in ordinary items all around us that will be connecting to the Internet (our homes, our cars, our clothing, etc.)

Various iterations are being developed to increase speeds to at least 10 times that of today’s 4G LTE with much lower latency, which means packets of data will get to us all quicker when we request them.

This will reduce buffering issues and provide hardcore gamers with a reasonable option to a wired connection for gaming applications.

5G is also being built from the ground up to allow for a variety of traffic types, so it will offer a different type of connection based on what the device is and the data being transmitted. 5G networks will know the difference between a smartphone streaming 4K video and a moisture sensor in your basement sending humidity updates.

Think of today’s wireless technology as more of a single lane road where cars, bicycles, joggers and walkers are all sharing the same space.

5G will segment the various traffic types so that cars get one lane, bicycles will get their own lane and joggers and walkers are segmented in their own lanes.

When Will 5G Be Available?

While there are a number of companies working on small scale tests and development projects, we aren’t going to see it anytime soon.

The best estimates for widespread deployment of 5G isn’t until 2020, so you can ignore anyone trying to make is sound like 5G is just around the corner.

Today’s Best

There is a technology available today that is trying to bridge the performance gap between 4G LTE and 5G, which is known at LTE-Advanced or LTE-A.

LTE-A is theoretically designed to provide up to 3 times the speed of LTE, but is being advertised by various carriers as being 50% faster and requires a phone with LTE-A capabilities:

What would you recommend I use to manage what my kids are doing on their smartphones?

Wed, 8 Feb 2017 00:00:00 +0700

Parenting in the digital age has become very complex because of the ubiquity of the smartphone.You don’t have to look very far these days to see a 2-year old adeptly navigating a smartphones or tablet that many parents have turned to as ‘digital pacifiers’.This has led to ‘digital natives’ that are far more comfortable and aware of today’s technology than their parents as they grow.As such, many parents then seek a ‘magic app’ to solve a problem that has been developing over a long period of time.Parents Just Don’t UnderstandThe lack of time spent trying to keep up with the changes in technology puts many parents behind the eight ball when it comes to trying to manage something they themselves don’t understand.Unfortunately, the “I don’t have time” excuse is not something any parent can afford to use if they want any chance of successfully navigating this unique parenting challenge.Building a relationship with your children such that they want to share what they’re learning about technology is a good way of keeping the communication channels open and keeping up with the constant changes.Setting GuidelinesIf you’re going to give a child a smartphone, you have to take the time to setup the built-in parental controls, discuss the guidelines for usage and decide what level of privacy you’re going to allow.If you have clearly discussed what is permissible and what isn’t, installing monitoring or management apps will help you to maintain those rules.A friend of mine even created a contract with his children before providing them with their smartphones, then used apps to manage the phones based on the contract.  (I’ve posted a generic version of it on our Facebook page caution parents that think that they want to monitor their child’s every keystroke, especially if they are older.  Not only can this cause issues with your relationship, you’ll likely drive them to use their friend’s devices to avoid your oversight.Building filters into an older child instead of into their technology is the key to success, because you’ll never be able to control every device that they come in contact with.Why Android May Be a Better ChoiceThere are a large number of platforms and apps that allow parents to monitor and manage their child’s smartphone, but your choices and capabilities will be greater with an Android handset.Apple’s closed iOS platform doesn’t allow as much flexibility to app developers as the more open Android platform does.Suggested AppsThere is no one-size-fits-all solution, as parenting styles and the age and number of children are just a few factors that come into play.OurPact ( is one that my friend raves about, because he can easily manage multiple children from the parent app on his phone. The parents must have an iPhone to use their app or use their web interface on non-iPhone devices but the control app works on either Android or iPhone devices.Others to consider include Net Nanny (, NetSanity (, MamaBear (, Qustodio ( and TeenSafe ( Many of them offer free trials so you can test them out yourself. [...]

Should I be concerned about using Kaspersky's antivirus software since it's a Russian company?

Wed, 1 Feb 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Choosing a solid security program to protect your computer and personal information has always been a challenge because there are so many options that get high marks.

Now, with all of the global issues and growing concerns about nationalism, there’s an additional issue that many users are contemplating when making a choice: where is the security software made?

Russia is just one of the many prominent players in the global security software industry, with many of the most popular programs from countries around the world:

AVG & Avast – Czech Republic, Bitdefender – Romania, ESET – Slovakia, F-Secure – Finland, Kaspersky – Russia, Panda – Spain, Sophos – UK  & Trend Micro – Japan for example.

Does It Matter?

In general, just because a security program is owned by a company in another country does not mean it shouldn’t be trusted, especially since countries like Finland, Japan and the UK are clear allies.

In fact, in light of recent national security disclosures, some users are proclaiming that they are more comfortable with using a security program controlled by a foreign company.

It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever know what relationship or working agreement a particular company has with its own government, so you’ll have to decide if the lack of transparency is disconcerting or not.  

We’ve been using and installing Trend Micro’s products for years and have no issue with it being a Japanese company (it was originally created in California and relocated when it acquired a Japanese firm in 1992).

Keep in mind that all of these companies are global players and any evidence that they are working with their own government to disclose user information would all but destroy their businesses.

Trust Matters

Since we rely on our security programs to protect us, we have to allow them full access and control over our computers.

This means that they can scan every file we have and keep logs of those files and in some cases, send information back to the ‘mothership’ if you choose to participate in their ‘security networks’ as a contributor.

If for any reason you don’t trust a company with that level of intimacy, you shouldn’t use their software.

Kaspersky’s Credentials & Controversies 

Anyone in the information security world knows Eugene Kaspersky and his very impressive credentials.

As a teenager, he was studying cryptography in school and by his mid-20’s, he created an anti-virus program to protect his own computer.

His company has also been responsible for uncovering some major cyber-threats over the years.

Unfortunately, since he is a Russian citizen with early ties to the KGB and its replacement (the FSB), he’s always had a cloud of uncertainty over him

Most recently, a Kaspersky executive Ruslan Stoyanov, head of their investigation unit and a liaison to Russian security services was arrested and accused of treason by the Russian government. This has added more questions for some users that have the company’s software installed.

While Stoyanov himself is being accused, not the company, you’ll have to decide for yourself if you’re comfortable using their software based on your own evaluations.

What tax scams should I be watching out for this year?

Wed, 25 Jan 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) Many in the cyber-security business refer to tax season as ‘Christmas for Criminals’ because of the amount of sensitive personal information that will be in circulation.

The IRS reported a nearly 400% surge in phishing and malware incidents in the 2016 tax season and you can bet that number will be as high, if not higher this year.

Fraudulent returns continue to top the list of scams because electronic filing makes it so easy to file returns when a thief acquires your Social Security Number.

In fact, the problem has gotten so big that the IRS will be delaying refunds for all taxpayers until February 15th this year in order to give them more time to screen for fraud.

Start With Your Computer

One the easiest ways for thieves to steal your personal information is directly from your computer if you aren’t paying attention.

Programs designed to sneak in and silently monitor your keystrokes (a.k.a. keyloggers) or steal your e-mail credentials won’t announce themselves.

If your computer takes forever to startup or seems to be ‘stuck in the mud’ when you try to use the Internet, these are clear signs that unnecessary processes are running in the background of your computer.

Since you’ll be working with a lot of sensitive information via your computer, whether you’re preparing your own return or gathering info for a tax preparer, make sure your computer is free of any potential malware.

If you aren’t comfortable running through the various processes yourself, make sure you find someone you trust to do a thorough checkup/cleanup before you get started.

Don’t Send Sensitive Info Via Email

Email has replaced the fax machine for sending documents, but it’s one of the least secure methods of transferring sensitive information to your tax preparer.

Not only can your unprotected information be intercepted by others, a record of your sensitive information gets stored in your email program unless you remember to delete all your sent items.

Check with your tax professional as they should have a more secure method for you to share electronic documents.

Watch For Phishing  and Phone Scams

One of the many known phishing messages pretends to be from the IRS asking you to update your e-file account to make sure you get your refund.

The IRS will NEVER send you an e-mail message or call you; they only communicate with taxpayers via U.S. Mail.  You can report any IRS phishing scams by forwarding the message to [email protected]

File Early To Beat Fraudsters

Fraudulent tax returns continue to be a billion dollar expense for the Treasury Department, but one of the ways you can avoid becoming a victim is file as early as you can to beat them to the punch.

If they file a fraudulent claim before you, it can take an average of over 300 days for you to get the mess straightened out. If you believe you’re a victim of ID theft, the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit phone number is (800) 908-4490

I'm trying to decide which cellular network to use and not sure how much of the marketing hype about the 1% difference is real? Any suggestions on how to figure out which one is best for me?

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 00:00:00 +0700

(image) As our smartphone usage increases, figuring out which cellular network is best suited for our needs has become as important, if not more important than choosing the right mobile device.

The marketing claims can be very confusing with claims like ‘fastest, most dependable, most popular, most advanced, most reliable, unlimited, next generation’, which we all want from our wireless providers.

Manipulating the Data

Creating impressive marketing claims based on a favorable interpretation of a specific data set is not exclusive to the wireless carriers, but they’ve been taking it to new heights.

Many of the claims that these companies make are hard to prove or disprove or are based on scenarios that may mean absolutely nothing to you depending upon where you live and work.

Sprint’s campaign claiming that there is only a 1% difference in reliability between the major networks is based on their interpretation of the data generated by recent Neilson drive test data for average network reliability (voice & data) in the top 106 markets.  

While it can be argued that this claim is pretty vague, the term ‘network reliability’ should not be confused with ‘network coverage’ or ‘network speeds’.

Why You Should Ignore the Hype

No matter how good the overall rating for any carrier in any specific measurement may be, there’s a very important thing to keep in mind in every case: YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

Where you live, work and travel will have the biggest impact on which carrier(s) offer the best option for your specific needs.

Someone that travels a lot or lives in a rural area will have very different needs than someone that lives and works in a high population urban area.

In virtually every third-party measurement of voice and data services, which city you live in is one of the biggest factors for which networks provide the ‘best’ overall performance.

Real Customer Measurements

Every wireless carrier publishes a coverage map, generally available on their website, but I wouldn’t rely on it as empirical data as many complaints on the Internet challenge the accuracy of these maps when you drill down to the street level.

There are a number of third-part resources that provide coverage maps based on data reported by actual users (usually via an app) that live and work in your area.

The Root Metrics interactive coverage map ( allows you to zoom down to street level to review coverage reports on each major carrier as well as by service type (voice vs data).  

Both OpenSignal ( and Sensorly  ( offer user-generated map data based on your location and carrier with the option to show 4G service vs slower 2G/3G coverage.  You can also download their apps if you’d like to contribute data yourself.

Each of these resources collect data in various ways so using all three should help you better understand which carrier(s) perform the best for the areas you’ll frequent.