Tips For Hiring A Computer Technician

We at Charleston Tech Support have been been getting some prank calls from a local number recently. This evening I got curious and decided to do a reverse phone lookup of the number after receiving two in a row. The number in question was listed as private, but showed it originated from the telecommunications company Nuvox and the caller was in Mount Pleasant. Unfortunately, because you can now port your number to other carriers, that info may be incorrect. I tried the next step in finding out who owns a number and searched it on Google. There was only one result, and it shocked me. The lone result pointed to this craigslist ad. A local independent computer technician? Why was he pranking me with strange sound effects?

I decided to pick up the phone and call back. A young sounding guy answered the phone quite nervously. I told him who I was and that I was returning his two phone calls he just made, and asked him if he needed some computer service. He fumbled around with his words and muttered that he called by mistake. I asked him why he was calling me if he was a computer technician (now revealing that I knew who he was) and if he possibly needed some advice or help. At that point he panicked and hung up. I realized that he was indeed prank phone calling my business, but I can’t understand his gain. There are a lot of professional technicians out there, and the pros all have a sense of camaraderie. I have no problem sending my customers to my competition whom I trust to do good work for things I don’t support or in emergency situations where I can’t get to a customer in time. On the flip side, there is no place in the IT world for deceptive and unprofessional tactics. We have a term for how we deal with bad technicians, and it’s called “Blacklisting”.

This leads me to the subject of this article, and that is how to hire a computer tech. In SC, there are no licenses or certifications required to do computer work. So how do you know you’re getting the right service person? The answer is simple and as old as can be. Ask for professional referrals. A real professional will be happy to give up that information. The real trick is to ask for technical referrals as well ones from their customers. A computer service business will have various other service companies that they use and refer on a regular basis such telecommunications vendors and national service dispatchers.

Another red flag is price. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is just that. An established computer service business is going to have an overhead and will cost more than an independent technician. That does not mean that all independent technicians are bad, but you need to do more background checking with them as anybody can pose as a technician due to the lack of regulation. The other thing to think about is experience in customer service. An established service business will return your phone calls, provide receipts, and track your service history. They will also know how to talk to you in a way that you can understand and not try and swindle you by speaking over your head in jargon.

Keep in mind that you may also run into trouble with some of the computer service companies attached to the big chain retail stores. The reports of shady practices in the news such as breaching your privacy and misdiagnoses are usually attached to these larger companies. In at least one of these big name companies that I won’t mention, the technicians are historically forced to be salespeople above service people. They are also usually less experienced as it is usually their first technical job.

To wrap this all up, until South Carolina enforces a licensing program for computer service professionals, the job of choosing the right tech is entirely in your hands. Make sure to ask for the following information:

  • Professional referrals
  • Length of time or personal history in the industry
  • Education
  • Industry Certifications
  • If someone is still in the stage of their life where they make prank phone calls, can you really trust them with your private data?

    Happy Holidays!

    Amy & I would like to wish all of our business partners, clients, & students a sincerely happy and healthy holiday season.

    We hope 2008 brings everyone a prosperous and productive year, and we can’t wait to be a part of your continued success.

    We would also like to thank you for making 2007 a great success for us!

    Warm wishes,

    Joseph & Amy Nienstedt

    SmitFraud – What is it?

    It seems that the most popular malicious computer infections I run across lately here in the Low Country comes in the form of spyware that has been classified as “SmitFraud”. SmitFraud has many variants – it seems like a new variant has been popping up every couple of weeks lately and it makes preventing infections a test in diligence. The worst part of this infection is that it blackmails you into buying fake security software to remove it.

    The most common question I get from my customers is “How did I get it?”. This is a tricky one to answer as it can get installed in more than one way. The most common way is in the form of something that looks legitimate. Internet Explorer users are the most susceptible to infection, as it will use Internet Explorer’s plug-in architecture to install what you think is software to watch a movie or listen to music online through your browser (these are what is referred to as codecs). The problem is that you can just be browsing along on the internet and get infected without even knowing it happened.

    How do you know your infected? Well, that’s an easy one – trust me, you will know. A common symptom is that your background wallpaper will be changed and it will have a message telling you that you are infected (some folks incorrectly refer to wallpaper as their screensaver – so to clarify, I’m talking about the picture or pattern on your desktop behind all the icons). Some later variants skip this as it was a little too obvious that something is amiss. Another common symptom is pop-up windows for fraudulent anti-virus software sites, but the most common symptom is a blinking yellow triangle with an exclamation point in your system tray (that area by the clock) that has a message bubble telling you to click there to download software to remove the infection. I have seen some slight variations in the blinking icon color and shape as well. This is a major nuisance because it mimics the Windows automatic update icon, which is something you would want to actually click on. If you are unfortunate enough to have actually clicked on the icon, it will install one of a handful of rogue false security software packages and perform a fake scan, which will of course say that you are infected and need to purchase the software to remove it. Here’s the kicker though – it never actually removes the real virus!

    How can I get rid of it? Ah, the million dollar question (or at least $75.00 if I come out to do it). I have battled this beast in so many of it’s forms that I can honestly say that no one piece of software can definitively work to get rid of it. If you value your time and sanity, give a professional a call. If you are brave enough to take this on, here are some tips from what I have learned. HijackThis is an important starting point to see what is starting up on your computer and where it is starting from. Be aware though that if you don’t know what you are doing, you can seriously damage your PC with this. The reason this is so powerful is because it shows you things that are vital to the system as well as the malicious stuff, so if you make one wrong click and you wont be able to boot your machine again. That said, I use this to look for Browser Helper Objects (BHO’s) that do not belong as well as startup dll’s that shouldn’t be there and random false codecs. I also run of few different anti-spyware scanner applications, such as SuperAntiSpyware, Ad-Aware, and AVG Anti-Spyware. Another free tool that is powerful, but has not been as effective on the newest variants is a program called SmitFraudFix. This program works best in Safe Mode, and it works wonders with the older infections at getting rid of it. Some Anti-Virus programs will classify SmitFraudFix as a virus itself, so you need to disable your security software before downloading and running it. Other methods I have used involve monitoring the processes in the task manager for strangely named processes that are running (a quick Google search of an unknown process name will tell you what it is, and sometimes how to get rid of it). Cleaning your temporary files is a must-do step that will help prevent a re-infection – you can easily do this by running the disk cleanup tool that comes with Windows.

    How do I prevent it? The majority of people I see infected with this are running a consumer version of a Norton Anti-Virus product. To be honest, I personally feel that Norton Internet Security is a such a huge burden on a PC that it is similar to having a virus! The fact is, Norton is the most popular security software out there and like Windows, it is a target that malicious software writers to overcome. Coupled with the fact that a lot of PC’s come with it installed already with a limited subscription that runs out and is left unchecked by the average consumer, it makes my job a lot more difficult. Do yourself a favor, if you are going to purchase security software, get the best – not the most popular. The reigning king of efficiency is Eset’s NOD32. It is not the easiest to install and configure (we can always help), but once set up, it is the best security software I have seen for the average consumer. It is fast, and updates very frequently. Another favorite of mine also happens to be free for home use – AVG Free Edition is an excellent piece of software and you certainly cannot beat its price. Make sure to keep your computer patched via Windows Update, and for goodness sake, stop using Internet Explorer for casual web browsing! I encourage you to switch to Firefox immediately. It is a great product that is far ahead of Internet Explorer in may ways, most importantly security. If you have to use IE, make sure to update to IE 7 as it has much better security features than IE 6, such as an anti-phishing filter. If you want a good free software firewall, Comodo is great. I personally think software firewalls are a pain in the butt and stick with the Windows firewall alongside a hardware firewall, but for those of you who surf in coffee houses and public WiFi hotspots, Comodo or something similar is a must.

    I only touched the surface of how to deal with SmitFraud (as well as general security practices), and if you want more info, please check out these resources:

    Wikipedia
    Security Cadets
    Major Geeks

    Mac OS X Leopard Review

    This past weekend I received my copy of the new Macintosh Operating System, code named “Leopard”, A.K.A. Mac OS X version 10.5. The new Operating System (OS for short) boasts over 300 new features, which you can read about in detail on Apple’s website (while you’re there, check out the guided tour if you have time). I’m going to give you a brief overview of the issues I ran into and new features that I think you will love, so here goes…

    Installation: Whenever I upgrade to a new Mac OS, I always do what is called an “Archive & Install”. There is an options button in the bottom left hand corner of the installation window that you will see when you get to the step that lets you choose the destination of your installation. Click on that and you are presented with a couple of options – make sure to check the box next to “preserve users and network settings” to make sure all of your data is preserved in its place. What this does is makes a backup copy of your previous OS and stores it in a folder called “Previous Systems” on your hard drive. Then it installs a clean version of the OS on your system and keeps all of your applications, documents, and settings in their place. I know it sounds just like a regular upgrade, but believe me, it is much better. Doing an upgrade to your OS instead of a clean install (or in this case archive & install) usually results in slower performance and buggy issues over time.

    The other thing I always do is trim down the size of the installation by customizing it to remove unnecessary files that are installed by default. I don’t need a couple of gigabytes of printer drivers for printers I don’t use and language translations for languages I don’t speak. When you are setting up your installation, make sure to click on the “Customize” button and take out the printer drivers and language files you don’t need. And you might as well remove X11 if you are not a Unix programmer (if you don’t know what that last sentence means, rest assured that you can safely uncheck the box next to X11 – don’t worry you can always add it back later).

    After it is all finished and you are satisfied with the results and you know for sure that all of your data is intact, you can delete the “previous systems” folder which is found at the “root” of you hard drive. “Root” means it is a top-level folder – so if you click on the hard drive icon in the Finder, it will be right there. You will be prompted for a password, so don’t be alarmed, this is to prevent you from accidentally deleting the other folders at the root of your hard drive, which would be a very bad thing. Now you just got back a few gigabytes of precious hard drive space – congrats!

    You may run into problems when doing an upgrade or “Archive & Install” of Leopard. Some third party applications that run when the computer boots up are not yet compatible with the new OS, so they will cause your computer to crash on the first boot. Don’t panic, the machine will eventually let you boot into what is called “Single User” mode, which is basically a stripped down instance of the OS that only runs the essentials to get the machine running. This happens to let you remove any offending software or drivers. I happened to run into 2 separate problems on 2 separate machines. One had third-party remote control software called VNC (which is now built in to Leopard) and it conflicted with the new screen sharing feature of Leopard. I was able to boot into single user mode and successfully remove the offending software. After that, the computer ran wonderfully. The other computer had some low-level hacking software used to change how your OS works. It works by letting you install plug-ins to change different aspects of you computer, for instance, I had a hack installed to change my dock to be completely transparent. Of course there is a completely new dock in Leopard, so naturally that hack did not play nicely. The fix was basically the same – boot up in single user mode and remove the faulty software.

    New Features: My first impression on booting the newly updated computer was that the new Finder is very fast and responsive. It is also very familiar to iTunes as it has almost exactly the same interface. Most useful to me is the the shared section in the new Finder window, which automatically connects your Mac to all of the other computers in your home or office (PCs as well as Macs) to share files with. The search section is very nice as well, giving you handy dynamic search options such as “Yesterday” which shows you every file you worked on yesterday.

    The new Mail program is sure to be a hit. With a built-in RSS reader (RSS readers download articles and other data from various websites to quickly review stories and information), integrated To Do lists and Notes, and simple account setup this is sure to finally give Microsoft Outlook users a reason to think twice about their next computer purchase. The most useful feature by far is the automatic data detection. Basically, if somebody emails you and says, “Hey, lets do lunch tomorrow at noon” and you hover your mouse over “tomorrow at noon”, a drop-down menu will appear around the text with options to add that data directly into your calendar on the correct time and date that sender is writing about. It truly is a time saver and an amazing piece of programming. Apple Mail’s tight integration with iCal, Address Book, and now iPhoto helps make it a front-runner for being the best email application on any platform today.

    The next thing I tried out was Time Machine. I only had to plug in my external hard drive (these things are relatively cheap these days – I recommend getting a Firewire one for your Mac, and if your Mac has a Firewire 800 port, spend a couple of bucks more – you will thank me). Once the drive mounts, Time Machine asks if you want to use it as a backup drive. I selected yes and it automatically scheduled a backup to run within the hour. I left and went to the Coastal Carlina Fair with the family. By the time I got back, Time machine not only backed up my computer, it started making hourly restore points. When I clicked on the Time Machine icon in the dock, it brought up a spacey tunnel and what looks like an infinite number of Finder windows stacked to a vanishing point in the distance. As you scroll the time line, it will show you the different versions of whichever folder you are looking at. It really is best to see in person to fully understand, but it is by far the easiest backup software to run and use on the market today. I can’t say enough how important this software is for the average Mac user. So once again, make sure to invest in a an external hard drive if you plan on upgrading to Leopard.

    Another great new feature is Spaces. Like Time Machine, this idea is nothing new – in fact it’s been around for a long time on Unix, Linux, and even Macs through third-party software. Spaces is virtual desktop screens that you can switch to on your main screen. It is like having multiple monitors hooked up to your computer. By simply pressing a key combination, or even just a program in your dock whose window is residing on another virtual screen, you screen swooshes to another desktop with whatever programs you have running on it displayed. On previous Mac versions, I used a program called Virtue Desktops to do the same thing, but I never used it much. I was happy enough with just hiding applications I wasn’t currently using and switch to them all on one desktop. Apple has made Spaces so easy to use and has implemented the old idea with such finesse that it is a no-brainier for multitasking users. It has cut my day-to-day work flow down a bunch because instead of hiding or minimizing an application before switching to another, I can just click once and I’m at a screen with the specific applications I want to work on at any given moment. I read the reviews of Spaces before using it and didn’t believe what anyone said about it, I thought it wasn’t for me – until I actually used it. Now I think it’s fantastic.

    There are so many new features and enhancements, I won’t go into them all, but the last one I want to talk about is also such a gem, I wish they had done this years ago like they’ve done it now. That is the Screen Sharing feature. Screen Sharing is a little VNC application that does not live in your applications folder, so you may not realize it’s there. It’s used by a couple of other familiar programs and somewhat replaces Apple’s old remote control software aptly titled “Remote Desktop” that they sell to network administrators. One way to use it is in iChat. You can talk to a friend over an iChat session over the internet and invite them to remotely control your computer, or vice versa. I’m not big into chat programs, so I haven’t even messed with that instance of it yet. The other way is to control machines on your local network in your home or office. Let’s say you have 2 Macs running Leopard in your home, and one is upstairs in your f.r.o.g. and you are in your dining room on your laptop and your kids want you to see something on their computer upstairs. Instead of climbing the stairs to see some silly web comic your kids think is cute, you can open a Finder window, click on the upstairs Mac in the shared section, and chose “share screen”. Now you’re instantly looking at their computer screen and you have full control of it as well! There are plenty of practical uses for this – I currently use a Mac Mini as a media center attached to my living room TV, and often need to remotely control it as it has no keyboard or mouse attached to it. Hopefully, you get the idea of what this can do. The last and possibly most useful implementation of Screen Sharing is the “Back to My Mac” feature. This only works if you have a .Mac account (.Mac is a subscription to Apple services such as an IMAP email account and online storage). Basically it works like those GoToMy PC commercials you may have heard on the radio. It allows you to remotely control your Mac from anywhere (not just your local network). You might be in the office and need a file on your home Mac – no problem with this feature. With Back to My Mac enabled, your other Macs will still show up in the Finder like they did when you were at home and you can browse shared folders or remotely share the screen.

    Should You Upgrade? As you can see, a lot of the newest features that I’m most excited about are not necessarily new ideas, but rather excellent implementations of existing ideas. That idea pretty much sums up what you can expect from Leopard. It is a faster OS than Tiger on supported hardware, and all of the core applications like Mail, Safari, iChat, & the Finder that you know and love have been improved. The new additions are warmly welcomed, but if you are satisfied with what you are currently running, you can find alternatives to many of the new features freely on the internet.

    But the question still remains: Do I think you should you upgrade? For home users, I say definitely. For pro users, I say wait until your main applications (Photoshop, Quark, etc.) have been certified to run on Leopard, and make sure it will function properly on your office network. There are some network setups that are not playing nicely with Leopard’s new features. You might want to wait until Apple updates it to 10.5.1, but if you are a seasoned pro, then you already know that from past experiences with OS X upgrades. If you can’t wait, you could always partition your hard drive and have both Tiger & Leopard available on the same machine.

    As usual, if you are interested in upgrading to Leopard and need some help or further advice, we are just a phone call away!

    Getting Ready For The iPhone?

    Some of you out there are planning on getting an iPhone (especially my Mac-addicted customers), and there are a few things you should know before you make this important decision.

    1 – Apple & AT&T are trying to make this as painless as possible for you to get set up with a new iPhone. Apple is trying to revolutionize the whole industry with some great new features, starting with how you activate your phone. Apple has posted a helpful video on their site that walks you through the process. If you have ever purchased something through the iTunes music store, you will be right at home with setting up your new phone – from porting your existing number to choosing the right cell phone plan, Apple has made it easy to get it done without the “help” of misguided cellphone store reps. So when you get your iPhone, don’t hang around the store to get it activated – take it home and do it yourself and you will not only save yourself time, you will help everyone else in the store get in and out quickly.

    2 – Anybody who has ever owned a first generation Apple product has usually learned that it is best to wait until the second revision of a new product before buying it. Let everyone else test out the new hardware before you so that you don’t get stuck with a buggy new product. Besides, if you are still under contract with your existing provider, you’ll want to wait until your contract has ended before you get slapped with at least $175 in cancellation fees from your current service provider. If you absolutely must get an iPhone now, the consumerist has an article on how to get out of your existing cell phone contract.

    3 – AT&T is not up to date with technology. I’m sorry to say it, but Verizon and Sprint’s networks are way ahead of AT&T’s when it comes to speed. Here in Charleston, Verizon already offers their high speed EVDO network for broadband speeds on your cell phone. Sprint is rolling it out here as well. AT&T’s Edge network is a huge leap backwards from a speed standpoint. Imagine going back to dial-up after having a cable modem for your home computer. It seems crazy, doesn’t it? Apple has tried to compensate for this by adding WiFi to the iPhone, but the scenarios when this will be useful are slim to none for most of us. What this means is that you will not be watching YouTube content like they show in the iPhone commercials unless you are connected to a wireless computer network (so you would just be using your computer instead, right?). It would be unbearable to deal with streaming video on the AT&T network, hence why I believe this is the iPhone’s weakest point.

    4 – The jury is out on the touchscreen keyboard. Some reports are that it is not easy to use. Apple claims that it will take about a week to adjust to using it before it becomes second nature. This is a valid reason to adhere to what I stated above – wait a while and see what everyone else has to say. That said, I believe the touchscreen interface is brilliant because it lends itself to change. If most people hate certain aspects of it, Apple can push out an update to the iPhone and enhance/change it. If I don’t like the layout of my current phone, there is not much I can do but buy another phone to change it.

    Other thoughts:

    – Hopefully the iPhone will be a huge success and other better providers will offer it in the future. If Apple succeeds in the cell phone market, I would expect to see more movies from more studios in the iTunes store and more DRM-free music from major record labels. This is a big deal for any iTunes user!

    – If you need help getting your iPhone set up (getting your calendar, contacts, photos, etc in sync with your iPhone will take some work if you are not currently using any of the supported apps), feel free to schedule an appointment with us to get you up and running.

    – Check out the guided tour video on Apple’s website to get yourself familiar with how to use this groundbreaking new technology.

    We’ve Moved Our Office

    We have recently moved to a new location in Charleston, SC. The new address is as follows:

    4 Carriage Lane
    Suite 400D
    Charleston, SC 29407

    Our phone numbers have remained unchanged, so you can still reach us at (843) 767-9500.

    Thanks,

    Joe

    New Site Design

    Charlestontechsupport.com has undergone some site changes! If you find anything that is not working, please use the form below to let us know:

    Thank you for your help.

    Joe

    UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who pointed out the issues with permalinks in the news archives!

    The Benefit of Bad Tech Support

    The situation is getting worse every day. People call their computer’s manufacturer to speak with someone about a problem with their computer and instead of finding relief they find rage. The days of calling for tech support from most major computer vendors and getting actual human help are drifting quickly behind us as customers dial into a confusing maze of phone menus that would make Indiana Jones cringe.

    The worst fear that a customer can face is that when they finally find that option to speak to an actual person, they get routed half-way around the world to wait on hold! The anger starts to build as you listen to the 18th on-hold recording telling you that you could find all of your support needs on the company’s website – the same site that you either spent 45 minutes searching for a fix for your problem and needed a degree in computer science to understand their proposed solution (if you even found a solution) or couldn’t get to the site because, well , your computer is broken. Finally you hear that plunk as the customer service rep takes your call and a barely audible voice starts asking you for your information. This would be fine and understandable, but after 10 minutes of trying to spell out your name to the person on the line because of a language barrier, you start to realize that this isn’t going to be an easy call. Then comes “the script”.

    Most companies will deny the existence of “the script”, but believe me it exists – just try and bypass the script and ask the rep a question that differs from their scripted set of questions that they are required to ask you. They will act like you never asked the question and return back to their script, or they will panic and put you on hold to find another script that pertains to your question. Chances are, that by the time you are through with your call, hours have passed. Sometimes, they actually fix the problem too, but more likely than that it turns out that you have a spyware or virus issue that needs further assistance from a professional (unless they convinced you to completely reinstall your computer operating system and all the software – a task that can take the better part of a day for the average person to complete) or you need to have some hardware replaced. When you figure in the time that you have spent and the costs of an inefficient support system that the computer manufacturer has imposed, you start to wonder how the system got to this point in the first place? The answer is simple and unfortunate. They don’t want you to call.

    It is very expensive for a computer manufacturer to provide good technical support. That price increases the price of your computer drastically, and in today’s market of “who can sell the cheapest computer” every cost has been taken into consideration. As long as we demand a fully loaded computer system for only $300, we are going to have to accept the poor support conundrum. What this has done in effect has spurred a rapidly growing industry of small computer support companies that are stepping up to the plate. Sure, you are going to have to pay someone money for your support, but when you really analyze the support situation, it can turn out to be a real benefit to you and the community.

    When your car breaks down, unless you are really knowledgeable in mechanics or have a friend or family member that can do it for a free dinner, you end up bringing it to your local mechanic. Most people are happy to drop off their cars to get fixed and get back to driving it ASAP. Can you imagine not having your automobile for days or even weeks ’cause you had to send it back to the manufacturer? The situation is much the same with your computer. The best part is that many support companies will come to you to fix your PC. Imagine if your mechanic did that?

    Having a computer person these days is much like having a mechanic, a family practitioner, a lawyer, or an accountant. A local professional that can take the guess-work out of living your life the way you chose is what makes our American system work. Paying a local professional to support your computer puts money right back into your community because they are shopping in your store, eating at your restaurant, using your accounting services, buying a car from you, etc. So the next time you call for tech support from your computer manufacturer and find yourself getting nowhere, try picking up the phone book and finding a local computer tech support company instead. When you call and speak to a knowledgeable human who lives a few minutes away and is happy to help you, the reward is much greater than just getting back into your email program.

    Joseph Nienstedt is the owner of Charleston Tech Support, which is a local computer support & service company serving the Charleston area. He can be reached by visiting www.charlestontechsupport.com.

    6 Steps To A Safer Windows PC

    The average PC owner uses their computer for many things – from browsing the internet & using email to editing photos & playing games. The last thing most people want to think about is security. Unfortunately, Windows happens to be a major target for virus-writers and evil marketers who will fill your computer with spyware, trojans, & malicious programs to the point of in-operability.

    There are some very simple ways to protect your computer from these nasty problems, and if you adhere to the following guidelines you will rarely ever have to deal with them.

    1) Dump Internet Explorer. I made this number one for a reason – most people do not realize that there are safer, faster, and more technologically advanced web browsers out there. My favorite happens to also be free! Mozilla’s Firefox web browser has quickly grown into the 2nd most used browser in the world because of it’s security & advanced features such as its vast collection of plug-ins, tabbed browsing, & built-in pop-up blocker. Mozilla also provides a more secure alternative to Microsoft’s Outlook Express email application, called Thunderbird.

    2) How’s your anti-virus software doing? A lot of the residential customers I see for the first time don’t even realize that the anti-virus software that came with their computer has an expiration date! The thought of paying for a subscription for virus definitions seems a little odd to me, and apparently it seems odd to some of the more respectable anti-virus companies out there. For example, Grisoft offers their AVG anti-virus software completely free to home users! The program is fast & efficient, and you can’t beat the price. There are also plenty of free online virus scanners as well as McAfee’s free Stinger scanner, which is a small virus & trojan scanner that can detect and remove specific viruses and worms (Stinger does not serve as a substitue for full anti-virus protection – as noted on their website). Similar to Stinger, Symantec offers stand-alone removal tools for many of the most popular trojans and viruses. Comcast high-speed internet users can now also get free copies of McAfee’s VirusScan, Personal FirewallPlus, & Privacy Service.

    Regardless of what anti-virus software you choose, make sure it has scheduled updates turned on so that your computer always has the most recent virus definitions.

    3) Rid your computer of spyware. This can be done using freely available products such as Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy. These programs are similar to anti-virus scanners but keep in mind that the free versions do not run all the time like a good anti-virus scanner. This can be a good thing because we’re trying to rid your computer of unwanted applications that run all the time, not add more to gobble up your memory & processing time. Also note that all of the major anti-virus vendors are offering spyware detection and removal functions in their flagship products, and even Microsoft is offering a free anti-spyware product through Windows update. Just keep in mind that some of the nastier trojans and spyware can successfully disable your ability to receive Windows updates and even disable your anti-virus software! That is why it is necessary to keep Ad-Aware and/or Spybot around. Both products offer free updates regularly and should be run at least once a month (or better – once a week) to keep your PC malware free.

    4) Update your operating system. Microsoft offers new patches for Windows on the second Tuesday of every month, dubbed by the IT industry as “Patch Tuesday”. You can avoid the headache that big companies go though every month by turning on automatic updates. Go to your control panel, click on the system icon, and then click on the automatic updates tab. Make sure it is on. It will run in the background and download and install any available critical updates for you computer.

    5) Turn on your firewall. What is a firewall you ask? Basically a firewall closes the door to your computer from other computers. There are hardware firewalls and software firewalls. Expensive hardware firewalls are used by companies to protect their computer networks, and home users would see more affordable hardware firewalls in the form of a home wireless and/or wired router that is used to share an internet connection and connect the computers in you home to one another. Software firewalls run on your computer itself and perform much of the same function – they close the doors (or ports, as they are properly referred to). Windows has a built-in firewall that is very user-friendly, as you rarely have to do more than just make sure it is turned on! To turn on the Windows firewall, just go back to your control panel and click on the Network Connections icon. Right-click on the network connection you want to protect (active connections have color icons – inactive ones are grayed out), and choose Properties from the menu that pops up. Click on the Advanced tab and then the Settings button. In there you can turn on the firewall.

    For those of you that want to go one step further when it comes to software firewalls, there are some great free ones out there from ZoneAlarm and Sygate. Most of the major anti-virus vendors also offer personal software firewalls as well. Just be aware that if these are not configured properly, you can restrict internet access to some programs that need it in order to function properly. These firewalls are more powerful than the Windows firewall in that they let you completely control what information gets out of your computer as well as what is allowed in, but in the hands of an inexperienced user they can cause more trouble than they prevent.

    6) Common sense. Anybody who has used a computer for any significant amount of time knows that email can be a dangerous vehicle for malicious software to get its way onto your PC. You know the rules – never open an attachment (unless you are 100% sure of where its coming from – even then you should scan it first with your anti-virus software), and do not open email from unknown sources. The same level of paranoia should be applied to visiting unknown and untrusted websites, and installing unknown programs. Use Google as a security measure before you install anything. Simply search for the application along with the word spyware (i.e. CoolWebSearch spyware) and you will see if you can trust the software or not based on other people’s experience with it. Also, keep away from file sharing networks such as Kazaa and Bearshare, as these networks are infested with malicious software, trojans, & viruses.

    Joseph Nienstedt is the owner of Charleston Tech Support, which is a local computer support & service company serving the Charleston area. He can be reached by visiting www.charlestontechsupport.com.