I have previously written generally about why VPNs are important, even for consumers and small business owners. Here I am going to get specific, covering two many reasons for use (privacy and security) and the scenarios where they come into play.
Rewind: If I were to rewind just a step, a VPN is an application you run on your computer, smartphone and tablet to give you a private tunnel out to the internet. I’m not going to endorse one over the others — but the three I like are Express VPN, Windscribe, and Private Internet Access (PIA). Costs range from $2 to $10 per month. I have explored Mozilla VPN (put out by the Firefox people) with some clients and it lacks a key feature at the moment so I am not going to put it on the same level as the other three.
So today I am talking about “John the consumer” and “Jane the plumber.” John uses computers and other devices at home. Jane owns a plumbing company and has an office on Main Street that she controls. (I’m going to leave working in an office under some big corporation out of the discussion because they often tell you what you can and can’t do with your computer). John and Jane have two factors to consider when using a VPN — Privacy and Security depending on where they are using the internet
1. At home or their office — Here the reason to use a VPN is PRIVACY. John and Jane have routers with up to date firmware, computers with antivirus software, and computers and smartphones with the proper security updates. Their internet connections are secure. Speaking for myself, my home / home office Internet is totally secure even if I never use a VPN. If you meet all of these parameters I laid out — there is like a 99% chance no one is going to infiltrate your internet connection. John, Jane, and I use a VPN in the confines of our homes and offices because we don’t want our internet providers to know every website we visit. We don’t want news or other shopping or informational websites recording our IP address (which ultimately links back to us). It’s an issue of principle and privacy — not primarily for security.
2. On Public WiFi – I’m talking about the mall, the library, the hotel,and the coffee shop now. People are going out a lot more and traveling. You do not have control over these public internet connections. It should not be presumed to be secure as in #1. This is a different ballgame. Here John and Jane use their VPNs for security. Even though you are on that public WiFi connection, you are doing so through your VPN tunnel. You will be protected from bad actors on that network. Snoops on that network are not going to be able to do harm to your devices. You are still getting that private connection, but the security of the VPN is the biggest factor here.
2a. I should add this section here to say — I have found limited situations over the years where public WiFi connections refuse to play nicely with a VPN even after the settings are adjusted. In these scenarios, if I am just using my smartphone, I turn WiFi off and just use the cellular connection. At least I have a secure connection. If I needed to use a laptop and couldn’t use a VPN, I would set up my smartphone as a hotspot.
When Not To Use A VPN
– With Express VPN, Windscribe, and PIA — a split tunnel can be set up to allow certain apps to bypass the VPN. Some bank websites do not work properly with a VPN on. John, Jane, and I set up one browser to split off from our VPNs so that we can access any website that does not play nicely with the VPN. This split tunnel feature does not work on iPhones. It may work on some Android phones.
– When downloading operating system updates: These happen outside of any browser and are typically very large files. As long as John and Jane are on a secure connection in the home or the office, it wouldn’t be the end of the world to turn the VPN off solely for the purposes of the updates.
In conclusion, after digesting these two installments I’ve sent you, you may decide a VPN is not for you or it is right up your alley. The choice is yours. VPN use in on the rise among people like John and Jane. They keep theirs on automatically, whenever their devices are in use. Surfing the internet through a VPN tunnel is a pathway to freedom.
(If you don’t have important files on your PC — if you use it to surf the Internet and check email only — this doesn’t apply to you. Perhaps you could forward it to another Windows user).
However, I know that most of you have important files on your Windows PC. They could be work files, documents, proposals, and photos.
I’m giving you a true report from the field here and let you know that the recent BIG UPDATE to Windows 10 (version 2004) that has been installing on your computers over the past couple months has created A FEW problems. Well over 90% have been smooth sailing. But — there are 2 that I can think of — that were a big problem. In both cases — the computers needed to be erased and have Windows 10 reinstalled. In one situation — it didn’t matter. In the other situation, the client was in a tough spot because there were important work documents and no backup.
You can avoid this all together — by having a backup system in place. This might be an external hard drive. It might be an online file storage service like One Drive or Dropbox. Or you may even want to consider an all encompassing online backup service like Carbonite or Backblaze for about $6 per month.
Updates and Upgrades do fail from time to time. Windows may have to be reinstalled. You may need several hours of help from someone like me when this happens. Having a backup of important files makes your life SO MUCH easier.
Here are a couple of Bonus Features for you today.
Fax Is Back
With one company in particular and actually a couple of parties, I have been doing a lot of faxing lately. I haven’t had a true home phone with the phone company since 2012. From 2012-2016, I had a service called VOIPo for my home phone. Basically I plugged an adapter into my router and then positioned a couple of cordless phones throughout the home. At some point in my time as a customer, they allowed me to upload scanned documents (or computer created documents) and they would fax them out for me. In mid-2016, I decided that I didn’t really need the fax perk anymore and changed to a well known internet based home phone called Magic Jack. As I have shared before, I pay a whopping $40 per year for my home phone and use it for all of 5 minutes a month. Ultimately, I cannot fax with Magic Jack. So what did I do? I signed up with Humble Fax for $10 / month and no long term contract. This service gave me a local fax number. It allows me to scan documents to the computer and upload them to my Humble Fax portal. I can then compose a little cover page and send the fax out. It’s awesome. I can also receive faxes and get them delivered to my e-mail.
Still Rockin’ With T-Mobile
The subject of T-Mobile came up with a client recently and I just wanted to say that I am pleased to report that my wife and I still love them, 14 months later. They are the best big tech / telecom company I have ever dealt with. We are on the 2 for $70 / unlimited age 55+ plan. Only one person on the plan needs to be 55 or older. Our price includes all taxes and junk fees. As for the promises delivered on, here are the major ones. When we ported in from Verizon, they promised to pay off our phones. We each had a year remaining and about $600 total left on our phone loans. Within 14 days, I got a virtual Mastercard with the exact payoff amount loaded so that I could pay off Verizon. My wife is a big fan of the Samsung Galaxy phones and not an iPhone user. When the Galaxy S20 orders started in February, she was all in. The prices went up this year and the S20 was $999. However, it became more palatable when T-Mobile (through some kind of arrangement with Samsung) promised to give my wife $500 for her 2 year old Galaxy S9+. That phone only has a street value of about $150, approximately. About 3 weeks after receiving the phone in early March, T-Mobile delivered. $95 was given to us as a Bill Credit. $405 was put on a pre-paid Mastercard. I was then able to take that Mastercard and pay it all on my wife’s phone loan, knocking it down by 40%. Promises made, promises kept! If you are interested in that 2 for $70 plan, I can talk with you about it. It may not be for everyone and if you have the right iPhone (2018 models and later), I think I can set you up with a “bridge the gap” strategy to make this work optimally.
I am concerned about this issue and I know many of you are too. An increasing amount of space in both traditional and online media has been given to the great power that so few companies have. There was a big NY Times article on the subject not long ago. We are talking about it at work. We bemoan the technological giants with friends. I could write a ton on the matter at hand, but I want to keep it simple, give you something to nibble on, and invite your thoughts.
As great as Google Assistant is, this story gave me cause for concern.
When you delete an item, it should be gone. However, Google still has access to it in this instance.
So who I am I really talking about when I say the “technological giants” ? Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft.
Consider Facebook’s power in social media and messaging. Facebook.com, Facebook Messenger, What’s App, and Instagram! Wow. With the exception of traditional text messages, and Apple’s iMessage (blue messages on your iPhone) platform, that is such as large chunk of our digital experience. Facebook owns all of it.
I like to put Apple and Microsoft in a different sub group within the powers that be. They primarily sell stuff that we use. Yes they engage in some data collection an analysis, but Facebook, Google, and Twitter feast off of user information. (With the exception of some Google business services), you don’t really pay for anything from these three. They are in the business of harvesting information for the purpose of selling ads. Amazon is the most well known online retailer. They also have a massive division that provides paid data management services to businesses. Yet, they know everything about our shopping habits. I’m sure they can share some data with manufacturers. Their control of merchandise can make or break a new product or upstart company.
Consider this hypothetical. You really are a big advocate for this one diet. And there are a couple of books that are like “the bible” for your program of eating. However, this diet is controversial. You don’t have any local bookstores you can go to. Amazon is the place to buy the books for this program. You often shop there to buy new copies for the support group you run. Some food lobby starts putting pressure on Amazon to stop carrying these books. A health association chimes in. Amazon decides to stop carrying the books. It becomes much harder to easily disseminate the required information.
Ultimately, Amazon is a private bookstore. They can choose to carry the volumes they want. The problem is — for some Amazon is the only choice. They have put so many of our cherished local bookstores out of business.
Just something to think about! What are you going to do to combat THEIR power? Use a VPN? Use paid e-mail service? What about searching on DuckDuckGo.com instead of Google?
I realize that the last two weeks of update were truly “honors class” material. The take home points are — 1) I always install ad blockers for my clients. 2) You should have a second (or 3rd) browser installed should there be issues with your primary browser. 3) The ability to use my preferred ad blocker in Google Chrome may change by the end of the year. 4) I can help you with this issue should the time come.
Let’s go remedial this week.
Simple Security Stuff – February 2019
–When sending out group e-mails: put yourself in the To field, put everyone else in the Bcc field.
-Never make your password out of revealing or obvious information (Birth date, maiden name, password123, etc.).
-One trend in password creation that I like is to create a sentence (ex. ILiketheYankeesin19).
-You need to be using a separate password for each website. You can start with the same base and add a unique suffix for each particular website.
-Ideally, you should use a software password manager. I set up either Last Pass or 1Password for my clients. They are secure and they work.
-If you are not ready to use a password manager: Never ever ever store your passwords in a Word document on the computer. If you are going to store them this way, we need to put them on a flash drive that you can plug into your computer when you need to look at them. (Please contact me if you are in this situation).
-If you still aren’t ready to use a password manager (hint), I don’t mind you using a paper based “notebook”.
Apple really messed this one up. I know you iPhone, iPad and Mac users out there really like Facetime. It means a lot in your business and family communications. It’s built into all of those 3 devices I just mentioned. You don’t need a separate Skype account for it to work. Apple got this one right. However, there is a hiccup. A Facetime flaw was found in group Facetime calls that allowed you to be secretly recorded even if you don’t answer the call. Cupertino — we have a problem!! Apple is taking this so seriously that they have disabled the group Facetime feature until they can roll out a fix later this week. Please be checking your iPhone once a day over the next week. I am expecting an update by the end of the week. If you really want to be safe, you could turn off Facetime entirely as a short term precaution. Settings >> Facetime >> Flip the switch. I won’t be doing that, but I don’t blame you if you want to. Just be sure to turn it on the next time you want to do a Facetime chat with your brother in St. Louis.
Browsers and Ad Blockers – Part 1
I wrote several Updates on ad blockers back in 2015 and 2016. Those posts can be found on my blog theacronym.com by searching for the term “ad blocker”. I have used an ad blocker in my browsers for at least 10 years. I have used an ad blocker on my iPhone since they were allowed back in 2015. I install ad blockers on nearly every single client computer I work on. I think I have only been told one time to remove the ad blocker entirely. (Hint: it may end up being a mistake.) Of course, I show my clients how to turn off the ad blocker for a particular website should it be requested. I described the notion of ad blocking as a dilemma we face as Internet users. Much of the web that we use is free. Those websites pay their bills with ads. If everyone blocks ads, these sites can’t pay their bills. They will either need to come up with new revenue models or cease to exist. The vast majority of Internet users are not blocking ads, so you are in a rare group.
I don’t feel bad about blocking ads. Why? Many of my clients computers have been infected with annoying adware and malware due to bad ads. Why are there bad ads? Most website do not manage their ads. They turn them over to a 3rd party service. Every so often those ad networks do not properly screen the code behind particular ads or the websites they link to. Your computer is adversely affected, likely resulting in an expensive service call to someone like me. Either because I have to (ie. to watch a TV show on a network’s website) or because I want to support a particular site, I do unblock ads on a case by case basis. I am less offended by websites that serve up their own ads and don’t rely on an outside company. These sites are few and far between, unfortunately. I am very willing to unblock these “1st party” ads.
My go to ad blockers on the computer are Ad Block Plus or uBlock Origin, and I tend to favor the second one. You likely have one of the 2 installed by me. On iOS devices I like Ad Guard, though there are other choices. For some clients, I have taken the notion of blocking one step further and gone with a “sledgehammer approach” blocking all advertising servers at the network level of the computer before they even get the the browser. This may be the right call if you have had serious security problems due to ads in the past or are very averse to ads.
Coming next week — Part 2 — How the most popular browser may try to limit your ability to block ads later this year. Stay tuned.
Still Falling for Tech Support Scams
I think I do an exceptional job at educating my clients about consumer issues as they relate to technology. It still blows my mind that some of my clients continue to fall for “tech support scams.” Some of these scams may be outright fraud — money for the taking with no intention of services ever being provided or the intentional infection of the computer and subsequent (hallelujah) we’ve fixed your computer ma’am. Others may employ unethical business practices, actually coming to you through a pop-up ad or a phone call with the intention of providing tech support services. They will typically imply that you have a corrupted computer and they can fix it. You may be asked to pay a one time charge of $300 for the incident or be offered a “deal” of $800 or more for “lifetime” support. I am calling scam on both types of schemes. They could ask to get paid by credit card, but their favorite method is the CHECKING ACCOUNT NUMBER. Do you know that anyone with even limited technology / payment processing skills can run an ACH on you as long as they have your routing number and checking account number found at the bottom of your check. This is really scary. A recent customer was told by a scammer to put their filled out check on the scanner and let them remotely scan it for payment purposes. Before I even helped her, I had her go to her bank and close the account. In the future, this is how I will handle it. We can always take care of the computer later, you must take care of your identity first. In this most recent example in my consultancy, the tech support scam incident was likely triggered by a malicious pop up ad telling them that their computer was out of date and in trouble.
If you really want to block ads from even getting a breath of internet on your computer – let me know. Most of you have browser based ad blockers. I am not talking about that. I have something better in mind, on a per computer basis, that prevents the ad servers from seeing the light of day.
Microsoft or Apple or Google are not going to mysteriously pop up on your computer with a phone number (or call you) telling you that you have a problem and that you need support.
^^^ Please copy this sentence to your memory. Read it several times. Then, copy it and paste it into Word or your word processing program. Make the print really big! Print it out. Tape it to your wall or your desk. This is a $1000 tip offered completely FREE! Merry Christmas!
A Note on Saving on Services
Numerous clients have contacted me since last week’s update about saving money on home telecommunications services. With some I have been able to help save on services – in a big league way – and in one case I was not. I don’t think I oversold this idea. If you shoot me a private e-mail, I would be glad to let you look over my Comcast bill and see that I pay $112.xx indeed for TV + a very fast internet package, with three TV’s and owning my own Internet equipment. I have been asked about saving money on the cable modem, which runs about $11 / mo. A good one — Arris or Netgear brand — will cost you $100 and easily last 3 years, short of “Acts of God”, etc. The math works in your favor. However, if you have phone service from Comcast, you will have to pay about the same $11 a month for a combined modem / router device. These cost more than a standalone modem in the store — and may not be worth it to buy outright. The reason why I have always advocated for a separate cable modem (rented or not) and router (owned by you) – is because it is SUPERIOR ON TECHNICAL MERITS. It’s not a matter of cost. And since I have been asked this recently — well Mr. Computer — do you use a separate cable modem and router? Yes I do. I have a Netgear modem and a Synology router.
With that out of the way, there are basically three ways that you are going to save in the BATTLE FOR COST CUTTING — 1) hoping you qualify for a package discount on like services because its been a while (and by that I mean like a year or two) since you qualified for such a promotion, 2) MAKING SACRIFICES, or 3) Cutting down to Internet only and then subscribing to a service like Hulu Live TV at $40 which will give you most of the channels you want. If you insist on the “24 hour cattle ranching channel” (or pick your niche channel) that is the highest cable tier, I don’t know how successful you will be at cost savings. I could easily be paying $200+ a month. I got it to where it is, consistently, by making sacrifices. If you want to save, please let me know your circumstances. We should look at the cell phone bill also!
For years, I have been a Hanukkah and Christmas helper for my clients. If its within the realm of electronics and computers, let me know how I can help you. Perhaps you need help selecting, setting up, and putting back in the box. I’ll be there for you. I have also helped clients with creating cards that can be printed out and mailed to your loved ones. It’s not too late. Photo cards speak 1000’s of words.
2 Numbers on One Phone
This is really cool! Maybe you have business and personal lines. Perhaps you always wanted to make your home phone a cell phone number in addition to your regular cell, but dread carrying two phones. Right now — this option has arrived. The 2018 iPhone models (Xs, Xs Max, and XR) offer eSIM technology. This means you could have two numbers on one iPhone. This capability just became possible with the iOS 12.1.1 update that came out last week. Verizon, AT&T and other carriers worldwide are on board. Let me know if you have questions about the power of eSIM.
Some of my clients live in a cellular dead zone. It’s a brutal existence when you can’t make cell phone calls from you own home, especially when they are work related or there are medical issues involved. Over the past few years, ATT, Verizon, and TMobile have rolled out WiFi Calling for smartphones. It’s that simple. You can make and receive cellular calls over your home WiFi connection even when there is no cellular signal. It has been a godsend to several clients. Many smartphones 2 to 3 years old and newer support this feature. However, if this feature means something to you, you’ll want to buy your phone through “official” channels. By official, I am talking about your carrier or Apple. The market for independently purchased phones, such as purchases made through Amazon or direct from the manufacturer (ie. some Motorola models, Nokia [they’re back], and One Plus), is growing. Unfortunately, I have witnessed that AT&T likes to play games in making WiFi calling an exclusive feature. If you are their customer, buy your smartphone from them or from Apple. Note: visual notification of voicemails will still be a problem in a low cell / no cell signal area.
Awesome Utilities for Archiving Phone Data
Archiving data like text messages and call logs may be a legal issue, a business issue, or even a personal issue for you. Here are some tools for your tool box. With your iPhone, you need to make a full backup to your computer (Windows or Mac) via iTunes. We have probably done this before, but you will want to get in the habit if this sort of record keeping means something. While there are many utilities that can parse this data, I prefer iMazing. It is amazing!. https://imazing.com It is $45 and worth every penny.
On the Android side, I recommend SMS Backup + and SMS Backup and Restore. The second app has some paid features, but I haven’t found the need for them. SMS Backup+ actually takes your texts and makes them into a searchable folder in your Gmail account (WOW). SMS Backup and Restore — exports call logs and text into 2 files on your phone or Google Drive. They can be downloaded onto your computer or the app itself for your viewing pleasure. They can also be restored back to a different Android phone.