We’ve spoken before on the subject of the numerous call center scams that exist for the purpose of convincing people they have a problem and taking their money to “fix it”, but with the increased frequency at which we’ve been hearing about more and more clients being affected, we decided that it would be prudent to go into more detail on the types of blue screen popups and tactics users may encounter.
As we’ve mentioned, on many occasions users might run into a page that is disguised to look like an error or even a Blue Screen of Death.
This type of message can be very jarring on its own, and to make matters worse, it will often be accompanied by a computerized voice making claims about errors or viruses on your computer. However, there are some tells that clearly indicate its illegitimacy. First off, if you take a moment and look at the screen, you can tell that this screen is clearly within the internet browser, which means the computer is still running. In every case, a blue screen is a complete crash of Windows itself, which means everything else will have closed before it can be displayed. Not only this, but it prompts for readers to call a support phone number. Microsoft has no such number that they provide on the blue screen of death. Third, and sometimes most telling, is the lack of proper spelling, grammar, or capitalization on the page. These types of trap pages are oftentimes surprisingly shoddily designed, and will often mis-word or misspell even basic terms. In the case of the example above, the message not only repeats the “Please contact Microsoft technicians” twice, but it also forgets to capitalize Microsoft, while it capitalizes “Immediately” and “Rectify” for some reason. The sentence as a whole also seems somewhat clunky and indicative of “English as a second language.”
Calling the number on the page will get you to a (usually foreign) call center that will walk you through “fixing the problem” and charge you a great deal of money to do so. Refusing to comply once they have connected after a call to them can often lead to them actually messing with your computer in some way, and if the worst happens, they may make your computer unusable. To make matters worse, the page itself usually traps visitors on it with a continuously reappearing notification that prevents you from closing it, leading even people who might know better to call the number just to get control of their computer back.
Thankfully, wrenching control back from these types of pages is not impossible, and any consequences implied by the pages in question are usually empty threats. Three methods might be available to you, depending on your situation.
Method one is available to most users running a third-party internet browser; if you are running Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Opera Chromium, the option to “prevent this page from creating additional dialogues” will be available as a little checkbox at the bottom of the notification that seems to keep opening no matter how many times you close it. Checking it and acknowledging or closing the notification one more time will prevent it from appearing again, allowing you to simply close the page normally.
Method two is available to all users, but requires you forcefully close the process of your internet browser which, if you keep multiple pages open at a time, can cause you to lose whatever you are doing on the other tabs of your web browser. On your keyboard, pressing CTRL, Alt, and Delete (DEL) at the same time on a Windows PC will allow you to open the task manager. From there, simply choosing your internet browser and clicking on “End Task” will force it to close, allowing you to simply reopen it and continue working. For Mac users, pressing the key combination of Command, Option, and Escape (esc) allows you to activate the equivalent function, “Force Quit”. From that windows, simply selecting the program you wish to close and clicking Force Quit will accomplish the same result.
The “Task Manager” window in Windows 10.
The “Force Quit” screen on a Mac.
Method three should only be used as a last resort. It’s simple to execute, but it can potentially cause problems if you perform it while your computer is updating or installing something, and can at least cause you to lose data if you have any programs open and you are editing documents or files that haven’t been recently saved. In this case, simply holding down the power button on either a Mac or PC will force it to shut down, and the problem should be gone upon restarting it and logging back in.
Now in some cases, especially those in which you may have inadvertently installed something, you might be afflicted with something known as a “Browser Hijacker“, or “Scareware“. These pieces of software are some of the more extreme measures such call center scammers have been using in recent years, and they usually have the effect of automatically defaulting the home page of your internet browser to their own error page, or even going so far as to generate an otherwise inescapable error message upon computer startup. If this is the case, getting rid of such malware can be rather complicated, at which point it is usually recommended that you consult your local technician.
If you’re like me, and indeed most people, you tend to have a bit of trouble remembering passwords for your different online accounts. At the very least, you may remember the passwords themselves, but not what they go to. What’s worse is that many account-connected services will auto-lockout when hit with too many wrong passwords. It’s almost like having a lock that breaks and becomes unusable after you try the wrong key.
Thankfully, as many companies and developers have become aware of this common problem, a good number of tools, features, and programs have cropped up over the years to help. We’ll be looking at some of these solutions, from built in features to standalone programs, and comparing the capabilities and convenience of everything from the basic to the advanced.
The most basic form of password management is the built-in password autofill option incorporated into most modern web browsers.
Now, for the most commonly used browsers out there, any new webpage or account that is signed into with a username and password will prompt the browser in question to ask if the user wishes to save that information for easy access later. If the user chooses to accept the prompt, then the browser will automatically enter the correct information to log in to a webpage every time the user accesses said webpage. In addition to this convenience, most browsers also have synchronizing capabilities to some extent, and as such can log a user in and provide usernames and passwords for the user’s accounts, even on a computer that wasn’t originally used to save the password, so long as the user is logged into the browser itself.
However, this method has its disadvantages. First off, the very fact that the information is not itself password protected means that anyone with access to your computer, or one of the computers you are signed into with that browser, can access any of your accounts without having to directly know the information required to do so. Besides this, the feature itself is usually not very easy to control. Once a password is saved, some browsers require you to go through a mess of menus and interfaces to manage or remove this type of saved information, and some don’t let you pick and choose, requiring you to remove all of the browser’s data, even down to your history and your bookmarks, in order to get rid of a saved password. For another thing, the browser’s password saving is obviously limited to only things you can open in said browser, and will not be effective on applications loaded onto your computer such as Adobe Creative Cloud, QuickBooks, ACT!, etc.
Identity Safe is a free program provided by Norton, and is frequently bundled with their antivirus package, making it one of the more commonly seen options on this list. Although it has some of the same limitations as the browsers’ integrated options, it definitely surpasses them in a few key areas. For one thing, it protects your many passwords with a master password, which is immediately more secure than browser-stored passwords. It still stays synchronized across different computers and devices since it is cloud based, meaning wherever you go, your passwords are just a log in away. It has an account and password manager for deleting or altering login data for different websites and specific accounts should they change or become out of date. It can also conveniently import existing passwords and account information from a web browser of your choice, so upon setting it up it is not necessary to go through and re-enter every piece of information you already have stored. It can also remember multiple logins for the same site, should you have multiple accounts.
Unfortunately, it still faces certain disadvantages, just like the options listed above. For one thing, Identity Safe only works, once again, on webpages. It has no support for logging into applications outside of a web browser. It also is not as secure as many would like, as all those passwords you have stored could be the most secure in the world, but that wouldn’t protect you if someone were to guess your master password. Beyond this, it also reportedly has trouble with identifying certain web pages that it should save the passwords for, but doesn’t. All in all, it’s a good option for the fact that it’s free, and it’s more secure than not, but it still has its disadvantages.
If you are looking for essentially the last word in secure passwords, look no further than products such as LastPass and Roboform.
Both programs rectify every weakness seen in the previous options, and include every feature already seen. However, both add the ability to generate large, randomized, and complex passwords. Both also work on external applications as well as webpages. both allow for numerous different form autofills and account logins for as many websites and applications as you wish as well. Security wise, both are heavily encrypted and virtually impossible to breach, as well as having the capability to set up a two step-authentication, which is a method of logging in that requires more than one password or method. In fact, the user has a good deal of options for authentication methods, even down to their fingerprints if the device has a fingerprint reader.
All in all, you cannot get more secure than these. Their convenience parallels their effectiveness, removing any real difficulty in choosing or managing what information is to be protected by these applications. In this day of identity theft and cyber crime, it is all the more important to remain vigilant and well guarded online.
For many years, the vast majority of users on the internet have mostly used one or two internet browsers: Internet Explorer or Safari. Those options were always laid out as plainly as the platform they were built on, being Windows or Mac OS, respectively. However, around 2010, that started to change. With the major performance issues of the now-defunct Internet Explorer 10, and the lack of features or real change presented by Safari, more and more users began looking toward alternative web browsers.
We’ll be going over some of those options, and why you should (or shouldn’t!) make a switch, depending on your tastes.
Mainstream Web Browsers
Microsoft Internet Explorer
First off, we have the most historically widely-used internet browser, the mainstay of Windows, and probably one of the longest-running ones on this list, Internet Explorer 11. Because of its long history, it also tends to be compatible with a lot of commercial sites, which tend to be slow to change or update. This makes it a very important asset for corporations and enterprises, especially those whose size make major system changes cost or time prohibitive.
However, Internet Explorer still suffers from a bit of instability when viewing certain content, and has been known to become sluggish or unresponsive in some situations. Also, being one of the historically most popular browsers has made it a target, in the past and present, of malware and adware attacks. Older versions are probably the most vulnerable, so especially for those running 10 and prior, which are no longer supported by Microsoft, it becomes very important to upgrade or, barring that, switch to another alternative.
Next up, we have Safari. Apple’s mainstay internet browser has shown a long history, and like IE has shown considerably wide compatibility with many websites, whether they were made yesterday or fifteen years ago. Safari has also been shown to be more stable than Internet Explorer, and barring the occasional mishap, has had a very strong record of good performance and good security. With the recent integration of Siri, it has also entered the same smart browsing space as Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge. Its exclusive presence on the Mac and iOS operating systems makes obtaining and using it prohibitive to anyone not owning an Apple-branded product, but for those that do, it remains a good option.
Naturally though, there’s no such thing as a perfect product, and in a number of places Apple’s Safari web browser falls short. For example, synchronizing settings, bookmarks, and the like is not possible, except between Apple devices. Being so restricted to exactly one brand of products means cross-compatibility is non-existent, and if you find yourself using a Windows, Android, or Chrome OS device (which tend to be far more commonly available), you will have no access to the data on your Safari browser. This was somewhat excusable in the case of Internet Explorer due to its widespread availability, as well as the ability of most other browsers to import settings and favorites from it on request. Even Mac users have the capability of running Internet Explorer via Bootcamp or Virtual Machine software like Parallels, but on such a closed platform, having no presence on other systems is inconvenient.
As far as both Microsoft and Apple’s original offerings go, both offer strong compatibility, good performance, and a simple interface. However, the lack of any real customization or the lack of a centralized location to get a decent selection of addons or extensions leaves them feeling bland and somewhat limited. As mentioned before as well, being the “original” essentially paints a target on your back in regards to security breaches and annoying or less than useful toolbars and hijackers looking to hit the widest number of potential victims.
Alternative Web Browsers
Chrome has a lot of things going for it, and a lot of the changes Google has made have been pretty beneficial. First off, Chrome, especially when it first came out, was the fastest web browser around. Since its inception, it has also expanded to every platform imaginable, and can be used on Windows, Android, Mac OS, iOS, and even Linux. It also takes advantage of its cross-compatibility with its synchronizing capabilities. If you are reading an article on your Android phone, you can pick it up on your iPad or Windows PC, or any other device for that matter, right where you were. If you save a bookmark, add an extension, or save login details for a website, you will find that Chrome will have them handy on whatever device you use. Its connection to everything Google also gives it the interesting ability to allow for voice searches using “Google Now”, in which users can actually talk to the web browser to get answers on different subjects and perform searches. Chrome also has a massive library of extensions, from ad blockers to productivity tools, as well as a huge selection of themes, designs, and other tweaks to personalize it how you see fit.
Once again however, this is not to say Chrome is perfect. Unfortunately, since its now been on top in popularity for a few years, it suffers from the same targeted bloat and malicious software that the previous options have, and its extensibility has also amplified the problem to a degree, causing many Chrome users to unwittingly install such software alongside seemingly benign programs. It also seems that every piece of adware these days has some sort of hijacker or toolbar forcing victims to be annoyingly revisited by such content. Besides this, Chrome has also started picking up a bit of a flaw in its design in more recent versions. It has become very memory demanding, and although it still runs well on higher-end systems, lower-end or older hardware will suffer considerably from its hunger for more and more resources.
Whereas Google Chrome is something of a newcomer to the field of alternative web browsers, there are a couple that have persisted for much longer. One such example is Mozilla’s Firefox web browser.
Firefox is a rather interesting animal in that it stands out from the pack when it comes to a different emphasis on a few of its key features, and has historically been one of the first to develop or adopt a lot of capabilities we take for granted today. Every browser worth its bits these days has tabbed browsing, which is the ability to have multiple pages open simultaneously within the same web browser. Although so many use this feature in the present day, Firefox was the first, and it still has the most refined tab experience. It allows users to efficiently group multiple tabs into organized groups relating to certain subjects, almost akin to how one might organize a set of paper documents in a file folder. Another development is the smart location bar, which allows users to find webpages and information they frequently access or have recently visited simply by typing a related term or even a few letters into the address bar. Besides it features, however, Firefox has probably the greatest emphasis in the group on privacy and security, and tends to be the least vulnerable to phishing attacks looking to steal user information, and even goes so far as to actively block sites that it detects are dangerous or misleading. Firefox seems to focus a lot in areas different from the other browsers here, and to further fill that idea, it has shown to be the most lightweight web browser around – using about half the average memory of Chrome and significantly less than any of the aforementioned options.
Where Firefox excels in some ways over other options, it also has some weaknesses in comparison. Partially as a caveat to its low memory usage, Firefox has one of the slowest startup times on this list, and does not reload recently closed pages or tabs nearly as quickly as some others. In addition to this, with how its (admittedly plentiful) addons work, running multiple instances of Firefox or mutliple addons can cause a significant slowdown or instability. Finally, it is still somewhat less compatible with some websites than other options, and it can be almost overprotective in some cases, occasionally blocking perfectly legitimate websites or services it believes are harmful in some way.
Over the years, Opera has accumulated quite a troupe of interesting capabilities, most of which have remained to the present day. First and foremost, there’s Opera Turbo: a function that compresses website data before sending it, decompressing it on arrival. This provides the benefit of loading pages more quickly on a slow internet connection, as well as saving data on a metered or limited internet connection, for example on airline flights or with mobile hotspots and smartphone networks. Furthering the idea of getting to the pages you want quickly, Opera also has a feature called “Speed Dial”, which, in the same vein as a telephone, is a fully customizable menu which Opera opens to by default that can store links to frequently used or important websites.
There are also a variety of other handy features built right into the web browser, many of which often exist as dedicated programs elsewhere. For example, it has a built in Email client which can handle multiple accounts, an RSS reader, a note manager similar to Evernote, and even a Torrent downloading client. Other minor features involve the ability to preview tabs by hovering over them, reload webpages automatically on a set schedule (for those bloggers and bidders out there), and control common browser functions (Back, Forward, Refresh, New Tab, Etc.) with mouse gestures. It’s also built on Chromium just like Google Chrome, but it lacks a lot of the vulnerability to bloat with a tighter sense of security and, partially thanks to its uncommonness, much less of a focus by malicious software writers. It also manages to be one of the lightest on memory usage, trailing only behind Firefox on its lack of resource demand.
Opera is an interesting project in that it rectifies a lot of the flaws in some of the other browsers on this list, but it doesn’t particularly excel at any one thing. It’s features are numerous and different, and it comes with a lot of capabilities pre-packaged, but also because of its uncommonness, it doesn’t have a strong following in the extension development community. On the performance side, it doesn’t really stand out from the others either. It’s not the fastest, nor the lightest-weight, nor the most secure, nor the most extensible, nor even the most widely compatible browser on this list. It gets good scores on average where a lot of the others will flop in at least one area, but it never tops the charts. As they say: jack of all trades, master of none.
But wait! You didn’t mention this browser under the mainstream browsers section. It’s a Microsoft product, and it’s meant to replace Internet Explorer! Doesn’t that automatically make it a mainstream browser?
Well… Not quite. Microsoft Edge may be the “powerful new web browser” built from the ground up to serve as the heir apparent to Internet Explorer, but it’s not quite mainstream yet. For one thing, Edge was in experimental stages as early as six months ago. All things considered, it’s very young. Secondly, it is not backwards compatible with versions of Windows before Windows 10. That’s right, it’s a Windows 10 exclusive. However, that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. In fact, if you’ve bought a computer in the last few months, you more than likely have Edge already, and if your current computer is from within the last six years, you probably have the chance to get Windows 10 for free. But this isn’t news, as everyone has seen the upgrade option at some point or another.
Regarding Edge though, it definitely lives up to the hype regarding its performance over Internet Explorer. Pages load faster, its more secure, it launches more quickly, and it is designed more intelligently. From my article regarding changes in Windows 10, “It has a very clean aesthetic, and most of the menus and settings are laid out in a very straight forward manner. In terms of integration, it works quite well with Cortana, allowing her to learn about the user’s needs over time, as well as allowing her to assist you and carry out functions within the browser.” It also has the unique feature of allowing users to capture entire web pages, even space outside the boundary of the screen (which alone functions better than any screenshot software I’ve ever seen), and write on them or edit them for collaborative projects or presentations. It also appears to be far less vulnerable to intrusion or exploitation than most browsers currently, and it has solid security.
It uses a good deal of memory, but it actually relinquishes it when closing tabs much better than Google Chrome seems to want to, and that’s alright with it being part of only the latest iteration of Windows. It doesn’t have support for extensions at the present time, but it’s planning on having them in the future. It’s still somewhat buggy, though, and that’s its greatest weakness: its age. Tabs don’t always close, some websites don’t display completely, and occasionally it lags for a second or so when loading new webpages. However, it’s solid otherwise and should improve on its deficiencies in time. Remember when I said that Microsoft Edge is Internet Explorer’s “heir apparent”? It hasn’t deposed Internet Explorer or anything. IE is still present, even in Windows 10, for “compatibility purposes”. This simply means that Microsoft acknowledges that Edge is not yet fully matured, and some things might not yet work with it. For those things that don’t, users have something to fall back on.