Helping Consumers Become Computer Savvy

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The old adage TINSTAAFL (There is no such thing as a free lunch) absolutely applies to buying computers and software and surfing the Internet.

Rumors of someone "unscrupulously" selling cracked software have circulated around Payson, as well as someone inserting a "Trojan horse" in the area's Internet providers' systems. But neither Tom Cheatham, who owns Dove's Nest Computer Solutions, or Michael Brown, who owns The Computer Shack, have definitive proof of who it might be.

"Neither one of us are the Microsoft police," Cheatham said. "But we build computers legally and we sell them legally, and if somebody doesn't have legal copies of their software, that could run them into problems later."

When you purchase a copy of Windows XP, for instance, whether it is from a pc builder, a chain store, online or a friend, you should get the original Microsoft compact disc that contains your operating system. The certificate of authenticity (COA), which is typically the sticker that is on the side of the case when the computer is delivered, is your serial number from Windows. That COA and serial number mean you have a legal copy of Windows.

Problems arise when a person tries to activate their product, reinstall software or try to get updates from the Windows Web site and they do not have the COA.

"Then they have to go back to the manufacturer or person who sold them the software and try to get the situation solved," said Cheatham.

Both Brown and Cheatham say they have seen a number of computer systems recently that are not legal with Microsoft.

"We just want to bring this up to the people in town because when they come in for repairs to my place or Michael goes to them and they have problems, there are things we can't do," Cheatham said.

Spyware and viruses are prolific, causing the computer owner to reload their operating system. "Sometimes there is an anti-virus program or anti-spyware program that will fix your system, but often all one can do is erase the hard drive and reinstall the (software). In this scenario, if a person does not have that original operating system, they must buy another copy at a cost of about $120, Cheatham said.

If someone wants to know whether or not their computer has a legal copy, they can call R U LEGIT and follow the prompts, he suggested.

"Genuine validation" has been running since summer on the Microsoft Web site, so when anyone goes to update their software, if the copy is illegal Microsoft wants to know where you bought it and may choose to pursue the matter further, Cheatham said.

Customers often want to install the same software or operating system on both their laptop and pc, but it is not legal to do so without permission from the software manufacturer.

Brown said he has also run into "cracked copies."

"I have customers tell me all the time, ‘Oh I got this for free or I got it for a reduced rate on the Internet.' What they really have is a COA that works, because a hacker has gone in and gotten around Microsoft's security measures."

It doesn't take long for Microsoft to figure it out and shut the COA down.

One of Brown's clients had to completely redo the system for their business.

"Hacking is legal," Brown said. "There are hacking clubs all over America. Payson has one. Hacking is just about anything that you want to do with a computer. It can also fall into categories of logging into other people's computers."

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Michael Brown of The Computer Shack says he has seen a number of computer systems recently that are not legal with Microsoft.

For most, the whole point of hacking into someone else's system, or setting loose a virus, is to prove that Bill Gates has not written an invincible code for an operating system, according to Brown.

"Most viruses get around because people have let their virus software lapse and they don't have the Windows updates, the patches," he said.

"The second Tuesday of every month, Microsoft releases critical updates to their products. Without those updates, even if you have anti-virus software, there are certain malicious programs that can attack your operating system and render it useless. Most of the holes revolve around e-mail -- Outlook Express and Internet Explorer."

Perhaps someone has fallen for a pop-up ad while surfing the Internet, then no matter what a person types in as a URL, they only get the Web site related to the pop-up.

Spyware falls into the category of over-aggressive marketing.

It is legal, but Congress is looking at legislation to make it illegal for any person or company to install something on your computer without your knowledge.

"People download free software, free pornography, free music," Cheatham said.

On the minor side, the downloader might get spyware, which is an inconvenience but not always fatal, and it breaches your surfing privacy. On the more dangerous end, they could encounter "browser hijacking" or remote login for the purpose of installing a "Trojan horse."

‘My computer used to be very fast; now I give it a command and it takes forever' is a complaint the two computer experts get all the time.

"It can mean that there is a (Trojan horse) program running in the background concurrently with Windows that loads before Windows. It allows somebody else to control the computer," said Brown.

"It is not that amazing when you consider the fact that computers, by the very design of the operating system are meant to be networked and shared," he said. "What these people have done is very prolifically exploited that."

According to Brown, a Trojan horse will grant someone else more access to your computer than you have sitting in front of it. Then that person can look (which is not illegal) at all your personal files, piggyback your broadband width, and/or run their, possibly nefarious, Web site off your computer. It becomes illegal activity when they change something.

Back Orifice (a take off on back office) or BOW and Sub 7 are only two of thousands of Trojan horses in circulation. One technique is white text coding under the black in an e-mail or what looks like a legitimate e-mail from a reputable company, but is not. Another rides in with a picture.

Knowledgeable consumers may protect themselves by:

  • Installing anti-virus software.
  • Make certain Windows has the latest patches and updates.
  • Have anti-spyware.
  • If you are using broadband, make certain you have both hardware and software firewalls protecting your computer.
  • Password-protect your login account. (Strong passwords have alpha and numeric characters and a symbol, if it is allowed.)

Brown and Cheatham don't want anyone to be fearful of using their computer or going online.

They just believe cautionary measures are well worth the time and money.

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