What Anti-Virus Should I Buy?

When people call me to look at a slow running machine (not just a slow internet browsing experience) the first thing I check is what anti-virus/anti-malware solution(s) are installed.  More often than not I find multiple versions of both. This is definitely a case of more is not better.


Depending on what definition you choose, the difference between a virus and malware gets a little nerdy. In short, both terms refer to malicious software whose purposes range from vandalism, theft and in severe cases extortion. Viruses tend to be programs that spread by replicating themselves around the host machine and in some cases to other machines on the network. Malware (sometimes called ad-ware) infects the host machine by masquerading as a program or service offering a beneficial feature while it’s actual purpose is hidden and malicious. Some will argue nuances of these definitions but I think the keyword to remember here is malicious.

If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.

–Winston Churchill

Security software works by tracking the activity on your computer and looking for known suspicious behavior. It will watch all the files added or changes on your machine. It will track network traffic coming into your computer as well as watch for patterns in active memory. The challenge these solutions have is that they must know the pattern ahead of time. When a new attack is invented there is often a period of time that everyone is vulnerable, regardless of their anti-virus software. The new attack is reported, and the security companies put out updates to their software to protect you from them.

This brings me back to my point about multiple solutions installed and it effecting performance of the computer. Security software is firstly, software. Like any other program on your computer, it takes resources away from your machine to run. As stated above, it monitors the activity on your computer which adds extra load to every operation you perform. This is a good trade of resources for security, however, if you have multiple redundant security software packages, the return on investment can be close to zero. I diagnosed one customer’s computer that had 3 different ad-ware solutions and two anti-virus programs installed. The computer was spending so much time monitoring itself that the owner couldn’t use it enough to get in trouble. Not the ideal solution to security concerns.

Well, you can’t have that, but if you’re an American citizen you are entitled to:
a heated kidney shaped pool…

— The Tubes, What do you want from life

So, my 80’s roots aside, let’s get down to brass tax. What’s the best security software to buy. My answer is, don’t buy any of them. If you are using Windows 8 or above, Microsoft has you covered as part of the operating system. But is it the best security solution? The truth is any security package can drop the ball when a new threat makes it’s way into the wild. So, some days, yes, it’s the best and other days it leaves you hanging. It has a couple other key advantages however. First, it’s free, which is a price I like. Second, Microsoft has a large vested interest in Windows being secure and running smoothly. This means they are likely to stay on top of the updates. Lastly, in my experience, they have a good balance between load on the system and the security provided.

If you don’t have Windows 8 or 10, my first recommendation is upgrade. From a security perspective, remaining near to the latest version of your operating system is a good investment. Can’t afford to upgrade, or stuck on an older version due to hardware limitations or compatibility issues? Any of the well known brands of anti virus will provide equal protection. Norton, McAfee, AVG are all well known and reliable. There are some extra steps you can take though to keep yourself up and running.

You can have all the latest security software out there and still fall victim to attack. The &%^$heads that create some of these attacks are pretty good at their job. They are often talented software developers who are also adept at social engineering. Before the computer age we would have likely referred to these people as Grifters or Conmen. Not only is this an arms race with periods of vulnerability before the good guys catch up, we can also be fooled into allowing access to our machines. Here’s a couple things you can do to cover the gap.

  1. If you don’t know what will happen when you click “OK”, then click “Cancel”. By far, the most common way my customer’s computers get infected is because they unknowingly installed the virus. If you get a popup and you aren’t absolutely sure where it came from or what it will do, click Cancel. No cancel button? The safest thing to do is restart your computer.
  2. When you update software, Java or Flash for example, watch for checkboxes that offer to install extra “helpful” utilities. Uncheck those boxes.Adobe-Install-Adobe-Flash-Player-2013-11-27-07-45-041
  3. Keep your security software and your operating system updated. At least one night a week, leave your computer running and let Microsoft install their updates. Microsoft will update their security software during this process as well.
  4. There’s no free lunch. There is very little software or services out on the internet that are truly free and those that are usually come with a catch. Before you accept that free offer, ask yourself “how are they making money from this?”. If your answer is “I don’t know” there’s a good chance that they could be making it buy selling your private information to marketers or Russian mobsters. I’m not kidding.

Being safe on the internet is not terribly different than staying safe when walking through a city. There is much to see of value, but it’s probably best to stay out of alleys and areas that are unlit. I hope that this article adds to your internet survival skills. Still have questions, feel free to ask them on my Facebook page. Want more information on this topic? I do one on one tutoring as well as basic security classes for home and business users. Has your computer ground to a snails pace and can’t figure out what’s going on? Give me a call, I Speak Nerd.




How much should you spend on a new PC?

This is another question I get frequently and it isn’t always an easy answer. I start my answer with two questions, first “what do you want to use it for?” and second “do you have a budget in mind?”.

There are several different rough classifications of computer users and PC manufacturers target those groups with features and price. Lets run those down first.

There’s two types of people in this world, the ones who classify people into groups and surfers

Yah, I’m not sure exactly how that quote applies, but I like it.

I call the first group Information Users. They use the computer to search for answers to questions, write a few documents, email, and do simple things like keep a calendar. They require the lowest (and least expensive) hardware specifications. These users tend to buy new hardware much less frequently as they are less sensitive to performance problems and upgrade their software at a slower pace.

Next up are Media Users. This group watches movies through services like Amazon, Netflix and Youtube. While most of this content is streamed online, storage space could be a consideration for this user as well as better than budget level video and audio. These folks might also do some gaming but probably not to a level that justifies buying hardware aimed at “gamers”.

Knowledge Workers are our next group and are made up of people like, well, me! Nerds tend to drive their computers harder than the groups above and have serious storage and memory requirements. This group probably uses specialized software to do their work that requires more costly hardware.

Lastly is the Hardcore Gamer. Modern games with 3D graphics are the most resource intensive software on the market and drive the demand for high end consumer PC’s. They require video cards that have their own microprocessors, fast disk drives, large amounts of memory and often multiple displays.

Each group above is a combination of their traits combined with some or all of the traits in the groups above it.

I know I’m giving away my mid 80’s formative period with an Oingo Boingo reference.  So, lets talk budget. If you have a hard budget to work with my recommendation is pretty simple. With your budget and your usage needs as a guide, get the most machine you can. “But Wes” you ask, “what if it turns out I can spend less money and fit my needs”.  If you find yourself in that position, feel free to save the money, but do consider this point. If you can afford to spend your budget you can increase the amount of time it will be before your hardware becomes dated and potentially save money in the long run. As new versions of software are released and new innovations are made, any PC you buy will eventually become outdated. If you spend more now you’ll push off having to go through this process again.


Ok, now you know how you want to use your new machine and you have a budget number in mind. What’s the best brand? To be honest, the answer to that question changes frequently. 15-20 years ago there were manufacturers to avoid, and others that we’re safe bets. The competition in this space is so fierce and the margins so low, that even the best known manufacturers have garbage on the market along with truly great products. I wish I could say “Buy so-and-so’s brand and you can’t go wrong” but it’s just not the case any longer.

However, there are some things you can do to minimize your exposure. Use a retailer that will support your purchase. Amazon does a really good job at this and so does NewEgg and others. I avoid BestBuy as they have a reputation for being less than interested in supporting their customer after the purchase is made. Before you make your purchase, read up on the manufacturer’s support policy. Are they known for giving people grief or do they have a no nonsense approach to getting you back up and running.

Navigating the new PC waters can be daunting. Hopefully these tips helped you plot a course. If you are still struggling with the decision, give me a call, I can help guide you to the right purchase, because hey, I Speak Nerd.



Is it Safe to Shop Online?


I get this question asked a lot. The short answer is, no. Any time you use an electronic form of payment whether you are putting the digits into a website or swiping your card at the gas pump, you are taking a risk that someone will record those numbers and do something nefarious with it. My wife and I have had our bank account compromised several times. We can personally attest that it happens.1DollarBillPlain

Aha! Back to Cold Hard Cash?


With all the stories about electronic theft and all the services like Life Lock out there claiming that personal economic collapse is imminent, it’s not hard to understand why some are timid about shopping online. While the risk is real, it’s not at the level that some would like to claim. There are several things you can do to reduce your risk. Here are a few steps will help protect you from thieves both online and off.


Disconnect your bank account from your payment method

There are several services out there that will give you a debit or credit card that you can fill from your bank account. BBT’s MoneyAccount is one of these services. PayPal offers something similar. Rather than the card take money directly from your checking account, you add money to the card as you like. Want to make a $100 purchase on Amazon? Use the banks website to transfer the money from your account to the card (this can be done by phone as well) then safely make your purchase. The idea here is that this payment card is not linked directly to your bank account so the worse that can happen would be to have the balance on the card stolen. If the card is misused, you there is 100% fraud protection on all of these services. Most have a small fee associated with their use. Your existing bank probably offers a form of this service. The key here is that the card you are paying with is not linked directly to your checking account.

Dedicated Credit Card

If you have the discipline, another way to accomplish disconnecting your bank account from your payment method is to dedicate a credit card for that use and pay it off before the interest is charged. This is another great option because most (if not all) credit cards come with fraud protection and is usually an easy process if the card gets compromised.

Stay Vigilant

Whether you continue using a payment method connected to your bank account or go with one of the solutions above, you’ll want to regularly review your purchase history. When our accounts have been compromised it was pretty easy to spot. Most of the time our bank’s fraud alert team sees it and contacts us. They find problems automatically by monitoring our account for odd purchase behavior. If we use the card somewhere local and 20 minutes later the card is used in The Bahamas, it tends to set the bank alarms off. None the less, you still need to keep an eye out for purchases that don’t look familiar to you. If you spot one, engaging with the fraud protection service is, in our experience with 3 banks, fairly painless.

Well, I’ll just stay off the internet then!

This is a common reaction when folks talk about this issue. The truth is that online purchasing is just one of a set of risks we face with our bank accounts. Skimmers that record your credit card information before passing it on to the bank for verification are frequently used at gas stations and restaurants. The thief then uses the digits of your card to make purchases or sells the digits to a group of criminals for later use. Electronic theft isn’t just an online problem. If you keep your money in a bank, you are at risk.

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…

The days of operating purely on a cash basis are gone my friends. For many goods and services local stores just can’t compete with online providers such as Amazon. The net effect is less availability and higher prices locally.  Turning back the clock isn’t really possible, but you can be prepared.

Still concerned and have questions? Feel free to ask them on my Facebook Page, because, well, I-SpeakNerd.


Where did that toolbar come from?

One of the most common performance complaints I get is “The internet is slow”. Sometimes this is related to the performance of your network, but most of the time the problem is actually toolbars installed on your browser. “Huh, I didn’t install any toolbar?” you question! My answer, yes and no.

What’s a toolbar?

Toolbars are software that attach themselves to your internet browser. On the surface they appear to offer additional functionality. They may claim to enhance your ability to search, or find coupons to save you money. Some even claim to enhance the security of your browsing experience. At best they are poorly maintained programs and at worst they stealing your private information and sending it to hackers. (If they are claiming to enhance your security, chances are they are doing the opposite).

Toolbar Example

Examples of various toolbars

There’s no free lunch

One thing most toolbars have in common is they claim to provide something for nothing. As consumers, we have been taught to distrust the word “free”. That advice holds true on the internet. If a piece of software or service claims to be offered to you for free, they are playing fast and loose with the term. Take me for instance. The cost of this advice on it’s own is zero. In reality I’m giving this time to you as a form of advertising in an attempt to draw business. This holds true for nearly all the content on the internet. If a company is behind it, that company has to earn a profit.

Developing the toolbar isn’t cheap. My primary form of employment is software development. Trust me when I say, even simple toolbars require perhaps tens and most likely hundreds of hours (or more) of skilled labor to produce the initial release. The company that creates the toolbar is expecting a return on that investment. To re-use my earlier turn of phrase, they are at best advertising to you, and at worst stealing your personal information. In almost all cases they are slowing your browsing experience.

Ok Wes, but I don’t remember installing that toolbar!!!

I have cleaned misbehaving toolbars off more computers than I can count. For someone who doesn’t work in the computer industry, my wife is very savvy. I have had to remove toolbars from her computers on a couple of occasions. The more surprised you are by the presence of a toolbar the more likely it is doing something malicious. Toolbar creators are a devious bunch and a picture is worth a thousand words. See if this looks familiar.


Notice the check boxes? Now why would something like Java want to install a toolbar from Ask.com? Java is free right? Heck, the toolbar is free to right? Nope, no free lunch. Ask.com is paying the providers of Java (Oracle) to put this little checkbox in their installer and they are banking on us not paying attention to it. Ask.com then uses that toolbar to direct your search traffic away from your search engine of choice to Ask. Their website sells ads and they earn money by showing them to you. What’s the downside? Like any company, Ask.com wants to earn as much money as possible and so, they want to spend as little as possible maintaining that toolbar. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for quality does it?

Un-check that box my friends

The reality of the internet these days is that we rely on “free” tools like Java and Flash. We need them for lots of websites. So how do we continue to use the internet and limit our risk? Un-check that box and Java will still install. Oracle still has a way to make money from producing Java they just won’t be able to extract it as quickly from you. If you un-check a box like this and aren’t able to click “Next” then click “Cancel” and live with out it. The risk isn’t worth it.

If you get caught and your surfing experience feels more like riding pudding than waves, give me a call, I Speak Nerd.



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