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    Spies, Hijackers, and Other Technical Difficulties
    (or, an Unfortunate Series of Events)

    June 1, 2005

    I have been way out of the loop lately, for almost two months now! If anyone is wondering why I havenít replied to their e-mails, itís because of a series of computer calamities that Iím still trying to recover from. To summarize, I had to get a new computer, new e-mail address, new ISP, and new web host all at the same time for different reasons Ė and that was just the beginning.

    Problem #1 - Spies

    It started in early April. I was desperately trying to complete my income tax returns at the last minute (as usual), so I decided to put all of my e-mails on hold until after the 15th. I also had a couple of other deadlines looming, so as soon as I finished my taxes I was going to get right to work on them as well as get caught up on my e-mails.

    However, on April 13 my computer went down. This was right after we had installed a program to find and remove spyware and adware. We were suspicious because we had suddenly started seeing ads popping up everywhere, including when I visited my own website Ė and I knew I didnít have any pop-up ads on there! Even more alarming, my computer was repeatedly dialing up an internet connection all by itself when no one was in the room.

    The anti-spyware software uncovered a surprising amount of stuff on my computer which it was able to eliminate. Unfortunately, a side effect was that my internet, e-mail, and printers stopped working. It was a minor inconvenience to have to make copies of my tax forms by hand rather than printing them out. And I was very thankful that I had decided to do it the old-fashioned way this year rather than e-filing my taxes!

    For my immediate article deadlines and important e-mails, I had to burn them onto a CD for my husband to take to work and send for me. Throughout the following week we tried to get my computer back up and running, but instead had to deal with more and more systems deteriorating. At this point I turned my focus to saving everything that I could on disks before the whole thing crashed, which was a nerve-wracking experience when the computer kept locking up and Iíd have to keep turning it off while hoping that it would restart once again.

    In doing so, the past four years of my life flashed before my eyes as I copied website pages, book manuscripts, articles, personal and business letters, e-mails, library database, homeschool curriculum and records Ė all of which were stored on my Dell Dimension 8100. The only file I had backed up recently was Quicken. Luckily, I was able to save everything. Meanwhile, we went ahead and ordered a new Dell computer that we had had our sights set on for some time but never thought weíd be getting so soon.

    While waiting for the new computer to arrive, we reformatted the hard drive on the other one and reinstalled the operating system so that hopefully it would work well enough for the kids to use in their room Ė and provide an alternate computer if anything like this ever happened again. The old Windows ME operating system was a bit temperamental, however, and we had to reinstall it three times before we could get all of the computerís systems to work right. Even so, it hasnít really been the same since. I looked forward to getting a nice, stable XP professionally installed at the factory.

    I depend on my computer for my writing business, so I was worried about missing book orders and other lost opportunities. Ironically, I hadnít had very many nibbles on my Learning for Life book for almost a whole year, but finally I had begun to see some interest just before my computer went down. Imagine my excitement when the Dell boxes arrived a whole week before the estimated ship date! It didnít take long to get the computer unpacked and set up, thanks to the help of my technically-savvy 15-year-old son Peter. I could hardly wait to be able to sit down and enjoy my nice new computer.

    First I had to connect the computer to the internet and get my e-mail accounts to work so that I could send and receive again. After being without e-mail for almost two weeks, I had about 600 unread messages! These included notices of major changes in my LinkShare affiliate program as well as my internet service provider which I had to act on right away. And while Iím the Arizona State Coordinator for The Old Schoolhouse and like to keep up with current happenings, I was the last to find out about all of the neat new stuff going on at TOS. It was ironic how so many significant things which I should have been aware of were all happening during the exact time my computer was down!

    Problem #2 Ė Technical Difficulties

    One of my many e-mails had to do with my ISP and e-mail service. As of May 7, the SafeAccess filtered internet service that I had used for years was going to become a filter-only service, not an internet service provider. They offered to let me keep a filtered e-mail account with them, but another company called Aspect 1 would be my ISP. I had no idea what would happen to my web pages that were being hosted on the SafeAccess server.

    Consequently, I figured Iíd better get busy looking for a new ISP, as I personally prefer to have the content filtering and ISP all in one. This would also be a good opportunity to move all of my web pages to one hosting site, because as it was I had started my website at SafeAccess but later added additional pages at Register.com when I got my own domain name. These two sets of pages were linked together but I had been wishing they all were under the same domain.

    I had recently taken over the leadership of Desert Hills Christian Homeschoolers, and I noticed that their hosting account was with GoDaddy.com. Upon researching that company, I discovered that it had been founded by Bob Parsons, formerly the president of Parsons Technology which specialized in MS-DOS-based financial and Bible software back in the 1980ís. (Does anyone else besides me remember MoneyCounts or QuickVerse?) I was glad to learn that Bob Parsons was still around, and even more pleased to see that GoDaddyís headquarters was located nearby in Scottsdale, AZ.

    So a hosting account at GoDaddy was a given, and as for a content-filtered ISP, after comparing different ones I decided to sign up with Christian-Net. However, it would take a week to transfer my domain name over and get the new website and e-mail going. In the meantime, I thought Iíd still be able to get my e-mails through SafeAccess until I had a chance to give everyone my new e-mail address. From then on, I would have my own e-mail domain so that Iíd never have to change e-mail addresses again if I ever had to change ISPís like I was doing now.

    But there apparently were some technical difficulties when SafeAccess switched over. I couldnít send or receive e-mails, and a friend of mine told me that all of the e-mails she sent to me (and anyone else on SafeAccess) were bouncing. When I called their support department they didnít even have a record of my account!

    So once again I was essentially without e-mail for a week. As soon as my domain transfer went through, I was anxious to get my new e-mail accounts going. But since everything I was trying to work with was new to me Ė computer, operating system, e-mail, web hosting, and ISP Ė I had trouble configuring my e-mail settings correctly and getting everything in working order. Finally with the help of my husband I got my e-mail at GoDaddy up and running on May 14. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that now I could get back to normal.

    Problem #3 - Hijackers

    Before I actually had a chance to start doing anything, however, my husband was surfing the web that afternoon and noticed that the computer was acting sluggish and the pages he wanted to visit werenít loading. Rich thought that was odd since we had just purchased the top-of-the-line fastest computer that Dell offered. It was built with a dual hard drive for intense 3-D gaming, serious video editing, and extreme multitasking, so certainly it should be able to perform simple tasks quickly. He checked the stats and saw that the CPU was steadily running at 50% capacity Ė when no programs were on! And upon taking closer notice while trying to get on the internet, he saw that when he typed in a particular URL, the browser would be redirected to a completely different, unfamiliar address.

    Rich immediately got on the phone with tech support, and came to find out that the symptoms indicated that our brand new 3-week-old computer had been hijacked! A hacker had forcibly changed our internet settings and installed a small web server on our computer for who-knows-what purpose and making us unable to control our own machine! For all intents and purposes, our $4,000 Dell Dimension XPS GEN 4 - which we purchased and paid for with hard-earned money - had been converted into a source of revenue for some fly-by-night hacker. It was infuriating to think that this joker had invaded our nice new computer, making it useless to us and shortening its operating life by causing the CPU to heat up by running constantly. Of course, the scary part is not knowing who it was or how he got into our computer in the first place.

    Iím glad that my husband discovered what was happening right away, but he was so angry and eager to take care of the problem that he acted hastily and didnít give me a chance to save any of my stuff. Even though I hadnít used my new computer for long, the things I did have on there were the most important things that I was doing first. I had gotten my 600 unread e-mails whittled down to 300, and was working on several articles. All of those were lost, and now I have no way to get in touch with people who had contacted me, who I hadnít replied to yet. (Please write again if you can, and Iíll try to write back this time!)

    The tech support guy at first had my husband restore the computer to an earlier date, but that didnít get rid of the problem. This meant that our brand new factory-installed fully-loaded system would have to be reformatted and reinstalled by us. But we were missing one of the necessary CDís to do that, so we had to wait several days to get it in the mail. Following that, we had deja-vu all over again Ė reinstalling the ISP setup software, reconfiguring the e-mail settings, etc. It was so frustrating because weíd get one going but the other one wouldnít work, and vice versa. So another whole week went by before I had e-mail Ė which was such a waste of time considering that I had just finally gotten it to work the week before.

    I have no idea where this hijacker came from or how he was able to access our new computer so soon after getting it. Perhaps itís possible that it may even have been someone at the Dell factory. Although that seems unlikely, what are the chances of a new computer being hacked into so quickly? Iím also wondering if I may have done something inadvertently to allow it. Because when we were trying to get the new computer set up, my husband, son, and I were all working on it. I know it sounds ridiculous that it should take three people just to get an e-mail account going, but it did! I never had this much trouble before. We were both on the phone for hours with technical support at GoDaddy, Dell, and Christian-Net. It seems like it should have been a simple thing to do, so I donít know what the problem was, but following their instructions didnít even help. To tell the truth, I think we just finally ended up hitting on the right settings by random chance! Anyway, I had been so frustrated earlier that week when I was trying to set up Microsoft Outlook, log into web mail, and get into my Yahoo accounts (which wonít let you in unless your computer accepts cookies), that I started unblocking various things in the McAfee security suite and I also disabled the firewall out of desperation.

    Problem #4 Ė Avoiding Hackers

    I donít know if having an XP makes us more vulnerable than when we were using Windows ME, or if there was another reason why this happened. Nevertheless, having gone through this situation once, I donít ever want it to happen again! So from now on the firewall remains on at all times, and I wonít go changing things when I donít know what Iím doing. Iím pretty certain that all the spyware on our old computer must have originated from free music and games that my teenage son had been downloading. I thought we were safe letting him surf the net with filtered internet access, but obviously thatís not necessarily the case. We were mostly concerned with screening out pornography and other inappropriate content, not realizing how easy it is to be exposed to other evils that you donít even see. The worst culprits actually install a combination of registry keys and hidden files that redo your settings every time you reboot the computer. This means that once your computer is infected with them, you canít get rid of them without reformatting the whole system, which is what we had to do. Thus, prevention is much easier than removing unwanted programs once you have them.

    It takes a long time to create documents and upload digital photos, but it only takes seconds to lose everything, so be sure to enforce regular backup procedures to protect against data loss. Donít save passwords on your computer. Instead, write them down in a small notebook that you keep nearby. I still havenít been able to get back into all of my accounts because I lost both the e-mail address and the password. Donít open e-mail attachments unless youíre expecting one from a particular person. Never click on pop-up ads, and donít download anything or install any software unless youíre sure itís from a legitimate source that can be trusted. Some anti-virus software checks for spyware and adware, but not all do. When doing a web search, limit yourself to clicking on major sites (with recognizable domain names) rather than indiscriminately clicking on any link that happens to be listed. Another thing we learned is that browser hackers like to prey on Internet Explorer because it was built with open architecture which is easy to breach with malicious code. We now use Mozillaís Firefox which is supposed to be much more secure and impenetrable. And donít think youíre immune from viruses and other bugs just because you have a Mac computer, because if you have a PC emulator installed you can also get some of the same problems that are associated with PCís.

    Way back when I was in high school I remember seeing an Apple computer demo. This would have been in the year 1978 or Ď79. Even at that time, I was fascinated by the enormous potential of this multimedia tool of the future. Over the years I have enthusiastically embraced the use of computers, having had a Vic 20, Commodore 64, Amiga, Mac, and several PCís after that. I use my own computer continually for so many things that in a way, it has become kind of like an extension of my own self. I never dreamed that Iíd ever experience a computer hacking problem! It hasnít been just a minor inconvenience, either. Itís made me fearful of connecting to the internet again, wondering whoís out there waiting for an opportunity to exploit any weakness in our system. Weíve become kind of paranoid by feeling that we need to run virus and spyware scans all the time. Weíre way behind in our schoolwork due to spending so much time trying to fix our computer. It made me look bad by not allowing me to answer peopleís e-mails. I was unable to send out my April and May homeschool newsletters. I missed out on article writing opportunities and it also made me miss opportunities to market my book. It left me having to start from scratch without even the simple conveniences such as Adobe Reader. It also left me without some other good programs that had been pre-loaded as part of my new system but were then erased. Not only that, this whole sequence of events disrupted our family life and caused friction between my husband, me, and our kids. Computer hackers have no idea who theyíre effecting or how, and they donít even care. But it appears that this despicable trend is becoming more and more common. If it can happen suddenly and without warning to a Christian homeschooling family like us who were minding their own business, it can happen to anyone.

    Iím no computer expert (obviously!), so if anyone can give me any additional advice Ė or if youíve had a similar experience that youíd like to tell me about Ė Iíd love to hear from you! ~Teri

    See also: Internet Use Agreements for Parents and Children

    www.staysafeonline.info
    Top 10 Cyber Security Tips for home, education, and business.
    Learn what you can do to protect your computer.

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