Protecting Yourself From Identity Theft

We’re hearing a lot more about identity theft these days—from hackers stealing credit card numbers from big banks and retail stores to individuals opening up credit card or bank accounts in your name, which they can use to write bad checks or make expensive purchases.  Criminal identity thieves may also take out a loan in your name for a car or even a house, and some have managed to receive Social Security benefits or tax refunds that rightfully belong to others.

In some cases, when arrested for some other crime, hackers have helpfully provided a victim’s name to the arresting officers, showing the police a falsified driver’s license with that person’s number and their picture.  They post bail and skip town.  When their victim doesn’t show up for a court date he was never informed of, he could be arrested.

How do you protect yourself?

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, the biggest threats are coming from places that might surprise you.  A study by Javelin Strategy and Research found that most identity thefts were taking place offline, where someone managed to steal your credit cards, or found social security information or credit card information in a dumpster, or filed bogus change of address forms to divert a victim’s mail to their address, where they can gather personal and financial data at their leisure.  Even more surprising, 43% of all identity thefts were committed by someone the victim knows.

An organization called IdentityTheft.net estimates that over 10 million people are victimized by identity theft each year, although that number may be boosted by the aforementioned mass hacking incidents.  The Council and IdentityTheft.net say that you do a reasonable job of protecting yourself by taking a few common sense steps that make it much harder for someone to make purchases in your name or withdraw funds from your accounts:

•    Never give out your Social Security number, and don’t carry your social security card, birth certificate or passport around with you.
•    Copy your credit cards and your driver’s license, and put the data in a safe place, to ensure you have the numbers if you need to call the companies.
•    When you use a credit card to buy something in a retail store, take the extra copy of the receipt with you and shred it.
•    Create complicated passwords for your online bank and investment accounts, and don’t write them down on hard copy paper.  Try not to use the same password for every website you access.  (Can’t remember 50 complicated passwords?  A free program called LastPass lets you save all your user names and passwords in an encrypted format, so you only have to remember a single strong pass phrase.  You can also store security questions and answers.)
•    Don’t let anyone look over your shoulder when you’re using an ATM machine.
•    Be skeptical of websites that offer prizes or giveaways.
•    Tell your children never to give out their address, telephone number, password, school name or any other personal information.
•    Make sure you have a virus and spyware protection program on your computer, and keep it updated.
•    Check your account balances regularly to make sure no unexplained transactions have occurred.

These simple precautions will keep you safe from many of the criminal efforts to hack into your life.  If you feel like you need additional protection, there are a variety of protection services on the marketplace, which basically all do the same thing: they regularly monitor your credit scores, looking for changes and odd debts that might be a clue that someone has stolen your identity, and check public record databases to see if your personal information is compromised.  Some will prevent pre-approved credit card offers from being sent to your mailbox, patrol the black market internet where thieves buy and sell credit card numbers, and the fancier services will provide lost wallet protection, identity theft insurance and keystroke encryption software.

Which are the best?  A research organization called NextAdvisor has recently evaluated and ranked eight of these services with costs ranging from $20 a month down to $7 a month.  The top rated was IdentityGuard (premium service price: $19.99 a month) which offers the most complete protection, including the aforementioned fancier services.  But seven of the protection systems, including TrustedID, AARP (a white-labeled version of TrustedID), LifeLock Ultimate, PrivacyGuard, IDFreeze and LegalShield all received good ratings; only Experian’s ProtectMyID was negatively reviewed for being expensive and only monitoring one credit reporting service.

Do you really NEED these services?  Possibly not.  However, with the growing publicity around identity theft, these firms have become very aggressive in their marketing efforts.  What they don’t tell you is that you can do many of the things they do on your own.  Every quarter, you can review one of your credit bureau reports for free, or—and this is easier—simply look at your statements and balances every day.  The more sophisticated services are a fancy replacement for promptly notifying your bank when a credit card is lost or stolen, or when a strange charge shows up because Citibank or the Target department store was using weak security protocols.

In the near future, as more transactions take place using thumb prints or other biometric security data, we may look back on this period as the Wild West of data security, a strange unsettling time when people had to worry about their lives being hacked by strangers.  Your goal is to arrive safely, un-hacked, at that more secure period in our cultural evolution.

If you would like to discuss protecting your money and your identity, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Sources:
http://www.ncpc.org/cms-upload/prevent/files/IDtheftrev.pdf
http://www.ncpc.org/topics/fraud-and-identity-theft/tips-to-prevent-identity-theft
http://www.identitytheft.net/
http://www.cracked.com/article_19973_the-8-creepiest-cases-identity-theft-all-time.html
http://www.nextadvisor.com/identity_theft_protection_services/index.php?a=2&kw=mididx2+identity%20theft%20prevention&mkwid=pK49zV76_pcrid_5328142234_pkw_identity%20theft%20prevention_pmt_be_pdv_c_

Why You Still Need Malware Protection

Many ask me why I decided to adopt the nick-name TheMoneyGeek. The answer is because I’m such a money nerd and techno geek.  Where money and technology intersect, I’m really in my element.  Unfortunately, so are creative hackers.  They will take any opportunity to separate you from both your computer data as well as your money. So how do you protect yourself? And with Microsoft Defender software available on most new Windows computers, do you really need antivirus software on your home computers?

The short answer is “yes”.  The Internet is increasingly awash with creative malware that can severely damage your computer, destroy your files, and embed themselves quietly in your operating system, sending information that can be used by identity thieves, or allowing hackers to turn your computer into a spam machine or “slave”.

Antivirus software companies monitor the Web in real time.  They are constantly identifying new strains of malware and providing updates to their software that will look for the “symptoms” of every known virus, isolate it and allow you to remove it before it has a chance to damage your files, send compromising information or invite your friends and neighbors to purchase online porn.

Top10AntiVirusSoftware.com has just released its 2015 list of the most effective programs for preventing worms, trojan horses, viruses or malware from installing themselves on your computer.   The top-rated industry leader was McAfee Software, which can be purchased for $24.99 a year.  Other top-rated programs include Kaspersky ($29.99), BullGuard ($23.96), BitDefender ($19.95), Norton Antivirus ($59.99), AVG ($31.99) and ESET ($19.99).  (You can buy any of the programs at a discount at http://www.top10antivirussoftware.com).

If you prefer free anti-malware programs, Consumer Reports likes Avast!, Avira and AVG antivirus. For paid security suites, Consumer Reports ranks ESET Smart Security, G Data Internet Security, F-Secure Internet Security, Kapersky Internet Security and Bit Defender the best (in that order).  But before you pay for and download any security suites, check with your internet provider-they may furnish all subscribers with free software.

Understand that like all things in the software world, the best program in 2015 may not be the top-rated the following year.  And most importantly, recognize that you need to constantly respond to the free upgrades for your software, because some of the most creative programmers in the world are constantly plotting against you and your security.  Paid anti-malware and security suites require an annual maintenance fee, though many allow you to install the program on up to five computers in your household.

If you would like to discuss protecting your money and computers, please don’t hesitate to contact us or visit our website at http://www.ydfs.com. We are a fee-only fiduciary financial planning firm that always puts your interests first.  If you are not a client yet, an initial consultation is complimentary and there is never any pressure or hidden sales pitch.

Source: http://www.top10antivirussoftware.com/

2013 Consumer Electronics Show Highlights

For the 18th year in a row, I made my annual trek to the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas (January 8-11, 2013) along with about 150,000 of my closest friends, including some 10,000 members of the press. Looking for and hoping to capture a glimpse of the latest and greatest gadgets that might be adorning our living rooms, home offices and businesses, we crammed ourselves into crowded booths, aisles and press conferences.

As I’ve said in past articles on the show, attending every year is probably overkill due to the incremental improvements in the “wares” paraded by vendors and announced by large companies, with little in the way of life-changing technology. But as an electronics geek, it’s an addiction that I must feed every year. They say that the first step in addressing an addiction is to first admit you have a problem; so I guess I’m somewhat on my way to rehabilitation.

Regular attendees and readers know that the show is notable for the absence of perhaps one of today’s most influential consumer electronics and technology companies: Apple. The company has never exhibited at CES (and probably never will).  Surprisingly, for the first time in almost two decades, Microsoft, typically there with a huge presence at CES, was also absent, except for a meeting room tucked away in the corners of the show’s exhibit halls.  Gone also was the traditional opening keynote address by Bill Gates and, more recently, Steve Ballmer. I couldn’t help but think that this is another way that Microsoft is trying to imitate Apple–with a lack of presence.

Instead, the opening keynote was handled by Qualcomm’s CEO Dr. Paul Jacobs (with a “cameo” appearance by Steve Ballmer to tout Windows 8 and Windows mobile phones) amid a bizarre sequence of skits about the younger mobile generation.

The show’s recent emphasis continues to be on smart-phones, sharper and smarter flat screen TV’s and more tablet based PC’s and devices based on Google’s Android platform, though Google itself was a no-show as well.  The number of companies willing to make their living by accessorizing all those smart-phones and tablets seemed to make a new high this year.

I found a few noteworthy technologies at the show, though admittedly, I’m somewhat stretching “noteworthy” for some of the things that I’m choosing to write about.  While companies display their prototypes and future production models on the show floor, there’s no guarantee that they’ll make it into your mobile life, office or living room anytime in 2013, if ever. I’ll skip the also-ran tablets and smartphones and focus on the new and distinguishing features and enhancements over prior years.

TV’s Once Again Dominate the Show

As usual, CES 2013 was littered with the latest and greatest high-definition TV’s (HDTV) of varying sizes, features, thinness and smartness.

Organic light emitting diode screens (OLED) seem to be gaining some traction and may finally make their way into consumers’ living rooms. With a brighter and more colorful picture using a fraction of the energy consumption of traditional HDTV’s, OLED TV’s may finally be plentiful and affordable enough in 2013.

The race for the smartest TV’s with features such as voice recognition technology, were abundant as manufacturers seem to be in a race to beat Apple at its own game, their rumored iTV that seems to be in the works. Apple seems to be struggling in getting content providers to bend to their will, much as they did with music providers in their launch of the iTunes music store several years ago. Should the Apple iTV concept come to fruition, I expect that it will provide consumers with an unmatched user experience.

While the TV’s are getting smarter, thinner and even bendable, it’s not clear how much consumers are going to be willing to pay for these extra features. Manufacturers have seemingly resolved themselves to the fact that many watch TV while multi-tasking on their laptops or tablet PC’s.  So companies are starting to build in features that allow their TV’s to be wirelessly controlled, allow collaboration/interaction, and to help fetch content from the internet.

Interestingly, while most HDTV’s available today have the ability to connect to the internet, only about 15% of them are actually connected according to the NPD group, a market research company.

3D HDTV Part Deux

One feature seemingly de-emphasized this year at CES were the 3D-TV’s that so many companies have been touting for a few years now, probably owing to the poor adoption by consumers due literally to the headaches caused by the glasses required to be worn and the dearth of creative 3D available content that truly takes advantage of the medium.

Vizio, the well-known low-priced flat-screen manufacturer, debuted their line of no-glasses 3D TV’s at the show with prototypes that seemed to address the shortcomings of prior no-glasses 3D TV’s. Namely, you no longer have to sit in a certain position to be able to view the 3D picture; Vizio gives you 9 spots to sit where the image doesn’t go blurry or fuzzy. Both Toshiba and Sony have shown these types of TV’s in prior years, but they have yet to make it into production. While the Vizio TV suffers from a less sharp image than most high-definition TV’s and doesn’t have eye-popping 3D, it’s a considerable improvement over prior technologies.

I believe that 3D-TV remains a gimmick to get folks to upgrade and replace their existing HDTV’s. Even with the Vizio improvements, I say “save your money and invest it in a good HDTV available today.”

4K Ultra-High Definition TV

If you’re sitting on a spare $10,000-$20,000, you may be a candidate to buy one of the ultra-high definition TV’s that will begin hitting the stores in the spring. Described as 4K HDTV, the technology is intended to help scale high definition to larger sized TV’s and eliminate the visible resolution lines and enhance the sharpness as TV screens grow to 84-120 inches. All of the major TV manufacturers (Sony, Panasonic, LG, Samsung and others) were showing and expecting to release 4K HDTV’s in 2013.

4K refers to the four times resolution compared with the 1K of resolution in today’s HDTV’s (1080p). The pixels are packed 4X tighter to enhance the image. While producing a sharper image, I found the enhancement to be noticeable in a side by side comparison with a regular HDTV.  In regular viewing, I doubt that the viewer would notice much of a difference, certainly not enough to justify the huge premium these sets currently command.

Ultra HDTV will suffer from the same chicken or egg dilemma that 3D TV’s currently face: namely, a dearth of content. With Ultra HDTV, the content must be re-mastered or shot with a new generation of Ultra HD video cameras that capture that additional detail.  Until the prices come down, these will be TV’s for the very wealthy or to be used in commercial marketing or engineering applications where image quality is paramount and money is no object.

Mobile & Wireless Storage Solutions

Although perhaps not as exciting as new TV technologies, a few storage solutions to address shortcomings in existing portable ones, were introduced at CES

Seagate introduced their compact Wireless Plus mobile wireless storage expander/media streamer for mobile devices. Introduced a couple of years ago as the Seagate Satellite, it’s now a 1 TB battery operated storage device that also doubles as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot to share an internet connection with up to eight devices and stream media to all of them. Battery life is claimed to be up to 10 hours and works with iOS and Android devices as well as Samsung Smart TV’s.

LaCie introduced their 4TB “blade-runner” style portable storage solution that ups the ante for the amount of portable storage available. The USB 3.0 device will be produced in limited quantities and has a unique design.

If you have USB thumb drive size envy and you’re proud of the 128 GB currently available between your fingers, the latest Kingston USB 512 GB and 1 TB drives with fast USB 3.0 interfaces might leave you wanting.  Dubbed the DataTraveler HyperX Predator, it usurps the available capacity in solid state drives in most of today’s laptops and should be available in the first quarter of 2013.  With HD video and databases consuming ever-increasing space, you won’t have to wonder what you might do with 1 TB of portable storage (besides potentially losing it).  What you’ll have to wonder about, however, is whether you can afford the expected massively high price.

According to Kingston’s web site, the 512 GB version will set you back about $1,300, much more than a decently sized laptop computer with similar storage. But then again, with this much storage, you can load Windows 8 (Windows-To-Go), all of your applications and your data and boot up any other computer with this drive while leaving your own laptop at home.

To address speed issues with traditional portable backup drives (which use spinning disks), Buffalo Technology has added 1 GB of DDR3 memory to its latest external drive, the DriveStation DDR. With a USB 3.0 connection and at least 1 TB of disk capacity, it’s a fast way of adding low-cost, high-speed storage to a PC or a small server. Speeds are comparable with solid state drives, although there’s a caveat that you’ll need to complete all cached writes before shutting the drive down. This can take about seven seconds, so you may want to connect the drive to a universal power supply in order to protect essential data in the event of a power outage. Prices for the DriveStation DDR are US$119 for 1TB, $149 for 2TB, $189 for 3TB.

Windows 8 and Android based Hybrid Laptops/Tablets/Smart Displays

While Windows 8 and Android based tablets and laptops were abundant at CES 2013, Lenovo rolled out several new touch devices. The 27-inch Ideacentre Horizon Table PC was a popular item with its lie-flat, multi-user collaborative touch interface (ideal for gaming, business and education), though at 27 inches, it’s not exactly a mobile device.

Lenovo’s hybrid tablet/ultrabook ThinkPad Helix was another show stealer. Described by Lenovo as a “rip and flip” device, the Helix is an 11.6 inch tablet PC with a keyboard dock. It mixes pen and touch input, and has separate batteries in the screen and keyboard, giving it up to 10 hours of battery life according to Lenovo. It’s powered by a fast Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, and the lightweight pen is small and comfortable while the touchscreen means that you can mix and match pen and finger input in tablet mode.  Lenovo has designed the Helix to fit into the keyboard dock either conventionally or facing outwards, so you can use the dock as a stand while presenting or watching a video. It’s nice to see ThinkPad innovation continuing at Lenovo.

On the mobile front, Google’s Android operating system (OS) is now showing up on devices both larger and smaller than the standard smartphone and tablets that they were initially designed for. Android now seems to be the embedded OS of choice for a variety of devices. Not only do equipment manufacturers get an open OS with plenty of hardware support like they once got from Linux, but they also get thousands of apps ready to run. I’m beginning to appreciate how Android can massively leapfrog Apple’s iOS in terms of widespread adoption in mainstream and everyday devices.

Beyond the standard thin clients that can run a remote virtual desktop, a new “Smart Display” can also run full Android and web apps with touch enabled. This opens up the entire ecosystem of mobile applications in addition to virtual desktops.  Viewsonic is already shipping a 22” consumer version and it also had a 24″ prototype on display based on an Nvidia Tegra 3 dual-core mobile for business use.

Viewsonic also demonstrated a 65” touch-screen display with an embedded CPU running Android. I anticipate that large touchscreens will soon replace both whiteboards and video projectors used in corporate environments and board rooms. To preserve existing corporate investments in LCD’s, a company named Sengital DigiTouch demonstrated an installable touch panel to overlay on the LCD, effectively converting it into an Android tablet.

Dell/Wyse announced project Ophelia, a full Dual core Android system on a USB stick that fits in your pocket, plugs into any MHL-enabled (mobile high-definition link) display or TV and runs any Android app, web or remote windows app/desktop via Citrix XenDesktop. You can use Wi-Fi for connection and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and work from anywhere.

In addition, there were numerous devices at the show with names like TV Stick and MiniPC that offered the capability to plug into any standard HDMI video port (you also need a USB cable and port to power them). These devices are currently targeted at turning any TV into a Smart or Google TV.

Conclusion

Of the many technologies shown at CES 2013, these are some that caught my eye and interest, and of which I thought they might interest readers.

Whenever I think of skipping the next CES and give it a couple of years to allow the new products to evolve further, I quickly come to my senses and quit at step one of my rehabilitation.  The next CES awaits me on January 7, 2014.  Yes, I do need help.

As usual I welcome your questions and feedback.

Hey Windows 8, Where Do I Start?

For as long as I can remember, Microsoft’s releases of operating systems (OS) have been primarily designed around the personal computer environment.  Shortly after release, Microsoft then “shoe-horns” the OS into other devices such as smart phones, earlier versions of tablet PC’s and personal digital assistants.  As a result, users’ biggest complaints in the past have been slow or sluggish responsiveness, poor user interface design and incompatibility of the OS with small devices and screens.

Now with Windows 8 scheduled for an official release date of October 26 2012, about three years after the release of Windows 7, Microsoft (MS) has turned the “one size fits all” OS paradigm into the “lowest common denominator” paradigm.  That is to say, it’s almost as if MS has taken the interface, first introduced in the failed Zune music player, then refined for the Windows Smart Phone 7, and has scaled it up for the PC and modern tablet environment.

In this article, I’ll give you the highlights of my experience working with the new OS over the past couple of month and my thoughts on them.  In many respects, Windows 8 builds on Windows 7 with a few user interface changes, feature enhancements and under the hood upgrades.  In addition, I found that compatibility of hardware devices and software with Windows 7 carried over to Windows 8 with few exceptions.

Installation & Initial Impressions

The release to manufacture (RTM) version of Windows 8, a 3.5 GB DVD ISO image, downloaded to my Lenovo ThinkPad W500 notebook without any issues. After burning the image to an installation DVD, I was ready for the install.

The Windows 8 install routine follows the same script as Windows 7.  The installation wizard asked very few questions and proceeded to install Windows 7 without a hitch.  In fact, the only real choice to make during installation is whether to upgrade the existing operating system (assuming one exists) or to perform a fresh install.

In my case, the laptop I was using had two hard drives installed; one with Windows 7 running on it and another empty hard drive. In the majority of cases, I highly recommend backing up your computer and data, testing the backup, and then doing a fresh install (which reformats the hard drive and overwrites the old operating system).  This process, while more time consuming and labor intensive, ensures that your install goes more smoothly and your computer won’t be slowed down with old remnants and “trash” files, hidden malware, and a bloated registry from your previous Windows installation.  Obviously this means reinstalling all of your applications, finding your software keys, and re-registering the applications, so be ready for that.

For a fresh install, the entire process took about 20 minutes, even on my older hardware.  If the installation fails on your hardware, it’s more than likely a hardware or driver compatibility issue. Sometimes merely re-starting the install process after failure gets it to work.

After the installation and reboot were complete, and since I still had Windows 7 installed on the secondary drive, a Windows dual-boot menu came up allowing me to choose Windows 7 or Windows 8. If you do a fresh install over your existing operating system, you won’t have this choice. I chose Windows 8.

One of the new features of Windows 8 is a universal “network” login. While in the past each PC user had a local account to log onto each PC he or she owned, MS now understands that users have multiple devices (laptop, desktop, tablet, smart-phone) and would prefer not to have to create separate logins, internet favorites, desktop settings, etc. for each device.  This is akin to having a “network” or domain controller at the office monitoring and granting access to employee PC’s.  While this is optional, I highly recommend it since it also integrates your social networking accounts and Microsoft store access with the operating system.

By having users create a Microsoft “cloud” user account, using either a Hotmail or MSN e-mail address (or your own primary 3rd party e-mail address), Microsoft can store these settings in the cloud for use with any device you log into with that e-mail address.  That way, every device you log into will look, work and feel the same no matter where you are.  Of course, that means Microsoft can sell you apps and other devices in their digital “ecosystem”, not unlike Apple’s approach to locking you into their digital ecosystem.  It also means that you get 7 GB of online SkyDrive storage free for use to store and share documents and other files.  SkyDrive aware applications can conveniently take advantage of this storage (e.g., Office 2013)

Once you set up your user account, first-time setup asks you which WiFi network you want to connect to (assuming one is nearby) and what settings you want to use for Microsoft updates (i.e., automatic, ask, download then ask.)  New in Windows 8, you can choose your color scheme and background “tattoo” for your working environment (which of course can be changed anytime).  After a few seconds, the new Windows 8 “Metro” interface appears with a background picture of the infamous Seattle space needle. This is where the fun starts!

Before I continue describing my experience, I should mention that at one point shortly after installing Windows 8 (and a few applications), the system inexplicably crashed badly and couldn’t be recovered. Even the repair facility on the Windows 8 install disc was unable to recover the system. Worse, the Windows 7 partition would not boot up either, even though the data contained therein was intact. Only a full installation, this time without the Windows 7 drive in place (my choice), would get me up and running again.  Perhaps this was a hardware issue or an issue with this RTM version; I may never know. But suffice to say, in the future, I will not attempt another dual boot install of Windows 8 with another computer, lest it render both OS’s unusable (thankfully my data was still safe, but I still have to reinstall Windows 7 to get that partition running again).

User Unfriendly Interface?

Even though Windows 8 is not officially released, the new Metro interface (start screen) has already generated a considerable amount of controversy and, let’s just say, outright hatred.  Booting up to the start screen brings you to a tablet or smart-phone style interface with live “tiles” for pre-installed applications (apps) like maps, internet explorer, mail, games, store, music, camera, video, etc.  These apps update the desktop automatically (think gadgets) with information like the weather, incoming mail, social network updates, etc.  Double clicking one of the tiles launches the full-screen app.  Install an application of your own and a launch tile is created for you on the desktop.  But gone in Metro are the comfy and familiar task bar and Start button we’re all accustomed to.  In my opinion, the graphical interface is far inferior to that found in Apple’s OS and seemed a bit like child’s play.  The tiles themselves seemed to be low resolution and quite plain.

From here, things get a little nebulous.  Click on an app tile and it’s quite unclear what you need to do to close the app, launch another one, bring up the app menu, or simply get back to the start screen. I really hope that Microsoft ships the OS with a start-up tutorial for new Windows 8 users to demonstrate how to navigate the OS.  Without something like that, you’re just plain lost.  The first time I rebooted the computer, I had my desktop bitmap background displayed with no clue how to bring up the log in screen (hint: press any key!)

In Microsoft’s effort to create a single operating system intended for use with a keyboard and mouse as well as with finger swipes, they have created needless complexity and confusion for the user.  While I pride myself on digging deep under the hood in every operating system I unwrap, I felt somewhat lost and dumbfounded with my non-touch laptop screen when trying to navigate the OS.  Click up, right-click, click down, click right, click left, double-click, triple click; I tried everything to try and learn how to navigate the interface. Frustrated doesn’t begin to describe how I felt until I figured things out.

The fact is, without some help from the web, I wouldn’t have figured out how to navigate the interface.  By accident, I discovered that pressing the Windows key brought up the traditional Window 7 like task bar and interface (but still no Start button.) Pressing it again takes you back to the Metro interface.  Talk about feeling dumb.

To save you some time and frustration, here’s a little cheat sheet: The upper and lower edges of your screen are reserved for application menus and functionality.  The right and left edges of your screen are reserved for the operating system functionality. You move your mouse (or finger on a tablet) to the screen edges to bring up and use the selections that appear.

Moving your cursor to the upper left-hand corner brings up the thumbnails of all the running applications and a thumbnail of the start desktop.  Moving your cursor to the upper right-hand corner brings up the Windows 8 palate of buttons (called charms): search, share, start, devices and settings.  I won’t take the time to describe them since their name and clicking on each of them makes their functionality obvious.

Launch a traditional (non-Metro) application like MS-Word and you find yourself in the familiar desktop world, a la Windows 7. Launch a Windows 8 compatible application and you’re in the Metro world. At times, it felt like each of these two types of apps were on separate islands, if not like being on a dual boot system with two disparate operating systems. Figuring out how to get from one app to another took some guessing. Fortunately, the Alt-Tab and Windows-Tab key combinations still work. Nonetheless, it definitely takes some getting used to.

Though I didn’t have a touch-screen system to test it, Windows 8 is optimized for touch-screen PCs and tablets.  With the success of the iPhone and other tablet devices, having these capabilities built-in will make the user experience much more pleasant and interactive. Microsoft has made great strides in this area.

New Features and Enhancements

Like all previous iterations of Windows, Microsoft touts the security, performance and resource enhancements brought about by a new “architecture” in Windows 8.  Each version seems to always promise to use less memory, employ processors more efficiently, and need less disk space.  The disk space claims had better be true since solid-state drives (which I don’t have except on my iPad) are somewhat space constrained and quite expensive in the short term.  In addition, to be a truly mobile operating system, it would have to be truly memory and processor efficient. The new trusted boot is supposed to prevent malware from loading before the operating system, thereby making it more secure.

Windows 8 touts much faster start-up time. Is it faster than Windows 7? Yes it is. Is it much faster? No, not in my opinion, at least not on my laptop.

Windows 8 also claims to have longer battery life and faster graphics and text rendering. In my limited testing, I wasn’t able to validate these claims (especially since I don’t have a test work bench). I can however attest to the fact that I was able to connect and reconnect to Wi-Fi networks faster.

Windows 8 comes with the new Internet Explorer 10 as a Metro type application.  The menu and URL bar are moved to the bottom and Microsoft claims that it’s not only faster than previous versions, it has far better support for HTML5 standards.  Using IE 10 is like having a “clean full sheet” view, something that took some getting used to. But I found that I really liked how it looked and felt.  Nonetheless, the first application I installed on Windows 8 was Firefox (and of course my favorite app, RoboForm).

For some reason I’m unable to explain, I was not able to fully test the multi-monitor support touted in Windows 8.  Among Windows 8’s features for handling multiple monitors is the new ability to adjust and set the location of the task bar.  In my case, Windows 8 simply refused to recognize my 30” monitor (perhaps an incompatible driver). But if you’re using multiple monitors, setting the location of the task bar is a nice and long overdue enhancement.

As mentioned above, many apps ship pre-installed on Windows 8 with access to thousands more in the Microsoft app store.  If you’ve ever used a tablet PC or smart phone, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  One annoying aspect of apps are their minimalist approach to giving help and user options.  You often waste time hunting for a button, a menu, something to help you do what you need to do.  Sometimes too little of a good thing (options) is just as bad as too much of it.

My Experience, Comments & Editions

In day-to-day use, there was not much about Windows 8 that struck me as being radically different than Windows 7.  The speed and performance were similar as were the application and hardware compatibilities.  Most hardware manufacturers won’t have to rush out new compatible Windows 8 drivers, but some will.  Since the old Windows registry unfortunately lives on with Windows 8, backwards compatibility is assured, but so are the legacy issues, performance and problems inherent with it.

One important decision you’ll have to make is whether to trust your PC security (anti-virus, malware, firewall, spam, etc.) to Microsoft’s built-in capabilities and forgo a third party security suite or ante up for one. There’s no guarantee that your existing Windows 7 security suite will be compatible with Windows 8, so you may have to upgrade to a newer version. My decision is easy: let the security experts take care of my PC security, so I’ll spring for a third party compatible application.

As for my overall impression, Windows 8 strikes me as the next trouble spot for Microsoft a la Windows Vista.  The Metro interface will be discussed ad nausea and I suspect will continue to be bashed in the media.  In general, while I am happy with the Windows 8 upgrade, I don’t feel compelled, as I did with Windows 7, to rush out and upgrade my Windows 7 PC’s. However, if you’re ordering a new PC soon, then I highly recommend one with a touch screen. For that, Windows 8 is a must have.

As of this writing, Microsoft has announced four editions of Windows 8 with varying feature sets (e.g., Windows 8, Pro, Enterprise, and RT) with pricing from $14.99 (for Windows 7 computers purchased after June 1, 2012) to $39.99. For more details on the various editions, feature comparisons and upgrade paths, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_8_editions.

Windows 8 runs on any hardware that can run Windows 7. It will also be able to run any programs that run under Windows 7, unless you opt for a Windows RT tablet, which will only run new-style (Metro) Windows 8 apps.

After using Windows 8 for a period of time, it became readily apparent why Windows 8 upgrade pricing is so inexpensive: Microsoft expects users to make a lot of purchases from the Microsoft store. Towards that end, the store is somewhat “in your face” more often than you might like.

Like Windows 7, I once again expect a very slow and cautious corporate approach to upgrading to Windows 8, with many companies waiting until the first service pack is released before committing to deployment.  While the operating system is more secure, I don’t see many compelling corporate features to cause many companies to rush into upgrading.  Windows 7 is simply good enough.

Because of the learning curve involved, and because there is currently no option to disable the Metro interface, I suspect that many IT departments will shelve this upgrade until Microsoft is pressured enough to make the Metro interface optional and bring back the Start button and traditional Win 7 interface as the default. I’m not sure that’ll happen, but a slow corporate OS upgrade cycle might convince Microsoft to do so.

If you’ve been playing with the consumer preview or RTM versions of Windows 8, I would love to hear your feedback or questions.

In The Land of Password Management, RoboForm is King

Over the years, I’ve made tens of “Cool Tools” presentations (and the like) around the country and the list of tools has varied widely as time went by.  While many of the tools make it into my presentations once or twice within a span of a few months, one staple that continues to garner the largest audience interest is an inexpensive password manager and form filler known as RoboForm.  It continues to surprise me how many people still aren’t using one of these great productivity boosters.  If you’re not taking advantage of a password manager in this internet age, let me tell you that you’re wasting precious time and probably taking unnecessary security risks.

I’ve been a user of RoboForm for several years now.  In fact, I first reviewed and raved about RoboForm in an article published a few years ago.  RoboForm remains my number one must-have application on every computing platform I own or use regularly and it is the first application I install when I move to a new operating system or get a new device.  While there are several password managers out there, both free and paid versions, nothing I’ve tried comes close to the versatility and power of RoboForm.  It cannot be ignored that, in this day and age of key loggers and identity theft, having a secure repository of personal information is essential.

I decided to review the current beta 7.0 version of RoboForm since it’s the first real upgrade in recent years.  Actually, it’s not a major upgrade; it’s more of a renovation.  I’ve been using the latest version for a couple of months now and I like the new features and enhancements.

Background

For those of you that are new to password management programs and form fillers, here’s a little background on their capabilities:

As time goes by, we accumulate more and more user ID’s, passwords, secret questions and phrases, software installation keys, personal identification information, credit card and bank account numbers, website addresses, secret notes, etc. (need I say more?), all of which we need to store and retrieve securely.  While a variety of methods have been devised and employed to accomplish this task, most are barely secure and totally inconvenient or incompatible with the wide variety of devices and platforms currently available.  RoboForm aims to be your single and most secure repository to store all this information within (yet another) master password protected and encrypted database.  Think of RoboForm as your hardened safe to store all this info which can only be opened with the correct combination (i.e., the master password).

In addition, many applications, web sites and other secure network gateways require us to change our passwords periodically and utilize strong replacements with a variety of formats and requirements.  Thinking of and remembering these changing passwords can drive one crazy and, as a result, many of us resort to easy-to-hack passwords and storage methods just to keep us sane.  RoboForm steps up here with a powerful password generator that meets a variety of criteria required by the site or the application.

Getting Started and Working with RoboForm

Downloading and installing RoboForm version 6.x (a free trial version good for storing up to 10 passwords is available at http://www.roboform.com) is quick and quite easy.  Whether you’re using Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome or one of the many available mobile platforms, RoboForm integrates nicely and stands ready to store your user ID’s, passwords and other personal data each time you access a site.  The only thing you need to get started is to specify the master password to be used to lock all of your secret information once RoboForm starts memorizing.  Naturally, with a variety of military strength encryption schemes (no fewer than five encryption algorithms are available) to secure your database, you don’t want to forget the master password once you’ve specified it.  Even RoboForm technical support will not be able to figure out your password if you forget it.  And of course, your master password should be very strong and long because it unlocks your most valuable data: your personal information and passwords.  RoboForm stores all of this securely and locally, unless you decide to use RoboForm online (discussed below.)

Visit a web site, enter your user ID and password and, depending on the options you specify, RoboForm will pop up and offer to store them in what’s called a “passcard.”  The passcard is capable of storing numerous fields.  So, if you need to enter more than just two pieces of information to log in, RoboForm can handle the job.  If you are setting up your online access for the first time, RoboForm helps you generate and store a password based on a variety of security criteria, characters, length, etc.  Thereafter, whenever you visit that site, RoboForm will offer to fill in the user ID, password and other information assuming that you’ve unlocked the database with the master password.  One available setting determines how much time you have before the master password “times out” and is required to be re-entered.  This way you don’t have to enter it each time you summon RoboForm to populate your login information or web-based form.  Since you don’t have to subsequently type in the secure information, key loggers installed without your knowledge cannot capture your valuable data.

The other powerful capability of RoboForm is an online form filler.  When you set up RoboForm, you have the option to set up profiles with your name, address, phone numbers, credit card numbers, banking information, etc.  Anytime you encounter an online form for e-commerce or other sites, RoboForm will pop up and offer to populate the relevant information on the form.  If you set up multiple profiles (e.g., one for home, one for work, one for your spouse), you can choose amongst them, choose amongst credit cards to use or choose which address to use.  This is a huge time saver since RoboForm’s built-in intelligence is programmed to recognize and remember the most common field types used on the web.  To the extent that it doesn’t, you can right-click on the form and have RoboForm save the form information for future use.  I find this capability quite handy for repetitive surveys over time, forms that require shipping and billing data, and sites that request recurring demographic data.

Have you ever been frustrated after spending a lot of time on a site completing an online form or long text box and then find out that the site timed out or couldn’t save your info?  You’ll find that saving the data in RoboForm first before submitting it can save you quite a bit of aggravation.  Just bring up the page again and let RoboForm re-populate it.

RoboForm can also securely save and store free-form bits of information known as “safenotes.”  I’ve used safenotes to store software installation keys, combinations for safes and locks, Wi-Fi network names and keys, PIN’s, frequent flier numbers, and other confidential personal or financial information.

As mentioned above, RoboForm is available on most computing and mobile platforms including the PC, iPhone, Windows Mobile, Palm, BlackBerry, Android, and Symbian.  A version known as RoboForm2go works on a USB thumb drive and enables you to plug in and out of any PC without having to install the program and move your passwords onto someone else’s PC.  Another available piece of software, known as GoodSync, keeps your RoboForm information synchronized between different platforms and locations.

RoboForm Online

Over the past year, RoboForm has been beta testing a version of RoboForm online which optionally allows you to synchronize your passcards and safenotes to a secure server.  Accessing these very secure items online requires you to register with and to log into the site (free) with a secure password.  Actually opening the secure items prompts for your RoboForm master password to be entered, thereby enabling two levels of password security.  This service has been a godsend for me on numerous occasions where I was away from my PC and didn’t have my laptop or RoboForm2go USB thumb drive with me when I needed a login ID and password.  The site functions much like the desktop version of RoboForm and assists you with automatically logging into sites that you’ve saved in RoboForm.

RoboForm Online gives you the added flexibility of synchronizing your passcards and safenotes over the internet across multiple devices.  This is a very powerful and much needed capability, though I can understand many people’s hesitation to surrender and trust their most sensitive passwords and personal information to a third party server.  My only comment is that RoboForm has the highest levels of security and encryption implemented and, with two levels of password protection, I feel reasonably secure about putting my data out there.  Besides, your online ID’s and passwords are by definition already stored on many servers in the cloud which can be equally hacked by determined thieves, albeit one at a time.

Version 7 Enhancements

One of the most significant enhancements in this version 7.0 beta is the capability to save and fill ID’s and passwords in Windows (WIN32) applications, not just online passwords.  In addition, when saving an online form, the details are now displayed for you so you know exactly what is being saved.  Furthermore, this occurs in a non-obtrusive tool-bar rather than the old pop-up box, thereby streamlining the web browsing experience.  Logging into widely known and popular websites automatically downloads site icons to make the related passcards more visually appealing and easier and faster to recognize.

Another significant enhancement for devices equipped with a fingerprint reader is the capability to enter the master password via a finger swipe.  The fingerprint device stores your master password in a secure area on the device.  This secure area becomes accessible to RoboForm only after you slide your finger and it is then authenticated against the fingerprint stored on the device.

A release date for version 7 has not yet been announced.

RoboForm Criticisms

RoboForm is not without its shortcomings and share of quirks.  For example, more and more sites are switching to an Adobe Flash version of their login screen to raise security.  RoboForm cannot currently handle most of these sites.  On those sites, you have to perform a manual RoboForm lookup and type in your ID and password yourself.

On some sites, such as American Express, RoboForm inexplicably stops working properly. This requires you to have RoboForm fill out the form (but not submit it) and then you manually click on the submit button.  In this case, you can re-memorize the site information in RoboForm and fix the problem for future visits.

As sites become more sophisticated with additional levels and types of authentication (e.g., captchas, pointing and clicking your PIN on an onscreen keyboard à la ING Bank, rotating challenge questions, etc.), this renders RoboForm unable to do anything more than show you your credentials to be manually entered.  I’m not sure how or if RoboForm can be enhanced to overcome and automatically populate these additional safeguards, but it sure would be nice if they figured out a way to do so.

Whenever you change the master password, your passcards and safenotes should inherit and respond only to the new password.  However, I’ve had a few occasions where a passcard would only open up with the old password.  Finally, I’ve had occasions where I’ve had to inexplicably remind RoboForm where my data directory resided.  Fortunately no data has ever been lost.

Options & Recommendations

The paid version of RoboForm, known as RoboForm Pro, is about $30 for the first license and less for additional licenses.  An enterprise version is available and significant discounts are available for large license purchases.  During various holidays throughout the year, a 20% discount can be found on the website.  Even without the discount, for this price, you can count on saving yourself tons of frustration and aggravation compared to using manual or spreadsheet password management and form filling.  Buying multiple licenses at the same time (whether or not on the same platform) will likely save you money compared with buying them over time.

I also highly recommend the powerful GoodSync software if you plan to sync your data or files across multiple platforms or devices.  GoodSync is one of the most powerful file synchronization tools available and is also one of my most frequently used cool tools to keep data in sync.

For those who prefer free versions of password management tools, of course the Internet Explorer and Firefox password stores are available, though they are significantly less capable than RoboForm.  The popular open-source password manager applications KeePass and LastPass are also free but, in my opinion, not as convenient as RoboForm.  If you’d like additional information about password managers including the five most popular ones, visit http://lifehacker.com/5042616/five-best-password-managers.

I welcome your feedback and questions about RoboForm or other password managers. Please feel free to write me at shf@ydfs.com.

Sam H. Fawaz, CFP®, CPA works with Y.D. Financial Services in Canton Michigan and Franklin Tennessee and has been helping clients with financial planning and financial planners with technology solutions for over 20 years. He has been writing about tax, financial planning and technology solutions for over fourteen years.  He can be reached via e-mail at shf@ydfs.com or at (734) 447-5305 with any questions.  You can follow Sam on Twitter at http://twitter.com/themoneygeek or at his blog at http://themoneygeek.com.  His company website is at Y.D. Financial Services, Inc.

Fake Malware Warning Traps

There’s an increasingly common method that hackers use to install malware (e.g., virus, Trojan Horse, adware, key logger, etc.) onto your PC, with your help.  Malware distributors hack commonly accessed and unsecure websites and plant a hidden script on the site, which is subsequently downloaded by your browser (mostly Internet Explorer, sometimes Firefox) without your knowledge.  When you open your browser, you see a warning that your PC is infected with malware.  Most people think that their PC’s own anti-malware software is giving the warning, but it’s actually a website created by the hackers.

When the website opens – it gives you one or more warning messages that your PC has been infected, and then tells you to run the software which supposedly removes the malware.  If you click on it, the opposite of removal occurs.  The file that you are tricked into installing and running is the malware itself.  By clicking on it, you are giving it permission to install it on your PC.  In some cases, the hackers are peddling anti-malware software themselves so they trick you into believing that their software is the only one that can remove the bogus malware.  Never buy from these people.

Your best defense is to have good anti-malware software installed on your computer and keep it up to date.  Also, it is essential that you run regular Microsoft Windows security updates.   If you receive an unfamiliar malware message on your PC or in your browser, just close all your browser windows and run a full system scan using your anti-malware software.

You should know exactly what kind or brand of anti-malware software your PC is running, so you can recognize whether the warning message is legitimate or not.   If you don’t know what anti-malware software you are running, or don’t know if your computer is being kept up to date, then ask your information technology person.  Most importantly, be skeptical of any unfamiliar malware warning; merely clicking on it could trigger installation of the malware.  Don’t be afraid to ask someone more knowledgeable about these things if you’re not sure what to do.

Google Voice is a Game Changer

How many phone numbers are you currently reachable at?  Two? Three? Four? Maybe even five?  Let’s see: you’ve got the home, office, mobile, and home office phone lines where you’re reachable.  So if it’s any more than one number, that can make phone communications with clients, friends and family less than 100% efficient.  Add multiple voicemail boxes to check and it becomes even less efficient.

While we’d all like to think that one day we’ll only need our mobile phones as our single point of contact, that reality is still several years away.  A study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that a mere 15.8% of U.S households have cut the landline cord and switched to mobile service exclusively.  Spotty coverage, sometimes poor voice quality and lack of consistent 911 emergency services are among a few of the reasons we still rely on a land line.  For many of us, this means at least two phone lines to answer.

So wouldn’t it be great to be able to give out a single number to everyone to reach you without having to worry about where you might be?  That single number would ring all of your phones simultaneously and you could pick up the call from any phone that’s handy.  And if a caller left a voicemail, you’d only have one box to check.  That’s the idea (and much more) behind GV, a web-based telecommunication service.

To continue reading this article, which is posted on the FPA of Michigan web site, please click on this link: http://bit.ly/16UFua

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