Sunday, June 19, 2011

Where are the red shirts when you need them?

Today’s column was not going to be about back up files, computer safety, or internet security. However as writers, relying as we do on our computers, it is something that should always be on our minds.

Some computer problems are mechanical. Case in point being the hard drive on my old laptop physically breaking. Some computer problems are viral, your computer falls victim to software meant to bring it down. Usually these attacks are motivated by greed – the program destroying your system is hunting for identity and financial information. Other times it’s random malice -- for reasons that make sense to them people write programs that destabilize or corrupt computers then release them on the web. Sometimes the computer is stolen or destroyed.

These days everyone has backup copies of their important files; but simply having a backup may not be enough. The home of my friend Phaedra Weldon was burglarized a few years ago. Along with her computer, the thieves took all of the disks – including CD back-ups of her novel – in her home office. Another writer I know kept his backups in a separate room, but one day came home to find the fire department soaking the smoldering ashes that had once been his house. One writer I know works in a small room above her detached garage. She burns a CD of her writing folder at the end of each day and puts the CD in a fire-proof box in her bedroom. I know more than one writer who uses an online backup storage service. However, despite these dangers and options, most writers do what I do: a simple flash drive, usually carried on their person, with all of their works in progress and competed mss.

A few days ago my laptop began acting up – hesitating, not opening files unless clicked multiple times, taking more time to open programs or web pages, etc. Last night at about 10PM the virus corrupting it came out into the open. Posing as a Windows XP program it advises me that my computer is under attack and I must go to a website and provide credit card and personal information – plus agree to pay money – in order to reactivate the Windows firewall and anti-malware programs that come free on XP in the first place. My AVG anti-virus and spyware won’t launch – the fake XP warns it has blocked a malicious program (AVG) when I try. Funnily enough, when I launch the Windows security that came with the computer, I get the same message, listing Microsoft as a known source of threats. My system restore, which establishes restore points every 48 hours, can’t go back beyond yesterday so I can’t reset to a time before the virus hit.

Annoying. I’m going to have to pay for a virus clean-out by folks who know what they’re doing. But not a real problem. I thought. Until I plugged my flash drive into the family desktop and AVG told me the drive was corrupted. It will reformat the drive if I’d like, but it won’t open it. I can’t access any of my files – including the column I wrote for today about the hero’s journey.

Monday I’ll let Nathan’s minions at Island Computers purge my laptop of all malicious programs. Then I’m going to look into an online backup service. I recommend you do something similar.


Liane Spicer said...

I back up on two flash drives. Captain Black has said time and again that backing up one disk (hard drive) to another disk (flash drive, CD) is asking for trouble. I didn't listen.

My sister had a mirror experience to yours a few weeks ago and she brought her laptop for me to fix as my son, the resident whiz, is out of the country. After a sleepless weekend of online research, trial and error, I was able to reset to a point before the virus attacked. I had to take what I call a stealth route since the virus had disabled the regular functions.

Laptop worked perfectly after that, but during my searches of message boards and such I discovered that the free AVG AV I'd downloaded for her a few months ago was actually a rogue virus program. ("AVG antivirus 2011". It's a bitch and not in any way connected with the genuine free version of AVG. What I found out about these malicious programmes that assume the names of genuine software is the stuff of nightmare.)

I proceeded to do everything in the book to rid the computer of that program, including MANUALLY going through THOUSANDS of system files and deleting every one with the letters 'avg'. Didn't work.

Pulled out the credit card and installed Norton. Their scan neither identified nor removed the rogue programme. Neither did their advanced virus removal tool. Called them up, handed over control of the computer to their tech guy in India, watched for two hours as he did his stuff, and finally, voila. The crap virus was gone. (That guy was an angel. I swear. With wings. I even got two calls afterward to ensure the computer was running smoothly.)

I'll email you the 'get around the blocks to reset to a previous point' instructions. Hope, hope, hope you get to recover your files. And going to look into this online backup stuff right now.

Charles Gramlich said...

I back up just about every day and I hate the fact that I have to. People who spread these viruses are scum. I can't think of another word for them.

Captain Black said...

There is a simple and effective deterrent against malicious software. It may not be a barrier against infection but it will stop most things from executing their nasty payload. It goes like this:

Do not do everyday work using an administrative login.

You only need to be administrator for administrative things, like installing or updating software. Everyday work like e-mail, word processing and web browsing can be done with a regular account.

It really is that simple.

I've been trying out some "cloud" backup solutions recently. So far ADrive and Dropbox seem like good candidates.

Liane: That's not quite what I said. Backing up to another hard disk drive is more risky because of mechanical failure. Flash drives and CD/DVD are okay (though they can fail too).

Charles: I couldn't agree more.

In case anyone wants to read my article on backups, it can be found here. The bit at the end might scare you! It should.

G said...

I usually back up my stuff to my floppies (yeah, i'm a luddite) and I use Norton's online back-up system for key stuff.

Additionally, I have printouts of about 97% of the stuff I've written, including my current project (which I printout as I write, so that I can edit and take notes later).

I used to send copies of my stuff to my various e-mail addys for storage but stopped. I should look into doing that again.

Liane Spicer said...

Thank you for that clarification, Captain Black. And this is the first I'm hearing of the non-admin login deterrent. Thanks.