Anatomy of a scam

I’ve been seeing this notice on my MSN homepage lately.

fake flash player

What’s your take on this? Does this look like a legitimate prompt to install or update your Flash player?

Well, it’s not. But since you have no doubt seen frequent requests to update Flash, you may be tempted to click that big fat “Update” button before you notice all the clues that expose this as deceptive.

  • First and foremost, Flash is an Adobe product. You will notice that the Adobe name and logo do not appear anywhere.
  • The word “Advertisement” is clearly indicated underneath the box.
  • The statement “You might need to install Flash Player” is technically true. You might. Or you might not. Phrased in this manner, it’s meaningless. But you’ve been prompted to update Flash before, so this ad is intended to get you to click the button without thinking it through.
  • The website “” appears in the top border. This is the site that you will be directed to if you click on the ad. There is such a thing as Windows Media Player – it’s a standard component of Windows. So “winmediaplayer” sounds familiar. Again, the hope is that you will click without thinking about the fact that Windows Media Player and Flash Player are two completely different programs.

While I didn’t click on the ad, I went to the website. The site offers to download VLC Media Player, which is a real (and highly recommended) multimedia player for Windows, Linux, Mac OS, and other platforms. But the download starts automatically after a brief countdown, even if you don’t click anything. You barely have time to read the page.

Is it a scam? At the very least, it’s completely misleading. I bailed out before the download could get underway. I figured the odds of getting an actual download of VLC were pretty slim, considering how much dishonesty they had packed into a few inches of screen space.

UPDATE 02/21/14: I just received a Flash Player update prompt from Adobe tonight, so I was able to grab a shot of what the real Flash update dialog box looks like.


Accept no substitutes!

The twilight of Windows XP

It’s been a good run, but the end is nigh.

On April 8, 2014, Microsoft will withdraw extended support for Windows XP, meaning that they will stop providing security updates for download on this date. They’ve threatened to pull the plug a few times already, but it appears they really mean it this time.

I expect third-party software updates will continue to be available for a while, so programs like Java and Adobe Flash will still get patches. But vulnerabilities in Windows itself will no longer be addressed. And I just found out that the free Microsoft Security Essentials antivirus software will be withdrawn for XP.

So what does that mean for you if you still have Windows XP on your computer?

I believe it depends on how you use your computer. If your PC is your livelihood — if you use it for work or to support a home-based business, you should start formulating an upgrade strategy. As I have bemoaned many times in the past, there is no direct upgrade path from Windows XP to Windows 7 or 8; you can’t just pop in an upgrade disk and install a new version of Windows without wiping out your current installation. So if you want to keep your current computer hardware, you would have to copy all your personal data to an external drive, install the new version of Windows, migrate your data back, and then reinstall all your programs.

It may therefore be time to consider a new PC with Windows 7 or 8 already installed. This way, you can migrate your data and programs at a more leisurely pace, while you still have your old PC available. This is how I did it.

However, if your PC usage is more of a hobby — if you use it primarily for e-mail, web browsing, or to play the occasional game, I don’t see any reason to undertake an upgrade right now. Your computer won’t suddenly stop working on April 8. You may be able to get by just fine on Windows XP for the foreseeable future. But you will need to address your antivirus protection, particularly if you are using the free Security Essentials. AV utilities from other vendors will continue to provide protection even if Microsoft no longer does.

If you want to stay with a free AV solution, Avast is a highly recommended option. AVG also has a free version that is decent.

If you’d like the additional security and support of a paid AV program, I’ve been really happy with Norton Internet Security and have switched to using it on all of my home PCs. For some years, Norton was kind of lost in the wilderness and became bloated, slow, and annoying. But Symantec got its act together and the latest versions are pretty slick. If you do choose Norton, save a few bucks and order it from Amazon.

By the way, I am still recommending Windows 7 over 8. Even though the 8.1 version addresses a lot of Windows 8’s shortcomings, it’s still a major adjustment for people used to the XP interface. You will find it much easier to adapt to Windows 7. It’s harder to find, but it’s still available. And while Microsoft is waffling on the cutoff dates for Windows 7, at this point the extended support is supposed to be provided until January, 2020. By then, Windows 9 or 10 should be available, and maybe Microsoft will get one of those right.

UPDATE 1/17/14: Well, Microsoft is backtracking again. They must have gotten an earful from customers, so they have announced that Security Essentials for XP will continue to get updates into July of 2015. Other reports are coming in that Microsoft has been forced to admit (at least to itself) that Windows 8 is a flop, and the company is already planning Windows 9 for 2015. Grab your popcorn and stay tuned.

You’re careful, but what about your kids?

It happens too often. I receive a voicemail or e-mail message from a client containing the somber words, “I think I have a virus.”

There is frequently an element of guilt and shame in the message, as if I would think badly of them for allowing this to happen. This is probably because everyone knows porn sites are common distributors of malware. But there are many other ways your system can become infected.

As we talk it over, the shame usually turns to frustration and annoyance. “I’ve been careful. I don’t surf to those sites and I don’t click on things that I shouldn’t. I don’t follow e-mail links that I don’t trust. I have anti-virus software. I’m doing everything right. Why did this happen?”

My next question is usually, “Do your kids use your computer?”

“Well, yes, but I’ve talked to them about being cautious as well, and they know about responsible web surfing…”

Doesn’t matter. The Internet is a minefield. New malicious sites pop up all the time, and there’s no practical way for the makers of anti-virus and parental control software to keep up with them all. You may never encounter such sites in your daily web routine, but that’s because the purveyors of malware are actively targeting topics that interest young people.

This article explains how the bad guys exploit web searches for top celebrity news, something that attracts mostly teens. Older folks like me, who couldn’t care less about Miley Cyrus’ latest antics and have never even heard of Lily Collins, may never encounter these traps.

But the pitfalls are still there and sometimes even we “mature” people stumble in. Once in a while I will do a web search for song lyrics. Mind you, any song I search for would have been recorded prior to 1986 (the year I graduated college and stopped paying attention to new music), but lyric sites attract all ages and are another frequent malware trap. Most any song lyric site you find will bombard you with pop-ups and malicious links. When your computer screen is going crazy like this, it’s easy to (even accidentally) click on something you shouldn’t. And before you know it, something has gotten into your browser and you have a problem.

Once a malicious program has installed itself on your system, it frequently opens the door for other malware. Think of it as a guy breaking into your house and then inviting his buddies over to eat all your food.

One of the issues I see most often is that malware has hijacked your browser’s search functions by replacing your default web search provider (such as Google or Bing) with another tool that captures information about your surfing patterns and web searches. This sort of information is valuable for marketing purposes. Sometimes these rogue search tools will change your browser’s home page, but often they are less obvious. Usually the first indication that you’ve been compromised is that you notice your PC running more slowly, especially when surfing the web. And as more bad programs are allowed into your system, performance continues to decline.

While this can be a significant annoyance, especially on older PCs that were never speed demons to begin with, there are malware removal tools that can deal with most of these problems with relative ease. But we are increasingly seeing instances of a more severe problem called ransomware, a malicious program that locks you out of your computer, displaying a warning message (frequently accusatory) and “helpful” instructions on how to send payment to disable the lock. This is, of course, extortion, and the authorities are going after these guys, but that doesn’t help you much if you’re currently a victim. Again, there are software tools that can remove ransomware, but the process tends to be tricky and time-consuming.

Unfortunately, there’s no surefire solution other than abandoning technology altogether and going off to live on a homestead with the Amish. Kids are always going to seek out the new and popular, and marketing is all about identifying predictable behaviors and exploiting them for profit. And there’s no reason kids shouldn’t be able to surf the Web for things that interest them — that’s what it’s there for. But if you’re wondering how on earth this stuff got all over your PC…mystery solved.