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Controlled Folder Access - Anti Ransomware Measures

There's been an unpleasant rise in ransomware attacks recently which can be can extremely damaging to home and business systems. Most of the headlines have highlighted the crippling effect such attacks have had on affected businesses, as these are the intended targets, but home PC's can also be vulnerable.

Ransomware attacks can be extremely profitable to the originators as it can render data unuseable without the decryption key, this key is held until a payment (ransom) is sent, normally via a crypto currency.

Burdening your PC with resource hungry security software can bring its own issues, as we've mentioned many times before, but there are a few basic steps you can take to reduce the chance and impact of a ransomware infection:

1. Backup to an external device as follows - Plug in and external storage device, copy your important data to it then unplug it (important) from the computer. We've setup simple scripts for many of our customers to help with this process but it's nothing more complicated than having your important data stored on a disconnected external device.

2. Dont get fooled into opening attachments, or links, to webpages via email or text message, any misplaced curiosity here can be your undoing.

3. Avoid dodgy websites.

4. Keep your anti-virus software up to date.

5. One final step worth implementing is Microsoft's Controlled Folder Access feature, this has been proven to prevent previous versions of ransomware from affecting important folders. It works by only allowing known-good apps (programs) to make changes to those folders, any other processes trying to make changes will trigger a request sent to the user.

You can use the Windows Security app to view the list of folders that are protected by controlled folder access.

1. On your Windows 10 device, open the Windows Security app.

2. Select Virus & threat protection.

3. Under Ransomware protection, select Manage ransomware protection.

4. If controlled folder access is turned off, you'll need to turn it on.

5. Select protected folders. Do one of the following steps:

To add a folder, select + Add a protected folder.
To remove a folder, select it, and then select Remove.

Some of your third party (non Microsoft) programs might now trigger a notification, if you follow the prompts you should only need to add the program to the allowed list once.

More details from Microsoft's website here:

Windows 11 Early Signs

Windows 11 will be available later in the year and the upgrade should be free. As things stand it appears the general layout and start menu will be subject to an overhaul, and it should be easier to organise running programs on the screen. Microsoft’s conference meeting software Teams is under review and there appears an update to their widgets (smaller apps with tailored information such as weather etc.).

There was a compatibility checker on the Microsoft website to see if your current hardware met the required minimum specifications, but this has been temporarily removed. Despite the free upgrade offer there has been some concern that Microsoft will only allow the software to be installed on computers with the very latest generation processors. If this is the case, it may not be a viable option to many, but it remains to be seen if this requirement is implemented.

Any qualifying PC would also need Trusted Platform Module (TPM) technology as well as a UEFI, Secure Boot capable BIOS. Other minimum requirements should be easily met by most computers as things stand.

The exact details remain to be seen and all of the above may change by the time the latest operating system is ready for general release later in the year. Windows 10 will still be supported until at least 2025 and jumping to the latest operating system, in its infancy, isn’t a step we’d always recommend anyway.

More details can be found here:

New Windows 10 Versions and PC Upgrades

Recent Windows major upgrade versions have had a noticeable effect on the performance of desktops and laptops. It may be tempting to avoid updating systems to prevent any such issues, but it should be remembered that updates often fix known exploits that can lead to even more serious problems down the line if not patched. If you have a very old computer it simply may not be able to cope with the demands of a modern operating system and a new PC could be the only answer.

There is no doubt the price of new laptops, desktops and peripherals have risen sharply in recent times, due to Covid and the supply/demand forces at work, making replacement less of a straightforward decision. Furthermore, a new desktop or laptop is only one part of the equation as this will need updating and patching; you then have the issue of installing/transferring old data, programs and peripherals etc.

Every setup has a bottleneck at some point, this can typically be the processor, memory, hard drive, network interfaces or broadband input, the list goes on but you can often get very positive results by focusing in the hard drive and RAM area. Modern SSD (solid state hard drives) can make a significant difference to start-up times and improve general performance, an upgrade to the amount of available system RAM can improve things further.

The good news is to clone an older, disk based, hard drive to a modern SSD can be a relatively quick job, and something you could even achieve yourself using Acronis Disk Director or similar, see here: Acronis Website. Once cloned and installed your existing system carries on, albeit faster, as before.

In short, before you condemn your existing PC or laptop, it may well be worth considering an upgrade to the internal hardware which in turn may give you many more years of use. These upgrades can sometimes even outperform newer PCs with lower specifications.

Older Versions of Microsoft Office

Support for Office 2010 ended on October 13, 2020 so if you are running Word, Excel, Outlook etc. 2010, or earlier, you may see some issues, especially when it comes to sending and receiving email and attachments.

Your software will continue to work, but if you are experiencing any issues with your older Microsoft Office software you may want to consider upgrading to Office 365.

This can be bought online for £59.99 a year and you can use the subscription on up to 5 devices at the same time.

News and Interests from Microsoft

If you are keeping your PC up to date you may have noticed a new feature called "News and Interests" which Microsoft have deemed useful for all users running Windows 10 1909 and later, you may see it down on the taskbar near the clock.

If you like this new feature then you can ignore the following but like every add-on it can come with overhead and just be another nagging request for your attention when the PC starts.

The good news is that if you are not a fan of this feature, you can quickly turn it off. To disable this, right-click on an empty portion of your taskbar, select 'News and interests,' and then click on 'Turn off.'

Hidden Programs

It is quite common for Windows to hide all those little icons which indicate software running in the background on start-up. We'd always recommend keeping an eye on start-up programs as these can load every time your PC runs and slow things down (without ever being used).

Vendors will often add start-up processes to make their software load quicker with scant regard for the performance overhead these add. To see one area where start-up processes can be identified it's a good idea to show all icons in the taskbar area which can be done as follows:

1. Press and hold or right-click any empty space on the taskbar, tap or click Settings, and then go to Notification area or type Taskbar Settings in the search box near the start menu.

2. Scroll down and click Select which icons appear in the taskbar.

3. Select Always show all icons in the notification area.

You may now notice some new icons in the bottom right-hand side of your screen, near the clock. These show some of the extra software programs which load every time your PC starts and it might be worth doing some research as to their necessity.

Unwanted anti-virus and cloud-based services can have a serious impact on performance.

Improving your Internet Connection

A very common issue we get asked about is broadband speeds, or lack of, and/or intermittent dropouts. Firstly, this shouldn't be confused with the strength, and stability, of the internal Wifi signal in your home or office. If your site is making the WiFi work particularly hard then this could be why internet connections aren't stable and your broadband supplier may not be at fault. WiFi connectivity can suffer for many reasons, the most common ones are as follows:

Poorly positioned routers/access points.
Heavy usage through gaming /TV/video applications and devices.
Interference from other Wifi networks on the same channel.
Old WiFi protocols being used.
Reliance on repeaters (these can extend the range but always come at a cost of throughput, rarely a good idea to implement).
Worth remembering that those unsightly network cables will always perform better than WiFi so always use ethernet cables, where you can, over WiFi.

A simple test is to unplug all devices, except for one, and cable this directly to the router to see if speeds improve, if things suddenly speed up dramatically it indicates a WiFi issue rather than a broadband problem. Once you've established that none of the above is causing the lethargy with your network it's time to look at the router and cabling. If both are in good order, then it's time to speak to your ISP (Internet Service Provider).

This is where the fun begins, but if you are to realise any improvements you will need to be persistent and get some proof that the fault lies with the broadband provider's connection which, to be fair, will normally be due to a cabling issue somewhere between your property and the nearest exchange. Even if you are on so-called fibre broadband, this still relies on good old BT cabling to get to the nearest cabinet.

Only two real options at this point, the first is to log in to your router and take a screenshot, or note, the up and down connection speeds which are normally in kbps (kilobits per second), divide this by 1000 which gives the Mbps figure. You can now compare this to the promised figure from your ISP. The second important route to take is to speak to a close neighbour and ask them if they can do the same, if they have a much better connection than you, and you have something to prove it, you are in a much stronger position to get a positive outcome.

Often an engineer will visit your property and do some tests which won't necessarily solve the problem, now is the time to produce some proof a close neighbour is getting a better service (assuming you have signed up for the same, or similar) and to ask the engineer to provide a valid reason as to why your connection is inferior. You may find BT will move you on to another connection at the exchange, or local cabinet, which makes things permanently better.

We appreciate this seems a chore but we had recent issues with broadband speeds at our own offices and it was only when we went to the lengths above we are able to get this actioned; our speeds doubled, up and down, once an engineer reluctantly moved our line.

Local User Accounts

After updates you may get notifications from time to time that you are not logged in to Microsoft as a general user and Microsoft doesn't recommended this. There's no reason you need to be logged in to a Microsoft account on your PC for you to use it and this message can be ignored.

When Cure May be Better than Prevention

Viruses, malware, ransomware, trojans, the list goes on and many software vendors will suggest they have the solution to preventing such intrusions. After many years of dealing with the fallout of such annoyances we have witnessed shortfalls in every piece of software which purports to keep you safe. Yes, some work better than others, but often at the expense of system resources which means your "protected" computer runs so slow, and has so many annoying pop up messages, the benefits are questionable.

Microsoft's operating systems historically came with no anti-virus but Security Essentials and Windows Defender have improved to the point they now offer an acceptable level of security for most instances (we've been using them for years without issue). The better approach, in our opinion, is to take a complete backup of all data on a daily basis or better still take a daily image of the workstation. This means that should your PC fall foul of one of these nasties, which aren't so common these days anyway, it's nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

Cloning, or imaging, can be done for free using the built in Windows backup tools but can take quite a while and is quite a manual operation. Acronis offer a more robust cloning solution for around £35.00 per workstation and well worth a look:

All of this enables you to recover your data, or entire PC, to a previously working state, should you have an issue, and means you don't need to pay annual subscriptions for bloated, intrusive anti-virus and/or endpoint protection.

Laptop Desktop or Tablet?

A question we are often asked when it comes to choosing a new or replacement PC so here’s a few pointers which may help in the decision process.

Probably the most important factors are space and portability. Obviously if you need to work on the move then laptops/tablets are the choice but you probably don’t need the burden of a laptop if you are only sending email and web browsing.

Tablets, such as Ipads and their Android counterparts, are generally much quicker to turn on, have longer battery life than laptops and, due to their operating systems, are less of a worry when it comes to viruses and malware. Unfortunately the very operating system that gives them those advantages also means you cannot always install the same software as on your desktop PC or laptop, so compatibility can be an issue. They are also a bit uncomfortable to work on for long periods due to their size and, whilst keyboard attachments are available, it’s not the same as working on a standard size keyboard. The other main reason to choose a laptop/tablet over a desktop would be if space is an issue as they obviously have a much smaller footprint and require less cabling.

All laptops running on Windows operating systems can generally operate in the same way as a desktop PC. Be aware though that if you buy a modern laptop it may not have a CD/DVD drive, something to consider if you have lots of software/music on CD’s/DVD’s. Also, laptops and tablets normally come complete with built in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cameras, all of which are normally additional items to buy on desktops, if required.

So it sounds like the end of the road for the desktop PC but not so, there are a few areas where their lighter, skinnier cousins fall short. Firstly longevity, due to their size there is less room for cooling and the circulation of air on a laptop and the inbuilt nature of their construction, means repair is generally far more difficult, and costly.

Desktop PC’s are generally more ergonomically friendly and, with their full size keyboards and mice, it means longer periods of work are less of a chore. Component failure is less of a problem on a desktop PC and it’s much easier to configure multiple screens and other external devices. Upgrading the internals is less common these days, but still far easier on a desktop.

Whilst, the laptop/tablet may look like the obvious choice you may find the old desktop PC actually suits your needs better in the long run.

Scams to be Aware of

3 scams which are still quite prevalant at the moment to be aware of.

The first involves an email warning the recipient they have been looking at dubious websites and need to send money, via Bitcoin or similar, or have their activites advertised to the wider world. The clever aspect of this is the scammers reinforce the message by claiming they have the recipient's password on file to enable them to hack their social media accounts and notify friends and family.

What they actually have is an older password gleaned from a list which has been sold to them by hackers on criminal websites. These password lists are acquired, then redistributed, after serious data breaches of larger companies which are often reported on the news. If you get one of these emails, ignore it, but make sure you change, and are no longer using, any password the criminals clearly have access to.

The next is a TV Licensing email doing the rounds claiming you are behind on payments or similar. A series of hyperlinks then leads you off on a path which only ends in a potential loss of funds so ignore any such emails, more on this one here: TV licensing scam details

There's also been a rise in email scams coming from HMRC and Amazon so treat any emails, or text messages with links, with the utmost care. If in doubt always inspect the properties of any email sender, and links to any website addesses, very carefully for typos and accuracy.

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