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6 Easy Opt-Outs to Protect Your Privacy

How to shrink your exposure to telemarketers, bulky catalogs, and online data mining

Marketers want your personal data and they’re willing to work hard to get it. The result can be a barrage of unsolicited mail, telemarketing calls, and pop-up ads.

You can cut down on those offers by signing up with the Do Not Call Registry and other services, some set up by industry groups. The World Privacy Forum’s Top 10 Opt Outs is a comprehensive resource of websites and organizations that help consumers reduce the amount of marketing material coming their way.

But you can also accomplish a lot, more quickly, with the whittled-down data-collection cleanse outlined below.

Not all of the online forms you’ll be accessing are equally simple to navigate. Follow these tips for cutting through the clutter and the whole six-step exercise can take under 10 minutes to complete. (I got it down to 9 minutes, 8 seconds.) That’s less time than it takes to do the dishes, and it will help make your inbox equally sparkly and clean.

Let’s start with pesky telemarketing calls.

1. National Do Not Call Registry

You know those annoying calls from “Heather at account services?” The National Do Not Call Registry helps you prevent such unsolicited intrusions from telemarketers.

Where to go: The FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry provides one-stop shopping for telemarketer opt-outs.

How it works: Once you get to the Registry you’re given two options: 1) to register or 2) to check to see if you’re registered. The straightforward form allows you to provide up to three lines, I registered my cell, my home landline, and my office line in just seconds.

What you’ll need: You have to provide a valid e-mail address to receive confirmation e-mails—one for each phone number you register—those confirmations arrived in my inbox almost instantly. When I clicked on the link in each e-mail, I was done.

2. Prescreened Credit Offers

Is your mailbox filled with “pre-approved” credit card offers? Lenders send out those solicitations after buying lists of potential borrowers from major credit reporting firms such as Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can stop that cycle at the source. (This Federal Trade Commission FAQ page explains pre-screened credit.)

Where to go: The Consumer Credit Reporting Industry website, or call 888-567-8688.

How it works: The online form lets you opt out for five years. If you want to opt out permanently, you need to print out, fill out, and mail back an old-school paper form. Maddeningly, to get access to the paper form you first need to fill out another form online. You might want to do the quick-and-easy online opt-out first, and then go back and do the paperwork for the permanent opt-opt later.

What you’ll need: Your Social Security number. I’ll admit I felt a little uncomfortable entering my SSN, but the reality is that if you’re getting these offers, the credit reporting agencies have this information anyway.

How long it took: 1 minute, 24 seconds (not including the time to fill out and mail the permanent opt-out form).

3. DMA Choice

I like the fall Pottery Barn catalog as much as the next guy—until I have to carry 20 pounds of mixed paper to the curb on recycling day. The opt-out program set up by the Data & Marketing Association won’t solve that problem completely, but it will reduce the volume of mail coming in.

Where to go: Head to DMA Choice.

How it works: This is a two-stage process. First, you register with DMA, providing an e-mail, password, and credit card information, including your zip code. Once you’re logged in, you get steered to a menu with three options. Clicking on the Catalogs/Magazines/Other Mail Offers link opens a daunting alphabetical list of companies. Ignore it. Head instead to Stop All Catalogs and click on Remove My Name. The site will ask you if you’re sure, at which point you click on Yes, Take Me Off and confirm your address.

What you’ll need: A credit card. You have to pay $2 for the online opt-out and $3 if you mail in the form. There are free opt-outs for caregivers and those with a deceased relative.

How long it took: 3 minutes, 12 seconds (including the time spent entering my credit card information to pay the small fee).

4. FERPA

Public school enrollment information about your children doesn’t have to be public. FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, gives parents and students the right keep a range of directory-style information private, such as the student’s address, place of birth, and dates of attendance at the school. The catch is, you have to request this.

Where to go: Since the FERPA opt-out procedure is district-specific, there’s no national online clearing house. You need to request a form from your local school district or print out the generic one on the WPF website, which you can then submit to local officials.

How it works: The WPF form is reasonably straightforward. You enter a little info about your student, along with your opt-out preferences. Many school districts only accept FERPA opt-outs at the beginning of the school year, so don’t delay.

What you’ll need: The forms vary somewhat, but there’s a good chance you’ll need to provide a student ID number.

How long it took: 40 seconds (not including the time to fill out the printed form and return it to the school).

5. Banks and Other Financial Institutions

The information collected and distributed by banks varies widely. Since that information can include very sensitive information such as account balances, it’s worthwhile to take the time to protect it.

Where to go: The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation explains your rights and opt-out options, but does not provide a universal opt-out for financial institutions. The WPF site, however, includes an opt-out list for many large institutions, including Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citibank (1-888-214-0017)

How it works: I bank at Chase. So using the link above, I entered my account information and checked off all the options provided, instructing the bank not to share information about my creditworthiness or other personal information with affiliates and third parties for marketing purposes.

What you’ll need: Your account number and your Social Security number. If you have multiple accounts, you only need to enter the info for one. Don’t forget about your mortgage and investment accounts.

How long it took: 52 seconds.

6. Data Brokers

Data brokers are clearing houses for much of the information that’s gathered about you online and used by marketers. Most don’t have easy opt-outs. But Acxiom, one of the biggest data brokers, is an exception.

Where to go: Acxiom’s website includes an opt-out page.

How it works: I checked Acxiom’s About the Data site, and discovered that the company knows quite a lot about me, ranging from my family status to my income and political affiliations. Some of the information was surprisingly accurate, while other parts were flat-out wrong. You can, however, skip this step and go straight to the opt-out form.

What you’ll need: A little advance research. You’ll want to register your name, but also common misspellings, any maiden name, names from previous marriages, addresses dating back as far as you can recall, and all of your e-mail addresses.

How long it took: 1 minute, 30 seconds. The form itself is quite simple to use, but the dropdown menus slow things down a bit, as does the CAPTCHA confirmation that you’re a human, not a robot.

St. John, Allen. “6 Easy Opt-Outs to Protect Your Privacy” Consumer Reports September 2017

Posted in: Security, Tech Tips for Business Owners

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Try These Top Add-Ins for Microsoft Word

You can beef up Microsoft Word with the right add-ins.

Microsoft Word packs a lot of features and functionality into one single application. But there’s always room for more. Perhaps you wish Word included a built-in dictation feature that converted your speech into text. Or maybe you’d like a Word feature that reads your documents aloud to you. Or perhaps you’d like a built-in translator that can translate your text from one language to another. Well, Word may not include these items, but you can tap into them by installing an add-in. Add-ins provide greater functionality and flexibility to an Office application so you can do so much more with the program.

You’ll find an array of Word add-ins through Microsoft’s online Office Store, but I’m going to highlight what I think are some of the top and most interesting add-ins to give you a head start. We’ll look at Dictate, an add-in that lets you dictate your documents directly into Word; TextAloud, an add-in that reads your text aloud to you; Read My Document; another add-in that reads your text to you; Translator, an add-in that can translate text in your document between different languages; Collins Dictionary; an add-in that offers a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a translator with audio pronunciation; and Wikipedia, an add-in that lets you access the online encyclopedia site without leaving Word.

Dictate

Windows 10, 8.1, and 7 already come with built-in speech recognition and dictation. But now there’s a new kid on the block. A Microsoft Garage project, Dictate is a free add-in designed for Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Tapping into the technology behind Cortana, Dictate uses speech recognition to convert your words into text. After installing this add-in, launch Word and you’ll see a new menu called Dictation. Click on that menu to display the Dictation toolbar.

Click on the Start button in the Dictate toolbar and begin speaking. As you dictate, you can see the text as interpreted by the Dictate add-in appear in the Response field next to the Start button. You can speak punctuation marks and other non-alphanumeric items, such as periods, commas, and quotes. You can say “new line” or “new paragraph” to move to a new line or paragraph.

The add-in supports 29 spoken languages and can handle real-time translation to 30 languages, so you can speak your text in one language and have it converted into the text of a different language. So, how did Dictate fare? Not as well I had hoped, at least initially. In my testing, Dictation got a fair number of words wrong and was no more accurate than Windows own Speech Recognition feature (which you can access from Control Panel). But the more I used Dictate, the more its accuracy improved. So, if you’re willing to put some time into training it, Dictate is definitely worth trying.

TextAloud

Here’s an add-in I’ve used for years to help me proofread and edit my documents. TextAloud reads your text aloud to you, so you can listen for any mistakes and hear how your documents sound. After you install TextAloud, open Word and click on the new TextAloud menu. From the TextAloud toolbar, you can opt to hear your entire document, the part starting from the cursor, or only selected text. You can pause, stop, and resume the speaking of your document. You can also alter the speed at which the voice speaks.

TextAloud isn’t free. The software by itself costs $29.95. If you want more natural sounding voices, you can add two AT&T Natural Voices for an additional $25. But if you need a reliable tool to help you listen to and verbally proofread your documents, TextAloud is worth the price.

Read My Document

Want a no-frills but free add-in that can read your documents to you? Read My Document fills that bill. Add Read My Document to Word. You have to trust the add-in and follow a few more steps. You then control it from the right pane and can access it by clicking on the Insert menu and selecting My Apps from the Add-ins button. Select the text you wish to hear or select the entire document and then click on the Read selected text button. You can pause or play the reading. The voice used by Read My Documents doesn’t quite have the smoothness of the AT&T Natural Voices but it’s not bad. It has a certain accent to it that makes it pleasing to the ear. You can’t switch voices or control the speech as you can with TextAloud. But for a free program, Read My Document is quite effective.

Translator

Using the power behind Microsoft’s own Translator app, the free Translator add-in can translate text in a document into a different language. After adding Translator, you’re prompted to open Word and trust the program. You can then access it by clicking on the Insert menu and selecting My Apps from the Add-ins button. The program pops up in the right pane. Choose the source and target languages. Select text in your document or select the entire document, and Translator displays the translation in the right pane. You can change the target language, and the displayed text automatically switches to your new language. Translator is a cool and convenient tool if you need to translate text on the fly.

Collins Dictionary

This helpful and free add-in provides a dictionary, thesaurus, and translator in one package, and can even pronounce words for you. Add Collins Dictionary from its page at the Office Store and then open it in Word. After you trust it, the add-in appears in the right pane. Select a word in your document, and the dictionary serves up a definition. In some cases, you can click on a speaker icon to hear the word spoken aloud.

Click on the link for the Thesaurus, and Collins offers synonyms for the word you selected. Then click on the Translator link, select a source language, and Collins translates the text into your chosen language, courtesy of Microsoft Translator.

Wikipedia

Yes, you can always access Wikipedia directly from the Web. But this free add-in provides access to the online encyclopedia within Word. After you add Wikipedia, the usual right pane pops up. Writing about a specific topic, and want to learn more about it? Just type a word or phrase in the search field and click on the search icon, or just select text in your document. The program displays the Wikipedia entry about your subject. Scroll down the pane and you’ll find more information and a link to expand the article to get even more details. Clicking on a link within the article brings you to a new article corresponding to the link, and all within the same pane. If you use Wikipedia as a source of information, you’ll find this a helpful and handy add-in.

 

Whitney, Lance. “Try these Top Add-in’s for Microsoft Word,” Windows Secrets July 2017

Posted in: MS Office Tips and Tricks, Tech Tips for Business Owners

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Scrap Everything You Know About Creating Strong Passwords And Do This Instead

You know the drill: make a password with a hodgepodge of special characters, numbers, and letters, then change it periodically – or just ignore change alerts until a hacking scandal suddenly arises.

You may want to rethink your strategy.

Bill Burr, the man behind how we commonly think of devising passwords, recently told The Wall Street Journal, “much of what I did I now regret.”

The password creation shakeup

The retired 72-year old was reportedly a manager at The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) back in 2003 when he wrote “NIST Special Publication 800-63. Appendix A,” featuring the password guides we’ve held true for years now.

According to The Wall Street Journal, this included, namely, the rule that passwords should be a combination of numbers, special characters, and uppercase letters, which you change every 90 days.

Why is Burr changing his tune years later?

He reportedly had to produce the rules quickly and wanted them to be based on research, but he had no “empirical data on computer-password security.” So he turned to a white paper from the 1980s.

Burr told The Wall Street Journal that his advice has led people astray because those rules were probably too challenging for many to understand and caused people to use passwords that were not too difficult to crack.

In June, the NIST released new guidelines, which don’t call for “special characters” or changing passwords frequently anymore. Instead, the NIST says the rules now preach “long, easy-to-remember phrases” and just coming up with new ones “if there is a sign they may have been stolen.”

A xkcd comic by Randall Munroe from August 2011 shows that figuring out the password “Tr0ub4dor&3” would take three days to solve, according to the cartoonist’s calculations, compared to the words “correct horse battery staple” typed as a single word, which would take a staggering 550 years to solve. Computer-security specialists found this to be true.

Be careful changing passwords

You may also want to rethink how often you update your password. This practice can place us at risk if we take the wrong approach.

When we repeatedly change passwords, we don’t always change them properly.

Professor Alan Woodward of the University of Surrey told BBC News that NIST publications have a far reach, giving the rules “a long lasting impact.” But he also mentioned “a rather unfortunate effect”:

For example, the more often you ask someone to change their password, the weaker the passwords they typically choose. . . . And, as we have all now so many online accounts, the situation is compounded so it encourages behaviours such as password reuse across systems.

Steer clear of these password options

So if you’re looking to change your password soon, don’t pick these.

SplashData, which supplies password management applications, released the 2015 version of its “Worst Passwords List.” Here are the top 10 worst ones featured:

1. 123456
2. password
3. 12345678
4. qwerty
5. 12345
6. 123456789
7. football
8. 1234
9. 1234567
10. baseball

Morgan Slain, CEO of SplashData commented on the findings in a statement.

We have seen an effort by many people to be more secure by adding characters to passwords, but if these longer passwords are based on simple patterns they will put you in just as much risk of having your identity stolen by hackers…As we see on the list, using common sports and pop culture terms is also a bad idea. We hope that with more publicity about how risky it is to use weak passwords, more people will take steps to strengthen their passwords and, most importantly, use different passwords for different websites.

Embracing the new way of thinking when it comes to passwords just might keep your online accounts out of harm’s way.

Burnett, Jane. “Scrap everything you know about creating strong passwords and do this instead” Ladders (theladders.com) August 2017


You can go to the site www.HaveIBeenPwned.com, put your login names one at a time (ex: Jkalli, JohnKalli, Jkalli@trinityww.com, etc. – whatever login names you might have) and it will tell you if it has ever been part of a hack.  If so, change the login/password combination wherever you might have used it.

Also, go to www.passfault.com to see how long it would take a hacker to crack your password.

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The life-saving browser shortcut everyone should know

I can’t believe I’d never heard of Ctrl-Shift-T.

If I had a dollar for every time I’d accidentally closed a browser tab — or worse, an entire windowful of ’em — I’d be rich.

But there’s a simple keyboard shortcut that can instantly correct this error: Ctrl-Shift-T.

Or Apple-Shift-T, if you’re using a Mac.

Honestly, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I only discovered the shortcut a few months back, but it’s changed my life ever since. (I used to use a browser extension called TooManyTabs to do something similar, but this is way better.)

Just know that some browsers work better than others. With Chrome or Safari, you can restore an entire window full of tabs with this one quick three-button press, so long as your browser is open.

But with Firefox or Microsoft Edge, you can only restore tabs one at a time, and only if you opened those exact tabs in the same browser window.

If this keyboard shortcut is new to me, I’m betting it could be new to you too. If not, maybe it’ll help someone else?

Hollister, Sean. “The life-saving browser shortcut everyone should know”. CNET August 2017

Posted in: Tech Tips for Business Owners

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7 Common Scams We’re Still Falling For

The other day, I received an SMS from Uber containing a two-factor authentication code that I hadn’t asked for. Panicked by the prospect that someone was trying to hack an account that stores my credit card details, I embarked on a flurry of password-changing, starting with my Outlook.com account—where I found an email from PayPal informing me that my account had been compromised. Now doubly panicked, I clicked the enclosed link to log in and change my password, and was about to enter the last character of my current password when I glanced at the URL in the toolbar—it didn’t say paypal.com.

As a relatively tech-savvy person who writes about internet security, I’d nonetheless been the target of two nearly successful scams in the space of an hour—what gives?

“Cybercrime is growing, and one of the biggest areas is credential-stealing—the theft of someone’s login details,” says Jon Clay, director of global threat communications, Trend Micro. Login credentials are valuable—and to obtain them, cyber criminals try to infect users’ machines with threats such as trojans that can spy on all activity on a computer, keyloggers, which can track inputted characters, or spoof screens that invite unwitting users to voluntarily give up their username and password (known as phishing). Once criminals have these details, they can not only breach the account in question, but potentially set into motion a daisy chain of account breaches that could lead to identity theft.

“In the vast majority of cases, cyber criminals are trying to obtain money,” Clay says. Ransomware is a form of malware that entirely bypasses credential-stealing to encrypt a user’s device, rendering it and its files inaccessible unless a ransom is paid. And the use of ransomware is skyrocketing. Symantec found that the average ransom demanded in such attacks in 2016 was $1066 per person—266% higher than the year before—while on mobile, ransomware attacks have risen by 250%.

Cyber threats, from ransomware to spy software to phishing attempts on valuable logins, commonly gain access to users’ devices when users unknowingly click a malicious link in an email, on a webpage or in an online ad. The increasing availability of personal information online via sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook means that scammers are getting more precise at social engineering—manipulating people to click on malicious links or give up personal information by using seasonal cues, current events or, more insidiously, facts gleaned from their public profiles.

“Social engineering is all about exploiting users’ irrational behavior,” says Rahul Telang, professor of information systems and management at Carnegie Mellon University, who’s currently working on a project examining consumers’ security and privacy behavior. “You may know something is too good to be true—that winning lottery ticket, a get-rich-fast plan, a chance to meet your life partner—but the rewards are so high, you think, why not try?”

The chance of making such a cognitive error rises when scammers use language or make offers designed to appeal to our specific circumstances—or when we aren’t on guard.

We all know what spam email looks like—it’s the stuff that our email filters normally catch, with subject lines that use our email handle as a first name, notify us of vast lottery winnings or offer various bodily enhancements. But spam filters have gotten so sophisticated that when an email does slip past—as with my PayPal spoof email—we’re not necessarily in the right frame of mind to catch it.

“The most common ways cyber criminals can get to you is through your email,” Telung says. “When you’re checking your emails, even if you’re not interested in shopping, if an email says you’ve got this great deal, you’re likely to click.”

Scammers’ psychological tricks can even include the time of day. “There are many cases where spam is sent at certain times of day when people are less likely to be diligent, such as in the morning,” Clay says.

Subject: “Your account has been compromised!”

 

Spoof emails from financial accounts are on the rise, and this scam targets the rising fear of the consequences of hacked bank (or PayPal) accounts by claiming an account has already been hacked. Users are then exhorted to protect their account by clicking a link to change their password—except they’re really taken to a bogus screen that records login details, sending them straight to hackers, who now have access to a previously safe account.

“We are seeing phishing as a big one to steal credentials,” Clay says. “In most cases, the link pops up a phishing screen to get details, or downloads a banking trojan that contains a keylogger or runs scripts to transfer funds out of the account.”

Subject: “Please check your tax return”

Around tax season, scam emails appearing to be from the IRS tend to make the rounds, says Clay—usually with a request for your personal information or for taxes associated with a large sum of money you’ve mysteriously come into. These links end up taking users to a phishing screen or a malware download that gives the criminal access to the victim’s computer. “Financial scams are often successful because people are concerned about their finances, and if they receive an email about an audit, or their taxes, they tend to take action,” Clay says.

Seasonal Spam

Holidays can also bring on a wave of seasonal spam, ranging from shopping discounts, which, in a sea of similar promotions from your favorite retailers, can be hard to spot, to greeting cards from email addresses that appear to belong to friends or family.

“Black Friday is a big one. You might see scam emails offering links to a 50% off coupon,” Clay says.

Emails from friends

You may have received an email from a friend purporting to be in trouble overseas and in need of cash, recommending you donate to their favorite charity, or, in a particularly virulent phishing scam earlier this year, with a link to a Google Docs document that led to a Google sign-in page and request to authorize “Google Docs” for email—which would give the scammers control of the user’s account.

“Criminals are getting smarter [about getting] access to your social network data,” Telung says. “It’s easier for them to impersonate someone close to you and send an email that you’re more likely to trust.”

What to do:

  1. Be very wary of any email that tries to get you to click on a link or open an attachment, especially if it involves some urgency, Clay says, such as a breached account or friend in distress. Stoking panic is one way of pushing users into a state of mind when they may be less vigilant about looking for signs of fraud.
  2. If you’re on a computer, hover the cursor over a link you’re being asked to click, and check the bottom left of your browser window—you should see the true URL you’ll be directed to.
  3. Check with your financial institutions for guidelines describing the type of communication you can expect. For example, the IRS doesn’t initiate contact to request personal or financial information, while PayPal emails always address the recipient by first and last name—which my spoof email did not.

Bad ads on good sites

Nobody loves online ads, but the last year has seen a spike in the prevalence of “malvertising,” malware-ridden ads that redirect browsers to phishing sites or sites that serve more malware.

“A lot of people still click on ads. Criminals are now targeting legitimate websites with malvertisements designed around current news events or the time of year—such as tax time, Christmas, Black Friday—that invite users to click a link that ends up infecting their computer with malware or ransomware,” Clay says.

Because of the way online ads are served via third-party automatic platforms, websites’ security controls usually can’t detect or block malvertisements. Like online ads, which appear to certain users based on their past browsing, malvertisements can be targeted to particular profiles and times of year, making it all the more likely that an unsuspecting user will click on an appealing offer, especially when the ad appears on a trusted site, such as The New York Times, Newsweek and MSN—all of which were hit by a major malvertisment attack last year.

In many cases, users don’t need to click on the ads to be infected: Malicious script can run as soon as the ads loads—an attack known as a drive-by download.

What to do:

1.       Download all security patches for your OS, browser and other programs. Malware works by targeting security holes in browsers and plugins, most notably Flash or Java—both of which are notoriously full of vulnerabilities. If your systems are up to date, malware has a lesser chance of slipping in undetected.

2.       Enable “click-to-play” for plugins such as Flash and Java. This stops plugins from automatically running page elements, including ads, until you click them. You can find this in your browser’s Settings menu, under Plugins.

3.       Uninstall plugins you don’t use. The more plugins, the more potential vulnerabilities there are for a drive-by download to target. Websites are increasingly eschewing Java, for example, and Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin, once essential for Netflix and some radio stations’ “listen online” options, is also far less prevalent.

Finally, “avoid clicking on things you weren’t looking for,” advises Telung.

Unsolicited two-factor authentication texts

Many accounts, from banks to Gmail, use two-factor authentication to protect users’ data by requesting a code, often sent by SMS, in addition to a password. However, researchers recently demonstrated that it’s possible for scammers to spoof these texts.

In the scam, the criminals try to log into the account—or change the password—which would trigger the SMS code to be sent, as occurred with my Uber account. After that, a second—spoofed—SMS requests that the user reply with the code to confirm that the account is theirs—thus delivering the authentication code into the hands of the hackers.

What to do:

1.       If you haven’t tried to log into your account or change your password, ignore such texts.

2.       Never reply to these texts with the authentication code or any other login details.

3.       Change your password.

4.       Where the accounts support it, change the code delivery method from SMS to an authenticator app, such as the ones used by Gmail and Outlook.

Whether it’s free business-class flights to Australia or a clearance sale on totally authentic designer sunglasses, scams circulated via Facebook were the most common online attack method in 2016, according to Cisco’s annual security report.

One prevalent scam involves spoof pages for trusted brands advertising unbelievable sales, which are shared by unsuspecting Facebook users. These ads then appear in their friends’ feeds—and because it appears as a recommendation by someone they know, they’re all the more likely to click through. The links may lead to phishing sites that make a play for credit card details, or to legitimate-looking online shops where victims end up purchasing counterfeit goods.

What to do:

1.       Look up the website or company name—often, if it’s a scam, others will have fallen prey and posted about it on site-review websites such as Trustpilot or Reviewcentre.

2.       Look up the URL registration at Whois.net, which will tell you how long the domain has been active, among other details that should give you an idea of whether the site is legitimate.

3.       If the site appears trustworthy, make sure the transaction is done over a secure (https) connection.

4.       Use a credit card, not a debit card—credit transactions can be reversed by banks in case of fraud.

Securing the digital gates

Awareness about cyber fraud can go a long way to avoiding malicious links and sites, but as scams become more sophisticated, internet users will need to be increasingly dependent on software providers that can detect an ever-evolving array of cyber threats.

“Criminals are really starting to target legitimate websites with malvertising, redirects to bad sites, and malicious scripts that download malware as soon as the site loads,” Clay says. Where human error is still the “in” for most cybercrime, the rise of threats such as malvertising and drive-by downloads that can infect a user’s computer with barely any interaction means that strong security software is more crucial than ever.

“Cyber security is a war between scammers trying to figure out how to get into your machine and the security companies trying to stop them—and the user is just in the middle,” Telung says. “At some level, the game can be so sophisticated, even well-informed people may not be able to avoid being scammed. Users just have to hope they have the tools to prevent attacks.”

Those tools include a comprehensive security program with advanced features such as firewall, phishing detection and website scanning to flag potentially dangerous destinations. As Clay notes, cyber security is no longer just about blocking viruses.

Stokes, Natasha. “7 Common Scams We’re Still Falling For”  Techlicious August 2017

 

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Seven Rules for Staying Productive When Working Remotely

Telecommuting is now a norm in the marketplace.  The 2014 National Study of Employers found that 67% of American workers spend some time telecommuting.  Many work entire from a location apart of the Company offices, and most often at home.

On a whole, telecommuting is a great boon to the employees and through them the businesses. The State of Telecommuting 2014 found that employees who telecommute reported increased moral (80%) and productivity (70%); with a decrease in stress levels (82%) and absenteeism (69%).

But telecommuting has its challenges – primarily remaining productive outside of the traditional work environment.  The key to remaining productive is to build proper habits and following them as though they were company rules.  Some great examples are:

  1. Designate a specific workspace.  Attempting to work on the couch in your sweatpants is the gateway to productivity disaster.   Designate a specific space where you work every day.   Keep it clean of non-work items (like a TV remote or fiction novel), and furnish it with the business tools that you need, starting with proper light.
  2. Maintain your workday routine.  Go through the same process as if you were going into the office.  Sticking to the routine puts you in “business mode” and reinforces that you may be at home, but today is work.
  3. Build the day around the schedule that best fits your productivity.  One of the major advantages of telecommuting is that you get to set the schedule.  So make sure you set the schedule that supports how you work best.  Do not allow the flexibility of working from home to become a license to give your most productive times to something other than your business activities.
  4. Set and keep office hours.  Having a designated time to start, to break, and to stop will greatly enhance productivity.  Do not follow your mood or allow yourself diversions.  The idea is to replicate a work day – in a setting you better control, in a schedule that works better for you, and in a climate that minimizes the stress – but it is still a work day.
  5. Stay closely connected to your team.  More connected workers are more productive.  Most work involves collaboration, and when you are not in the same physical place, you must be intentional about staying in touch.  Connectivity is easier than ever with cloud computing.  Stay in touch, remain responsive, remain engaged.
  6. Maintain a professional atmosphere.  Daytime television, barking dogs, and playing children will rob you of productivity.  Maintain a professional demeanor and practice.  Have a filing system, observe confidentiality rules, shred sensitive documents.  If you “do the little things” it will establish a pattern of productivity.  As has often been said – where you lack discipline, add structure.
  7. Log off when you are done.   Working remotely does not mean that you are always at work. The line between work and personal life blurs more than ever when you work from home.  At the end of the work day — log off and “go home” even if home is just a few steps away.

Telecommuting can be either great advantage or a great time drain.  The flexibility and quality of life to be gained is worth the discipline and effort to make it intentionally productive.

OnPoint Editor. “Seven Rules for Staying Productive When Working Remotely” August 2015

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14 Warning Signs that Your Computer is Malware-Infected

Malware attacks affect us all.

The increasing number of Internet users worldwide creates an equal (or larger) number of opportunities for cyber criminals to take advantage of our systems. As we become more dependent on the online environment, we can clearly see a massive growth in malware and cyber criminal activities all across the globe.

Source: McAfee Labs Threats Report, April 2017

According to the McAfee Labs Threats Report of 2017, the number of malware has seen a decline during the past three quarters of 2016, a pattern that was also noticed at the beginning of 2015. However, the graphic clearly shows a massive growth in malware attacks and cyber criminal activities all across the globe.

With so many ways out there to access and exploit vulnerable systems, we need to make sure we’re able to recognize a malware infection in order to prevent and defend our systems. You need to know how to tell if you have malware!

Because it is a battle and you need to be ready.

This article will show you what the main symptoms of a malware infected system are. You’ll also learn to correctly evaluate the risk.

Symptoms of a malware infection

1. SLOWDOWN

Does it take longer than normal for your operating system to boot up?
Are you waiting too long for some of your programs to start?

It is a known fact that malware has the tendency to slow down your operating system, your Internet speed or the speed of your applications.

If you notice something like this and you’re not using any resource-heavy program or application, check for other causes first. It may be a lack of RAM memory, a fragmented system, a lack of space on your hard drive or maybe a hardware issue affecting your drive.

If you have already thoroughly verified possible causes and all seems fine, you can start considering a potential malware infection.

2. POPUPS

One of the most annoying signs of malware is represented by the unwanted pop-up windows. Unexpected pop-ups which appear on the system are a typical sign of a spyware infection.

In this particular case, the main issue is created not only by the numerous pop-up windows that affect your Internet navigation, but also because it is quite difficult to remove them from the system.

Pop-ups are not only annoying, but they usually come bundled with other concealed malware threats, and which could be far more destructive for our systems.

To avoid spyware and its impact on our systems, keep in mind a few security practices:

  • don’t click any suspicious pop-up windows
  • don’t answer unsolicited emails/messages
  • be careful when downloading free applications

To remove this type of threat, you need a very good security product against spyware. A few popular products capable of removing spyware from your system are Malwarebytes, Spybot Search and Destroy, Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware and others.

3. CRASHES

If your programs or your system crash constantly or the infamous BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) appears regularly, it’s a clear warning that your system is not working properly and you should look into it.

There are two things that can cause this type of issues:

  1. You could be dealing with a technical issue caused by a potential incompatibility between your software and/or hardware
  2. Or it may be a malware issue.

If you suspect a technical issue, multiple software problems may lead to this.

Are you running various programs which may conflict with each other? Are there any orphaned registry keys which have not been removed that could down and eventually crash your system?

Orphaned registry keys are pieces of data information that have been left behind during the process of uninstalling several programs from your computer. They don’t only take up unnecessary space on the PC, but can represent a serious liability for the proper functionality of your computer. To clear them, you have the option of using the Registry Editor (Regedit.exe) that can be opened in the search bar of Windows and then selecting the run command. The daunting part of this process is the fact that you have to manually remove these orphaned keys and this can be very tedious work for everybody.

Our recommendation is to run an automated cleaning session with the help of a specialized program such as CC Cleaner which is free. This will automatically scan missed and unused keys while also having the option to backup the data before the actual cleaning. After installing CCleaner, click the Registry icon (see the image below), select the items you want to remove, click on Scan for issues and a list of potential issues will be generated. Once the scan process is finished, you can review the list and click on Fix selected issues to solve the outstanding Registry issues. You will be asked to backup changes.

If you are checking for malware, simply run a complete scan on the system with a good antivirus product. It is important to have a reliable security solution on your system, which should include real-time scanning, automatic update and a firewall.

4. SUSPICIOUS HARD DRIVE ACTIVITY

Another warning sign of a potential malware infection on your system is the hard drive activity. If you notice that your disk continues to exhibit excessive activity even when you don’t use it and there is no program or download running at that moment, this could be the right time to check your system for malware.

We have to mention that another possible cause for the abnormal hard disk activity could be a hardware failure of the disk. You should also take this into consideration.

We should mention that it helps checking what programs and processes are constantly accessing your hard drive, so you can easily detect unusual activity.

5. RUNNING OUT OF HARD DRIVE SPACE

Regarding the hard drive, you also need to check if your physical storage space has been increasing lately or if some of your files disappeared or changed their names.

This is another sign of malware activity, since there are numerous types of malicious programs which use various methods to fill up all the available space in the hard drive and cause it to crash.

6. UNUSUALLY HIGH NETWORK ACTIVITY

There are cases where the user is not connected to the Internet through his browser, and there is no program that may connect to online servers to download or upload any data, but high network activity can still be observed.

First of all, we need to check the following:

  •  Is there any Windows update at that moment?
  •  Is there any program or application that’s downloading or uploading any data?
  •  Is there any update for a certain app running at that moment?
  •  Is there a large download that you started and forgot about, which may still be running in the background?

If the answer to all these questions is No, then maybe you should check where all that traffic is going.

  • To monitor your network, you can use one of the following programs: GlassWire, Little Snitch or Wireshark.
  • To check for a malware infection, use a good antivirus product to check your system. If you want to minimize the risk of infecting your computer system with malware, you can use one of these useful security measures.
  • If you suspect that your computer has been infected by a dangerous financial malware, you need a specialized security suite designed to address these type of threats.

7.  NEW BROWSER HOMEPAGE, NEW TOOLBARS and/or UNWANTED WEBSITES ACCESSED WITHOUT YOUR INPUT

Have you noticed that your home page has been changed and you don’t remember doing it yourself?
Did a new toolbar pop out of nowhere and landed at top of your web browser?
Have you tried to access your favorite blog, but you were redirected to a different address?

This usually happens when you visit a website and you accidentally click a link or a pop-up window. This triggers unwanted software to download and install on your device. Its effects are not only annoying, but also malicious.

Run a complete scan with your security solution as soon as possible. Because these type of threats don’t go away easily. Make sure you run additional scans with specialized software, such as anti-spyware programs as the ones mentioned above.

8. UNUSUAL MESSAGES OR PROGRAMS THAT START AUTOMATICALLY

A few warning signs should really make you suspicious. If any of these happen, pay closer attention and try finding the cause:

  • if, all of a sudden, you see programs opening and closing automatically
  • your Windows operating system shutting down without reason
  • if you notice strange windows in the booting process
  • or if Windows informs you that you’ve lost access to some of your drives.

Though the root cause may be a technical one, it could also be a sign that malware has compromised your system. If this is the case and you lost access to some important areas of your operating system, you need to prepare for the worst. These are the cases when a complete wipe and reinstall of the operating system is taken into consideration.

 9. YOUR SECURITY SOLUTION IS DISABLED

If your antivirus solution doesn’t seem to work anymore or if the Update module seems to be disabled, then check to see what happened immediately!

You should know that some types of malware are especially designed to disable security solutions, leaving you without any defense. If you already tried to reboot your computer, close and open the security solution and all your troubleshooting efforts were useless, you could consider the malware infection scenario.

This is especially the case since traditional antivirus solutions are sometimes unable to block and remove advanced malware, such as ransomware or financial malware. There are a couple of strong reasons why this is happening, and you should read about them, so you can enhance your protection by adding multiple layers.

For a more in-depth guide on how to remove all types of malware, not just spyware and adware, we recommend you check out our malware removal guide.

10. YOUR FRIENDS TELL YOU THAT THEY’RE GETTING STRANGE MESSAGES FROM YOU

Are your friends telling you that they received suspicious emails from you or instant messages from your social media account, which often include attachments or links?


 

First of all, you need to verify whether those emails or messages were sent from one of your accounts (so check your Sent Items folder in your email/social media account). If there’s nothing there, those messages could have been delivered from an application which is out of your control.

If you discover the messages were sent from one of your accounts, take these steps:

  • Make sure you logged out from all your accounts. We access the same accounts on our work computers, on our home laptops and of course, on our mobile devices. Since we log in to our favorite online accounts on so many devices, it can happen that sometimes we forget to log out. Therefore, always make sure to log out from your online accounts on all devices.
  • Set strong passwords for your accounts. Don’t use the same password for all your accounts! Even if you are hacked, having different passwords for each account will help you limit a potential loss. Make a habit of managing your passwords safely.
  • Use two-factor authentication. This option can significantly increase your control over your accounts’ security. Using two-factor authentication means that, besides entering your credentials, you will also need to enter a code sent to your phone.

11.  NEW, UNFAMILIAR ICONS ON DESKTOP & BATTERY LIFE DRAINS QUICKLY

If you are noticing unknown and new icons on the desktop of your computer, you may have downloaded a piece of software that contains PUPs (Potentially Unwanted Programs). Also known as PUAs (Potentially Unwanted Applications), these are software programs that you most likely didn’t want to install on your computer.

They are considered to be malware and can do a lot a damage by collecting private information, showing annoying ads or pop-ups on the desktop or adding toolbars on your browser.

Did your cellphone’s battery life is draining fast? You may have lots of applications and program running, such as games or streaming services, or, the worst scenario, it could be a virus infection affecting your device. This mainly happened because most of the devices didn’t receive the latest system updates, making them vulnerable to cyber attacks.

12. YOU SEE UNUSUAL ERROR MESSAGES

If you see unusual error messages saying that you have missing or corrupt files folders on your computer, it could be a warning sign that is infected with malware. These type of messages can suggest your PC has been compromised and affect its system performance, making the apps and programs run slowly. Pay attention to these errors, run an antivirus program and make sure your operating system is up to date.

13. YOU ARE UNABLE TO ACCESS THE CONTROL PANEL, TASK MANAGER, REGISTRY EDITOR OR COMMAND PROMPT

Do you find yourself in the situation when you can’t access the Control Panel, Task Manager, Registry Editor or Command Prompt? This is another sign that your computer is vulnerable and exposed to potential cyber attacks. To keep your PC safe and protected, it’s recommended to run a full scan of your system using a good antivirus program. For more protection, we warmly suggest using a proactive security solution to keep your confidential information properly safe.

14. EVERYTHING SEEMS TO WORK PERFECTLY NORMAL

When it comes to keeping your data safe and secure, you need to be vigilant and careful, even if things might look normal. Unfortunately, there are some cases when different types of malware can hide their activity, leave no visible marks and still infect your computer. Everything may seem to work perfectly normal on your PC, until a bot on your system could silently await for instructions from ITS control and command system, accessing and collecting your personal information.

Knowledge is our best weapon

Knowing how malicious software behaves on a regular system may just prove to be the key element between staying safe and having your system wrecked or your online identity stolen.

Since we live in a connected and complex environment, online security doesn’t end with installing a series of security programs and forgetting about them. It’s essential that we also understand how malware behaves on the system, so we can mitigate its impact.

In the end, it is our knowledge of malware tools and methods that keeps us safe, because it is far easier to prevent a threat from becoming reality than to take actions against it when it’s already too late.

Zaharia, Andra. “14 Warning Signs That Your Computer is Malware-Infected” Heimdal Security July 2017


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How to Use Public Wi-Fi and Not Get Hacked

Follow these tips to keep your accounts safe and secure while using public Wi-Fi.

VPN: HOW TO USE VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORKS

“Public Wi-Fi is crazy dangerous,” said Tài Doick, Fort Gordon Army base and U.S. Cyber Center of Excellence webmaster and social media manager.  “Twenty five percent of all public Wi-Fi isn’t protected. That means that any data you send over these networks can be seen by everyone. You should never connect to one of these networks.”

And while it may seem helpful when businesses post passwords in public view, it means that anyone who logs onto the network can decrypt information being transferred over it, including banking login credentials, social security numbers, phone numbers and more.

Dr. John Krautheim, assistant professor of computer science at Augusta University, said your best defense is to use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN.

“A VPN encrypts all information that leaves your computer,” said Krautheim. “The VPN assures that no one within the Wi-Fi network can see your data.”

To set up a VPN service you can use a private service that you set up at home or your office like OpenVPN. Some companies provide VPNs for their employees and there are commercial VPN providers that sell a VPN service for a small fee like NordVPNPrivate Internet Access and PureVPN. If you’re attempting to access Wi-Fi in a hotel room, HotSpotVPN is a good option.

Doick also recommends the following when using a VPN on public Wi-Fi is the only available option:

  • enable your built-in firewall to protect yourself from everyone who’s on the same router that you are
  • use “https,” which means the connection is encrypted
  • secure your email with an SSL connection; if your email provider supports this, it will add an extra layer of security
  • don’t use Wi-Fi hotspots without passwords
  • don’t use hotspots to perform any online banking or to transfer confidential, personal information

PROTECT PASSWORDS AND PINS

We all should know better: storing passwords on your device is a no-no.

“Do not let your apps remember passwords,” Krautheim said, “especially important passwords like banking, financial and other private data.  If someone does break into your phone, they will not have access to your private accounts.”

Another note about apps: In protecting your device from malware, use only the app store approved for your device.

“These stores regularly validate their apps to ensure they do not have malware and meet the requirements for the store,” Krautheim said.  “Do not ‘sideload’ apps or ‘jailbreak’ your phone, as this opens your device to being compromised by malicious software and hackers.  Be wary of ‘free’ apps and check user reviews for reports of suspicious activity.”

PROTECT YOUR CAMERA FROM STALKERS

Doick said to always be on the lookout for cyberstalkers on public Wi-Fi.

“Close to 80 percent of all stalking today is via the internet,” Doick said. “Individuals can easily obtain personal and financial information via social media.”

Doick recommends securing your webcam or IP camera, as hackers can identify your IP camera’s address with a few basic tools. The most often-used is a remote access tool (RAT) like those support technicians use to assist you remotely when fixing a problem.

“To get a RAT on your IP camera, hackers will use phishing, malicious links, Trojan viruses and phony tech-support calls,” Doick said.  “Once you are tricked into running an executable file, they have access and can do whatever they want.  So, use up-to-date security software and be suspicious of random phone calls or emails.”

KNOW HOW TO IDENTIFY SCAMS

It sounds so easy, but a little common sense goes a long way.  In short, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

“Scams are always changing and there are always new scams,” Krautheim said. “Always be vigilant and suspicious of internet and social media postings and unsolicited emails and phone calls.  No one is going to send you an email asking for your password or bank account information.”

Krautheim also recommends being cautious on all devices including laptops, phones and tablets.

“Do not click on suspicious links in messages, social media and email,” he said.  “Do not download and install anything [if] you are unsure what it does.”

GET SMART ABOUT SMARTPHONES

Strides in smartphone technology have made them just as powerful as laptops; but with these advances comes additional pitfalls.

They’re just as susceptible—if not more so—to security issues.

“Your phone might have years of text messages and emails with personal information, saved voicemails, pictures of your family, GPS location data, browsing history, notes and more,” Doick said. “Every new tablet or smartphone has at least one camera and real-time audio recording capability.”

Mobile spying malware has recently targeted both iOS and Android tech by accessing historic data like those years of texts and emails.

IF POSSIBLE, DON’T TAKE YOUR PHONE AT ALL

If you have the option, Krautheim said, use a “burner” phone with a minimal number of apps as a travel phone overseas as a way to avoid a lost, stolen or confiscated phone during travel.

These pay-as-you-go cell phones, called “burner phones,” can be purchased domestically or internationally.  With the appropriate SIM card these phones can be used for data connections and calls.

If you are using your regular phone, you should always keep it backed up to the cloud. In addition to keeping your data safe, it allows you to “wipe” the phone before border crossing, to prevent customs agents from examining your phone’s contents.

In addition to being backed up, mobile phones should always stay locked when not being used.

“This should be with a six-digit PIN,” Krautheim said. “Fingerprint readers are convenient, but it is easier to force you to use your fingerprint than put in a PIN.  Laws in some countries provide more protections for PIN-based locks than fingerprint.”

McKee, Jennifer. “How to Use Public Wi-Fi and Not Get Hacked” Where Traveler July 2017

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How to Add Your Signature to Electronic Documents

Tired of printing, signing and then scanning or faxing documents that need your signature?  You don’t have to go through all of those time-consuming steps to attach an electronic signature to most documents.  Some of the apps you’re already using—like Word or Acrobat—can already attach a signature to a document for free.  But if you need to sign digital documents on a regular basis or you’re just looking for something a little simpler, there are apps for your computer, tablet and smartphone that can make signing digital documents even easier.

First off, let’s clarify something: electronic signatures and digital signatures, for all that they sound alike, are two different things.  An electronic signature is simply an image of your signature added to a document while a digital signature is encrypted data that proves the document came from you.  For some purposes, a simple electronic signature will be fine, but for more important documents, a secure digital signature is highly recommended.

Signing PDF documents and paper documents with your phone

One of the easiest ways to sign a PDF document is to use the Adobe Sign & Fill app (free for iOS and Android). For paper forms, you can snap a picture, add any required text and your signature, and save.

If you receive an email with a PDF email attachment on your iPhone, you tap the attachment to view it, tap on the toolbox in the lower right corner, and you’ll see tool to add text and your signature to the document. When you first use the app, you’ll be prompted to create a signature that you can then save for future documents. Once you’ve added the text and signature and tapped “Done,” a reply email is automatically created with the filled-out document attached.

 

If you have an Android phone, the process is similar. You tap on the email attachment to view it and it will open in Adobe Fill & Sign (you may have to select it as the app to open the document).  You’ll see tools for adding text and your signature.  Tap anywhere in the document to add text and tap the pen icon to add your signature. When you’re done, tap on the share icon.  Select email, and the app will automatically save the document and create an email with the attachment.

 

Capturing your signature

If you’re adding your signature to a Word document or PDF, the first step is capturing an image of your signature which will go in your document in lieu of your actual signature.  You can get your signature in several different ways:

  • Write it in black ink on a piece of blank white paper, then scan or photograph it. Scanning will get you the best image, but if you don’t have a scanner be sure you’re photographing in a well-lit area and that no shadows fall over your signature.
  • Draw it with your mouse or trackpad in a paint program like Paint for Windows or Paintbrush for Mac.  Be warned, however, that it may take a few tries to get your signature to look right—if you’re using your trackpad, we recommend a stylus.
  • Write it on your smartphone or tablet using any graphics app or a signature capture app like Signature Saver (free in Google Play) or Autograph (free in iTunes). Again, using a stylus will help you make your signature look like your signature.

Once you have a graphics file, you’ll want to save it as a “.png” file. Paint and Paintbrush have that as a choice when you use “Save As” to save your file. The PNG format lets you save your signature with a transparent background so it won’t cover up signature lines or other information underneath. Now you have an electronic copy of your signature.

Adding your signature to a Word document

Since so many documents are in Microsoft Word format, this seems like a good place to start. Word supports both electronic signatures and digital signatures, so you can use whichever works best for your purpose—though be warned, this is an expensive way to sign documents digitally.

If you’re using a document that’s set up with a special signature line, signing is straightforward: just double click the signature line and a Sign dialog box will pop up. Here, you can add a printed version of your signature by typing your name, add a handwritten signature on a tablet PC writing your name as usual, or insert an image of your signature by clicking “Select Image,” finding your signature file, and then clicking “Select.”

Digital signatures in Word are a bit more complicated, requiring you to purchase a third-party digital certificate to prove to anyone who reads the document that it came from you—which can cost several hundred dollars per year. While you can create your own digital signature, you’ll only be able to verify its authenticity from your computer, which isn’t a good option for sending documents to others. If you need to send a lot of documents with a digital signature, buying a digital certificate might make sense, but if you aren’t, we recommend using a simple electronic signature or one of the apps below. To go ahead with a digital signature, click on the Microsoft Office Button, then “Prepare,” then “Add a Digital Signature,” and click sign—you’ll be prompted to create a digital ID from there.

If you’re signing a document that hasn’t been set up for Word’s signature system, you’ll find clicking on the signature line does nothing—but that’s okay, because you can still insert your signature. Just place your cursor where you want to add your signature and choose “Insert” and then “Picture.”  Select your signature file and you’ll see your signature appear in the document.  Don’t worry if the picture has messed up the formatting of the document, you’re just about to fix that.

Now, click on your signature and drag the corners to resize your signature until it looks right.  Then select “Page Layout,” “Wrap Text” and then “Behind Text.”  Now you can then use the arrow keys to fine tune the placement of your signature.  When you have it just right, use “Save As” to save your signed document as a PDF file.

Adding your signature to a PDF document

Signing a PDF is even easier than signing a Word document!  You’re likely already using Adobe’s Acrobat Reader DC for desktop systems (free for both Mac and Windows) to read PDFs, and it offers an easy way to sign documents whether they have or haven’t been configured to accept electronic signatures.

All you have to do is open your document, click “Tools,” then click “Fill & Sign.”  Click the “Sign” button in the toolbar and you’ll be prompted to type, draw or use an image of your signature.  When you’re done, click “Apply” and then drag the signature where you want it to go—if needed, you can resize your signature under options in the field toolbar.  Acrobat will save your signature for future use, making it easy to sign your next document.

For Mac users, there’s another option: the default Preview PDF viewer lets you easily insert signatures.  Just open your document, click on the toolbox icon in the menu bar and then the signature icon. You can capture your signature using your trackpad or by signing your name on paper and then using your Mac’s built-in camera. Just select whether you’re using your trackpad or your camera, sign or photograph your signature, and drag it to where it belongs on the document. If it needs to be resized, just drag the corners of the signature box until it fits perfectly.

Signing documents with an app

If the above solutions don’t work for you or you just want to sign using your smartphone or tablet, apps designed for document signing make it simple.  All of the apps below use bank-level encryption and security as well as providing authenticated, legally binding digital signatures.  For those who need an authenticated signature, this is probably where you want to look because these options are very economical, whether you’re signing one document a month or a dozen.

CudaSignThough it’s geared towards businesses, with document templates, SignNow isn’t a bad choice for personal use, either. In fact, it’s the lowest cost option if you need to sign more than three documents a month.  CudaSign works on the web or your smartphone or tablet, with mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android, making it easy to sign documents no matter where you are.

Signing documents is simple: You can up upload them from email, your camera roll, cloud storage services like Dropbox or from your computer.  Just sign using your finger on your smartphone or tablet, then send your signed document to anyone by email.

Price: $5 per user per month if billed annually ($60 per year) at SignNow

HelloSignIf you only need to sign a few documents a month, but more than the total of three SignEasy offers, you’ll want to look into HelloSign—available for iPhone, iPad, and Android.  Like SignEasy, it’s simple to import documents into HelloSign: you can pull them in from directly Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, Box or OneDrive, and it integrates with Gmail.  You can also grab paper documents just by snapping a photo with your smartphone or tablet camera.  No matter the source, you can edit or annotate documents from the app, sign them using your finger and then save, share or email them.

The good thing and the bad thing about HelloSign is the price.  If you don’t need to sign many documents, it’s free for up to three signatures per month. But if you need more than that, it’s pricier than SignEasy or CudaSign at $13 per month.

Price: Free for up to three signatures a month, $13 per month if billed annually ($156/year) for unlimited signatures at HelloSign

Harper, Elizabeth. “How to Add Your Signature to Electronic Documents” Techlicious July 2017

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25 Alexa Tips and Tricks

Amazon is always adding new features to its Echo devices.

With so many voice commands that work with the Echo’s assistant, Alexa, it’s easy to overlook some of the more helpful ones. You might’ve also missed some of the features added since you first unboxed your Echo.

If you want to get the most out of Alexa, here’s a list of useful tips that will help you get what you want from her.

1. MAKE PROFILES FOR EVERY FAMILY MEMBER

If multiple people in your home have Amazon accounts, you can add them to your Alexa household profile. To check which profile is currently being used, simply ask, “Alexa, which profile is this?” And to switch profiles, say, “Alexa, switch profiles.”

While adding additional members doesn’t give you separate shopping or to-do lists, it does allow you to share content libraries. Beware, though, as it also allows them to use your Prime account to order items.

2. CHANGE THE WAKE WORD

Whether you have someone in your house by the name Alexa or you’re tired of Amazon’s commercials waking your speaker, changing the device’s wake word is often the best course of action.

Unfortunately, you can’t set your own wake word (yet), but you can choose between Alexa, Amazon, Computer or Echo. To select one of the three alternate wake words, open the Alexa app or alexa.amazon.com, open Settings, choose your Echo device, click Wake Word, choose one of the four options from the dropdown menu and click Save.

3. ‘CAN YOU SAY THAT AGAIN?’

If you ever miss one of Alexa’s responses or need her to repeat something, just ask. Say, “Alexa, can you repeat that?” or, “Alexa, can you say that again?” She will repeat what she just said as many times as you need.

You can also look up recent responses in the Home tab of the Alexa app, as well as listen to the recordings of the things you’ve said to Alexa.

4. DELETE ALL YOUR AMAZON VOICE DATA

Speaking of which, everything you say to Alexa is recorded and uploaded to Amazon’s servers. If you don’t like the idea of hundreds of voice recordings of things you’ve said to your speaker floating around in the cloud, there are two ways to get rid of all those old recordings. Just know that even after purging all the recordings, a new one will be added every time you speak to Alexa.

5. SOLVE QUICK CONVERSIONS AND MATH PROBLEMS

Primarily, I use Alexa for controlling my smart home using my voice. It’s far more convenient than digging through my phone to open one or two applications just to control the lights.

The second most convenient use of Alexa for me is quick calculations or conversions, especially while cooking or making coffee. You can convert currencies or measurements and even do mathematic equations. Just say, “Alexa, 15 times 32” or “Alexa, 10 dollars to pounds.”

6. ADD NON-SUPPORTED SMART HOME DEVICES

If you’ve got a mixture of smart-home devices, chances are, there may be a few that aren’t officially supported by Alexa. But you may not be out of luck.

First, double-check that there isn’t an Alexa Skill for that smart device. It there isn’t, check the online connection sites Yonomi and IFTTT to see if your devices are supported. If so, get to know Yonomi or IFTTT, as they can greatly expand the usefulness of Alexa, allowing you to tie several actions to a single voice command, export your Alexa to-do or shopping list to Apple Reminders or Todoist and much more.

Here are some Alexa IFTTT recipes to get you started.

7. STREAM ANY AUDIO USING BLUETOOTH

By default, you can listen to Amazon Prime Music, Audible audiobooks, iHeartRadio, TuneIn Radio, Pandora and Spotify with the Alexa speakers. You can even have your Kindle books read to you by Alexa herself.

But if you’re looking to play Apple Music, Google Play Music, your own music library or some other unsupported audio, you will need to first pair the Alexa device to a computer or mobile device using Bluetooth. Then you can stream any audio you want, using it as a Bluetooth speaker.

8. SET THE DEFAULT MUSIC SERVICE TO SPOTIFY

Not surprisingly, Amazon devices always push in-house services — such as Kindle, Amazon Music, Audible and so on — anywhere they can. With the Echo speakers, however, you can replace Amazon Music as the default music library with Spotify or as the default station service with Pandora or iHeartRadio. Just open the Amazon Alexa app, go to Settings > Music & Media > Choose default music services and select your preferred services.

What this changes is the need to specify “on Spotify” every time you want to stream music. Instead, you will need to say “on Amazon Music” when queueing up a song to play it through Amazon’s music service.

9. ADD ALEXA SKILLS WITH YOUR VOICE

Until late last month, you could only add Skills to your Alexa devices by using the Alexa app or echo.amazon.com to browse or search the Skills database and manually add them to your device. The process is clunky, mainly because the poor organization of the Skills repository.

Now you can add Skills by voice. Assuming you know the name of the Skill you want to add, just say, “Alexa, enable Lifx” or “Alexa, enable Magic 8-Ball.” After just a few seconds, the skill will be enabled and available to use. Give it a try with one of our favorites (duh) — the CNET News skill.

10. TURN ON THE WAKE-UP SOUND

You don’t need to wait on Alexa to light up after you’ve spoken your wake word to say a command. You can say, “Alexa, turn on the lights” without pausing.

If you’re far from your Alexa speaker and can’t see it, however, you might want to confirm she heard you before speaking the entire command. If you want an audible notification to know Alexa is listening, go to the Alexa app, open Settings > [Echo name] > Sounds and toggle Wake-up sound. For an audible confirmation that Alexa heard your command, you can also enable the End of request sound.

11. ADD A VOICE REMOTE

If you tend to sit too far away from your Alexa speaker to reliably control it, such as from the kitchen while the speaker lives in the living room, consider picking up a Voice Remote for Amazon Echo. It sells for $30 or £20 and works for both the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot (not the Tap).

Pair the remote in the Settings menu in the Alexa app, and you can remotely talk to your Echo from across the house, in other rooms, or even while outside. It does connect using Bluetooth, so the range is limited. But it can save you some frustration if you’re not always near your Echo.

12. MAKE CALLS AND SEND MESSAGES

Back in May, Amazon updated its Echo speakers with the ability to make calls and send messages to other Alexa users.

Anyone in the contacts list on your phone — who is also an owner of an Echo, Echo Dot or Echo Show and has enabled calling — will show up in your Alexa contacts list. You can send them a message by saying, “Alexa, send [name] a message,” or call them by saying, “Alexa, call [name].” The message or call will ring all of their Echo devices and the Alexa app on their phone.

Separately, you can enable Drop In with loved ones so you can check in on them. Drop In works much like voice or video calls, except the person on the other end does not have to answer.

13. USE IT AS AN INTERCOM

Similar to calling, Amazon added an intercom option to Echo speakers within a household. This gives you a direct line of communication to the Echo devices spread around your house.

Say, “Alexa, drop in on the living room,” and anything you say will be played through the Echo speaker in the living room.

14. ORDER ANYTHING FROM AMAZON PRIME

You can now order millions of products just by asking for them. That wasn’t always so. Before this month, you could only reorder things you had previously purchased using Prime. Now you can order anything that is Prime-eligible and is not apparel, jewelry, shoes, watches, Amazon Fresh, Amazon Prime Pantry, Amazon Prime Now or add-on items.

You can even order a Dominos pizza, or a ride from Uber or Lyft.

15. TRACK YOUR AMAZON PACKAGES

If you do happen to order something from Amazon with your Echo, Echo Dot or Tap, you can also track those packages by asking, “Alexa, where’s my stuff?” or saying, “Alexa, track my order.”

The information Alexa will give you about a package isn’t too detailed, but it will tell you the day the packages are expected to arrive. The hope now is for an update that will at least tell you which carrier the item was shipped with so you can better anticipate the time it should arrive.

16. GET DELIVERY NOTIFICATIONS

With calling and messaging on Alexa came notifications for missed calls and unheard messages. The natural progression was to be able to receive other notifications from important skills or other updates.

For now, the only notifications available are the package delivery status for your Amazon Prime orders. When your order is out for delivery, your Echo speakers will let you know with a yellow light ring.

To enable these delivery notifications, open the Alexa app and go to Settings > Accounts > Notifications > Shopping Notifications and toggle it on. Third-party skills will soon be able to send users notifications. To check your notifications, just say, “Alexa, who did I miss?” or, “Alexa, what are my notifications?”

17. GET EXCLUSIVE PRIME DEALS

Amazon likes to show its appreciation for its most loyal customers, particularly those who’ve spent cold, hard cash on an Amazon device. From time to time, Amazon will run special deals that are reserved exclusively for Alexa speaker owners. For instance, the Echo Dot and Tap were initially only available for purchase for those who owned an Amazon Echo.

More recently, Amazon offered Alexa-only Prime Day deals, where a number of deals were reserved for official Amazon Alexa devices only — third-party Alexa devices and services were excluded from those deals.

18. SETTLE AN ARGUMENT

If you and some friends are torn between where to go for dinner or you’re not sure where you want to take this year’s vacation, you can put Alexa in control for totally random decision making. Say, “Alexa, flip a coin” to choose between two possibilities. You can also roll some dice or ask a Magic 8-Ball (if you enable the skill).

19. ACCESS ALEXA FROM A COMPUTER

You don’t need one of Amazon’s speakers or even a third-party Alexa speaker to take the assistant for a spin. All you need is a desktop web browser.

From the web, you can navigate to Echosim.io and log in to your Amazon account. To interact with Alexa, click and hold on the microphone button and speak a command or ask a question. Alexa will respond just as she would from official hardware. Almost all Alexa features can be accessed through Echosim.io, as well. You can enable skills, control smart home devices and so on. However, you cannot stream audio, and while you can set a timer or alarm, there will be no sound when the timer has elapsed or the alarm is set to go off.

20. USE ALEXA FROM THE AMAZON APP ON IOS

Amazon has replaced the voice search function in the Amazon shopping app on iOS with Alexa. You can control your smart home, ask for facts, get unit conversions and much more.

To use it, open the Amazon app on iOS and tap the microphone icon to the right of the search bar. From there, you can ask anything you would normally ask Alexa. You can even stream music, an audiobook or a podcast while you shop from your phone.

21. REMOVE AN ALEXA DEVICE

If you use one of the above Alexa emulators or build your own Alexa device, you may notice there is no way to remove them from your account in the Alexa app. Instead, you will need to head over to Amazon.com and locate the devices under Manage Your Content and Devices and deregister Alexa devices from there.

22. ORDER YOUR FAVORITE FOOD AND DRINK

Thanks to over 10,000 skills, you can now do a lot more with Alexa than before. For instance, you can Enable the Pizza Hut or Dominos skills to order your favorite pizzas for delivery to your door. Or you can queue up your favorite Starbucks order with your voice on your way out the door so it’s already prepared when you arrive at Starbucks.

23. CREATE REMINDERS

Alexa now lets you create reminders so you can remember to check the oven or that you should go to the grocery store at a certain time.

To create a reminder, just say something like, “Alexa, remind me to stop by the post office tomorrow at 10 a.m.” At 10 a.m. the next day, Alexa will sound an alarm, reminding you to go to the post office. You can also say things like:

  • “Alexa, reminder.”
  • “Alexa, remind me to check the oven in 15 minutes.”
  • “Alexa, remind me to call Mom four days from now.”
  • “Alexa, what are my reminders this weekend?”
  • “Alexa, what reminders do I have tomorrow?”

24. BREW A CUP OF COFFEE

If you’d rather save yourself the trip to Starbucks, you can have Alexa start your coffee maker for you. Not only can the Behmor Connected Brewer be controlled by Alexa, it integrates with Amazon’s Dash buttons to automatically reorder coffee when it starts to get low.

The Mr. Coffee Smart Optimal Brew coffee maker also integrates with Alexa through IFTTT. However, all you really need to make coffee using your voice is a compatible smart switch and a very basic drip coffee brewer.

25. MOUNT IT ON THE WALL

This is less a feature and more a unique design choice, but if you can’t seem to find a place you like for the Amazon Echo or Echo Dot, consider mounting it to the wall. While it will put the speaker closer to the wall than recommended, it will also get it away from other obstructions and might allow you to place it in a more central location.

When it works as intended, which is more often than not, the Alexa Voice Service is an extremely powerful tool, which I love having around the house. There are countless practical uses for it.

Martin, Taylor. “25 Alexa Tips & Tricks” CNET  July 2017

Posted in: IoT

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