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Transcript

Fast Forward: Browser Hijacking

Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Personal Technology Columnist
Monday, March 8, 2004; 2:00 PM

Personal tech columnist Rob Pegoraro was online to talk about his recent columns on browser hijacking and a new laptop from Panasonic.

A transcript of the discussion is below.

Rob Pegoraro (The Post)


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Rob Pegoraro: Today is a good day to talk about browser hijacking, the subject of my column two weeks ago. Why?

I just spent 10 minutes trying to clean up the PC of the guy in the next cubicle! I cleared up some of the junk in his copy of IE with Hijack This, but now IE keeps freezing up. So I installed Mozilla Firefox and left that running... if anybody has other advice on how to expel this particular kind of hijack (default-homepage-network.com), please do share.

With that out of the way, let's get on with the show...

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Fallls Church, Va.: re: browser hijacking. Good afternoon Rob. If my browser gets hijacked are there steps to go through to "undo" the changes made in the hijack event? I have had it happen several times and I just go back in and manually rest home page, search pages, etc. Do these hijack events leave any nasty things behind that need to be removed?? I assume anti-virus and anti-spam software are useless. Thanks, Tina

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, the way this works, the offending site(s) can deposit all sorts of nasty junk on your PC. You should download a copy of Hijack This and--carefully--use it to remove traces of the hijack from your PC: www.spywareinfo.com/~merijn/

Then download the software I mentioned in my column to make sure this doesn't happen again--at an absolute minimum, the Google toolbar, all critical updates to IE and Sun's Java software, but Mozilla Firefox would be better yet.

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Arlington, Va.: Rob, thanks for taking my question.

I remember a while ago, there was talk of requiring every PC owner in the U.S. to use an anti-virus software to prevent PC hijacking (perhaps it would have been part of the purchase price of the PC.) That discussion seems to have died. Do you have any idea why?

Rob Pegoraro: Because there would be no way of enforcing such a requirement? Look at how hard it is to get drivers to wear seat belts--and that's something that any cop can police with her own eyeballs.

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Hanover, N.H.: No question, comment.

I've been using Mozilla (recently, Firefox) for some time now and could no longer live without Tabbed browsing. Add that to the lack of integration with the M$OS and I feel much more secure online than I did. I'm sure Firefox-focused attacks will be tried, but for now I'm as hijack-proof as can be thanks to the far-easier-to-implement "feature" controls of this program. Please, laud this wonderful program (and open-source venture in general) as much as you can from your bully pulpit.

Thanks. Enjoy your column greatly.

Rob Pegoraro: Will posting this comment do?

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Washington, D.C.: My browser has been hijacked (forced homepage; cant reset) by wonder-popup. Other than the forced homepage i see no effect, but i have tried Up to date norton virus software, McAfee software up to date, ad-ware, and spybot search and destroy to no avail. I have edited the registry multiple times removing the link to the page but it recreates itself. The link in the registry where it points for the homepage is something like "http://67%7697%676%675%67%67%67%76&5&%...." on and on. This is not the identical address but it looks like that with a bunch of numbers and percent signs. When i did a search on it it returned information about wonder popup and how it will generate that kind of stuff for someone wanting to hijack browsers. Is there a fix for this?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes--well, maybe. Download both CWShredder and Hijack This from the site I mentioned before, spywareinfo.com.

But if they don't work, you may have to just wipe the hard drive and start over. The problem with browser hijacks is that they almost all involve a hostile site running its own programs on your machine--and the way Windows is set up, those programs will likely meet zero restrictions in what they can do. You can't assume that the hijacking site has only screwed with your home page; it could do a lot more than that, and you can't let this slide.

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Philadelphia: I'm starting to get "message undeliverable" e-mails bounced back to both my regular and junkmail Hotmail mailboxes. Problem is, the messages are addressed to destinations that I personally didn't send email to and aren't even in my address book. Concerned that I'd been hijacked or invaded or whatever, I updated and McAfee Virus Scan and had it scan my hard drive, and it came up with no viruses. Is it possible I have some kind of virus that McAfee hasn't been made aware of yet?

Rob Pegoraro: It's probably a virus on your friends' computers--these days, they all strip-mine the victim's hard drive for addresses that it can both send copies of itself to, and for addresses that it can impersonate as its return address.

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Alexandria, Va.: Rob, our relatively new iBook G4 keeps crashing every time we boot it up. The crash seems to happen at the same time the wifi card picks up the signal. Heard anything about this? Any suggestions for fixing? Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: I've seen a few isolated problems of kernel panics with some updates to Apple's AirPort WiFi software. There's a new version out-3.3.1, I think--that might fix your problem; plug your iBook directly to your Internet connection (that is, over Ethernet), download this update and give it a shot.

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Bethesda, MD: We're considering satellite instead of Comcast (your article hit home on costs). Have you done/seen any comparisons on service or costs between Dish Network and Direct TV? I know that Dish has dropped any requirement for a contract commitment and both have a DVR option.

washingtonpost.com: See Rob's recent column, "Strung Up With Cable TV." Also, see The Post's annual ISP guide installment on Satellite services.

Rob Pegoraro: Follow-up on a column of three weeks ago... in general, Dish seem to be cheaper for any given package of services, but it's weaker than DirecTV for sports (no NFL Sunday Ticket) and it's yet to start broadcasting the major networks' HD feeds.

Any Dish or DirecTV users with feedback on their respective services, please chime in...

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Arlington, Va.: Wouldn't an open-source browser be more vulnerable to hijacking? The source code and any weaknesses therein are available to all, and the user can never be certain that the copy she has downloaded is a clean copy from a reputable source.

Rob Pegoraro: This is a rhetorical question, right? The whole point of open-source development is--to steal a quote from Eric Raymond, one of the more erudite open-source advocates--is that with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.

That is, when everybody can inspect the code for weaknesses--*and fix any they find*--those flaws will be corrected far faster than in closed-source development.

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Chapel Hill, North Carolina: As I understand it, all these viruses and web-browser hijacks are problems that solely affect computers running the Windows operating systems (XP, NT, 98, etc.). Am I safer running a Unix-based operating system like Apple's OSX or a Linux variant like Redhat? On Windows, do web-browser hijacking programs only affect Windows Internet Explorer or do they also effect the Mozilla web browser?
Thanks,

Rob Pegoraro: I have heard of hijacks succeeding against Mozilla, but only very rarely; AFAICT, the culprit in these cases is the Microsoft Java virtual machine, which Mozilla--like any other browser in Windows--will use if Sun's isn't installed.

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Kent, Washington: Rob,
I live in the Cloud of Redmond WA's software landfill, and I have spent 30 years in the IT industry... not sure that is the proper term anymore. I spent the better part of a week plus $122.00 cleaning up Norton, Macfee and MS problems with MS's arcane Knowledge body. I cannot afford a MAC and am considering going to LINUX(REDHAT/SUSE), or BSD

I have experienced mainframes, minicomputers, SUN client/server(C/S) stuff: both UNIX and MS attempts at C/S.

My Question: Who makes a "thin client" i.e.stripped down O/S with a broswer/email client, firewall and the abilty to download PDFS for my Dell Desktop(INTEL).. that is all I want to do. So If a problem(s) occurs;all I have to do is reformat/load the system, I lose only the aforementioned applications. Thanks

Rob Pegoraro: Any Linux distribution should be able to handle that--so long as you don't need to use the PC's internal modem to connect to the Internet. (If you do, at best you'll have to do some serious tweaking to set up the modem; at worst the modem just won't work, and you'll have to buy an external modem.)

But whether you install Red Hat, Mandrake, SuSE or whatever, you'll get a recent copy of Mozilla, a PDF reader and one or more e-mail clients--Mozilla, KMail, Evolution, etc.--preinstalled.

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Arlington, VA: Thank you for reviewing Comcast's video recorder yesterday. I have had it for the past six months and I can't live without it. There was one mistake in the article, it says that you can't record one program while watching another. This is not true. You can record a program while watching another. You can even record two programs while watching a program you've already recorded. Handy if you want to record The Sopranos and Malcolm in the Middle at the same time. I do wish that the box was more Tivo-like in that it can find my favorite shows. There is an option that lets you record your favorite show automatically, but it records it every time that it's on. For example it will record every time the Sopranos is repeated or the 20 reruns of the Simpsons on FOX 5 instead of just recording the new episodes. It's also very slow at changing channels, sometimes up to 30 seconds to go from one channel to another.

washingtonpost.com: See related article, "Renting to Record Has Its Attractions."

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the note. What'd you do to get this thing to record one program while you watch another?

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Alexandria, VA: I've gone to windowsupdate.microsoft.com to upgrade my Internet Explorer, specifically to prevent hijacking attacks. But the only upgrade I could download was a small file that tried to contact Microsoft for the rest of the data to install. Unfortunately, the installation always failed, saying it couldn't connect to Microsoft. Nor have I found a network installation file on Microsoft's site. Do I have to take down my firewall (and likely be attacked in the process) to upgrade IE?

Rob Pegoraro: No, you should not. I have only very rarely seen the issue you describe (that first file, BTW, is just the ActiveX control that handles the rest of the update process).

What you can do is set Windows to download these updates automatically; you can then accept or decline the install of each one. Click on the System control panel (under the Performance & Maintenance category) and click the Automatic Updates tab to enable this option.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why Microsoft didn't just write a regular application for this task, like Apple or Red Hat, instead of shoe-horning it into a Web browser.

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Arlington, VA: Rob, I know it's off topic for today, but I'm wondering if you've heard anything about hi-def Tivo DVRs. The last rumor I'd heard was that the first, a DirecTV-Tivo drive, would be released some time in April for around $1000. Why has it taken so long and why so expensive? What are your predictions for this market (or do you even care)?

Rob Pegoraro: TiVo told me over a year ago--the January '03 Consumer Electronics Show--that it would have an HD-capable model in a year. That's obviously slipped greatly, but I don't know why; TiVo's competitors, like Comcast and Dish, have been able to roll their own high-def recorders out in the meantime.

My fearless--meaning, probably wrong--prediction is that we'll see at least two HD-grade digital video recorders in Sunday ad circulars by September.

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Burke, VA: Rob,

I just got hit yesterday by "Betterinternet" hijacker. I successfully used Adaware freeware from Lavasoft to get rid of it but it took 3 runs and a reboot to clear it all out. Very similar to Gator. Have you experienced these? Keep up the good work!

Rob Pegoraro: I have not. I am militant about not keeping Windows up to date and refusing offers of unsolicited extras from Web sites--and I haven't had IE as my default browser since Mozilla hit 1.0, back in the summer of 2002.

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Herndon, VA: Rob,

Several, columns/chats ago, you mentioned Lavasoft's Ad-Aware software as a means of ridding one's computer of cookies, spyware, etc. Does this same product address hijacked browsers as well?

Thanks

washingtonpost.com: Here's The Post's original review of Lavasoft from last year.

Rob Pegoraro: It can, but that's not its core job. You need some additional software to clean out a hijack-type attack; www.spywareinfo.com has more details on that.

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New York, NY: Don't you think it is about time that we call these malicious programs what they are: viruses? Do you agree that they should be outlawed?

Despite their writers' claims, BHOs do not ask for or get permission to install , and they are destructive.

Gators should be locked up.

Rob Pegoraro: IANAL (I am not a lawyer) but I would suspect that browser hijacking already breaks a ton of existing laws about computer trespass and theft. But many of the sites perpetrating it are, from what I'm told, based overseas.

BHO, by the way, is Microsoftese for the "Browser Host Object," the junk that these sites install. BHOS can also be legit; SideStep's travel-search engine is one, and so is the Java plug-in the Sun site installs.

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Arlington, Va.: Would this be browser hijacking? Every morning when I start my computer at work I have this website as my homepage: http://fastsearch.cc/

EVERY MORNING!! I clear my history, cookies, and cache etc everyday. Next morning, it's back. I can't stand it considering I haven't downloaded anything from this computer in a year.

IE 5.5 w/ SP2 as my browser

Rob Pegoraro: Yup, that's hijacking. If you can't control your browser, then somebody else is.

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Some common sense?: I've been using the Internet for almost 10 years, and my browser has never been hijacked. And I only got a firewall and anti-virus software 3 months ago, but just for my home business.

Perhaps this is because I NEVER click "Yes" to install software or set configurations that I never asked for and whose originators I don't recognize or trust.

Now, I don't know if this is the cause of all browser hijacking, but it's never a smart thing to do in any case.

Just think of "Free!" this or "Would you like to install Nifty Gizmo 3.0" as any other offer you would see anywhere else -- on TV, from a salesman or telemarketer, or in direct snail mail. There's always a catch, and there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

So if you don't know it and don't want it, DON'T DO IT!

Rob Pegoraro: Good advice. Thank for you putting Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines (Don't Do It)" in my head with your concluding exhortation :)

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DirectTV in College Park: My neighbor got Dish Network, hated it cos it always would break down (we have a HUGE tree across street). I got DirectTV and experienced only moderate outages in expected situations (huge summer storms, Hurricane Isabelle), only once was it out all night, and that's no big deal--I am not a TV fiend. DirectTV is about 5 to 10 dollars less than my dad's Comcast, and that is including the recent price hike DirectTV will charge. The one or times I had to call customer service, I received pleasant and courteous help; absolutely no problems. I never recommend getting it over DishNetwork cos I think DN offers more channels and I assume there are many satisfied customers (eg, my brother). But DirectTV has NEVER given me a reason to complain.

cheers

Rob Pegoraro: A report from the satellite-TV front. Thanks!

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20817, MD: I just got DSL installed and am considering a wireless router so that I can use the Internet anywhere in the house or on the deck. What are the minimal requirements for a laptop to roam the house? I wouldn't need the laptop for business travel at all. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Make sure the laptop has a WiFi antenna and receiver built in (with any new machine, this should not be an issue, although you may have to order that as a custom-build option) or a PC Card slot on the side, in which you can park a WiFi card.

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Video Recording: Why rent (or pay the TiVo/Replay fees) when you can buy? I replaced my aging VCR with a Panasonic hard disk / DVD recorder. I don't care about the subscription stuff -- I can use this to set timer recordings just like the VCR, plus you get all the advantages of dealing with a disk rather than tape. $600 but well worth it, and you can get a cheaper one that records to DVD only. Can't understand why this hasn't caught on yet.

Rob Pegoraro: I agree with you on the comparison with TiVo--that $13/month fee will add up over time--but not necessarily with Comcast. Assuming you already pay up for digital cable, adding Comcast's recorder would only add $7/month to your bill. At that rate, it would take about 7 years for the Comcast charges to exceed the purchase price for that Panasonic recorder.

Now it's true that the Panasonic box lets you take recordings away from the TV--but here, you need to remember to use non-reusable DVD-R blanks, since the rewritable DVD-RAM media Panasonic supports doesn't play on any DVD players save Panasonic's own, and maybe a few Toshiba models.

(Yes, this is still the guy who beat that company upside the head three weeks ago. I'll give credit where it's due.)

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Princeton, N.J.: Hi...do you have a time frame of when you think the new PCI express for faster and improved graphics will be available for PCs?

Rob Pegoraro: Nope.

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Washington, D.C.: HDTV on Direct - Rob - as a Direct TV subscriber, could I get the major networks (ABC, NBC, FOX, CBS) in HDTV - I was under the impression that you could only get the HDNET package (ESPN, HBO, etc) but you were left to your own devices for the commercial major networks....

Rob Pegoraro: Actually, in D.C. that's still true. DirecTV offers CBS and will offer Fox HD feeds, but only in markets where each company actually owns and operates the station: http://www.directv.com/DTVAPP/aboutus/headline.dsp?id=01_08_2004D

Sorry for the confusion. I typed too fast, which is always a risk in this chat. On to the next question!

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Speaking of browsers...: Not exactly a hijacking question, but I'm running the latest version of IE 6, and more often than I would like, it just freezes up, usually when I have 2-3 windows open, usually to nothing more than regular web pages, nothing multimedia.

It's completely random and I can't replicate it, plus I have 384MB of RAM and DSL.

And the WORST thing about it is that XP can't just close the malfunctioning browser window -- it closes the whole application, which closes all windows and restarts the Desktop, making some icons in the system tray disappear.

It's more an inconvenience than anything else, but do you know of a fix, or why XP seems to have an existential crisis every time it needs to force IE to close?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, that's one of the delightful side-effects of having a Web browser integrated with an operating system: When IE crashes, the entire Windows desktop goes away too. (Your regular apps keep running, but you have the disorienting feeling of not seeing anything behind or below them until the relevant programs restart.)

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Williamsburg, Va.: My laptop, a Sony Vaio with MS's ME operating system has worked in the past with Norton's antivirus programs. When I recently installed Norton 2004, my computer locked up. Hours on the phone with Norton tech support didn't help, and I was finally told I had to reformat. When I uninstalled Norton 2004, my computer worked again, but I have no virus protection now. I'd appreciate any suggestion from you. Thanks.

Rob Pegoraro: Uh, get virus protection? I don't know why Norton would hang things up. I haven't heard of any reports like this so far.

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Alexandria, VA: Rob, I was finally fed up. I had installed MS Office XP on my computer, but when I did so, it created some sort of error in IE that popped up every time I came to the Post (as well as many other sites), that asked me if I wanted to "debug" something. Clicking "yes" was not a an option (after trying it once), so I would have to repeatedly click "No", sometimes as many as 10-12 times per page!;

Couldn't figure out what was wrong; it seemed to be related to ads on web pages. I tried uninstalling and reinstalling XP Office - no effect. I tried uninstalling IE and installing an older version - no effect. Finally, in frustration, I remembered your suggestion that Mozilla was a good alternative browser to IE. Downloaded it.

Not only was my problem solved, but I am MUCH happier with the design of Mozilla, and its features (especially tabs). I'm not a computer idiot (I did build my own box, and I'm what passes for a sys/admin at my work), but it seems to me that if the only way I could solve my problem was to switch programs, the boys in Redmond might have a problem on their hands....or maybe not. Could be an isolated thing for me.

Bob

Rob Pegoraro: If this chat is any problem, dislike of IE is *not* something isolated to you or me.

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Baltimore: Re: PCI express. Motherboards are expected to show up towards the end of Q2. Video cards that support PCIe are another matter all together. Don't expect widespread availability until next year at least.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the update (for the uninitiated, this is a replacement for the PCI Card technology that lets you add new devices to the inside of a computer, such as extra expansion ports or graphics cards).

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Georgetown: "For the life of me, I can't figure out why Microsoft didn't just write a regular application for this task, like Apple or Red Hat, instead of shoe-horning it into a Web browser."

You mean, other than to force users to use IE for updates, keeping their sub-par browser on the system even if we want to use Mozilla for day to day browsing?

Rob Pegoraro: Oh, that must be it.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a Lynksis wireless router in my house for my new Dell laptop. My PC has zone alarm but I have not set-up a firewall on the laptop yet. Do I need to? Anything I need to watch out for? Note: My wife uses the laptop for work now because she had problems connecting through VPN while the ZA is up. Thanks!

Rob Pegoraro: The Linksys router may include its own firewall--easiest way to test is to visit a security-check site like grc.com (click its "Shields Up!" logo) and see if it can find any open ports on your PC.

However, since you've got a laptop that regularly connects to other systems--via VPN, and presumably whenever it's taken out of the house--you should firewall both PCs anyway. Otherwise, the laptop could pick up a network worm outside the house, then spread it to your own PC.

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Arlington, Va.: About the Comcast box, I use the Scientific Atlanta, so I'm not sure if Comcast uses the same box for everybody, but all I have to do watch one program while recording is simply change the channel. As long as you have set up a program to record through the menu, or by pressing the record button while you are watching the show, you should be able to watch other shows. The only problem would be if it was recording two shows on two analog channels at once, it won't let you change channels without stopping the recording. This doesn't happen I record two digital channels at the same time.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. I'll forward this to our reviewer.

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Washington, D.C.: A bit clumsy but... If the guy in the next cubicle is happens to be running Win XP, you can always try system restore (if it's turned on).

Rob Pegoraro: Nope, he's on Win 2000. Good idea, though.

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Arlington, Va.: Are macs affected by this type of hijacking?

Rob Pegoraro: Not that I, or any of the people I talked to, have ever heard of.

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Princeton, N.J.: If you had the choice, would you prefer to buy a manufactured PC or build one yourself? I think I'm capable of building one myself since I've added a cd-rw, upgraded the processor and the graphics card on my current pc. But when I consider the retail cost of Windows XP if I choose the build-it route as opposed to it being included in a manufactured PC, along with all the other free software, on paper, it sounds expensive. I still run Win98 on my current PC so I can't port it over or I'm thinking I wouldn't want to. The reason I've hung on to Win98 so long is because I've spent countless hours over the years fixing and patching the system. But with the purchase of a recent digital camera and all the picture files and simple editing and software crashes, my current system is showing its age. So would you build or buy a pc even if you didn't have my criteria?

Rob Pegoraro: I can understand the lure of building the PC by hand--I'm enough of a geek to see that. But I also know how these little upgrade projects can become Vietnam-esque quagmires (case in point, my so-far fruitless attempts to fix the CD changer in my wife's car). I think I'd have to recognize my limits, and buy from a vendor that allows a sufficient degree of customization to match my own picky tastes.

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Re: Browsers: Rob,

Why does everyone think they're stuck using IE? There are others out there. Do I always let windows do an upgrade? NEVER.

Personally, I think too much Microsoft is a bad thing. It just makes you a bigger target, especially if you went out and got XP.

Give me my 2000 Pro any day. Newer isn't always better.

Rob Pegoraro: Wait, you say too much Microsoft is a bad thing, but then you regard Windows 2000 as somehow safer?

It's not. If anything, it risks getting you in more trouble, since--as somebody else just reminded me--it lacks the System Restore feature in XP, which can bail you out of all kinds of problems.

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For Alexandria: Um... Did you try going into Tools-Internet Options-Advanced and check "Disable Script Debugging"? Or look in the IE help file? Either one of those might have helped you avoid reinstalling Windows XP.

Also, on the Microsoft support site there are newsgroups about solving MS software problems. I've usually been able to find help there when I'd exhausted my other options. I'm not associated with Microsoft, but just wanted to pass along a good resource.

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks for the reminder--yes, the microsoft.public newsgroups (to which I didn't give nearly enough credit in a column about tech support in late December) are an excellent resource.

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Oslo, Norway: ..may I ask why you did not mention the best way to be safe from browser hijackings, namely using the Opera browser? Life is too short to use IE.

Rob Pegoraro: I agree about IE, but not Opera. At the risk of collecting a few more megabytes of hate mail, here's some of what I wrote about it my newsletter this morning:

"For those of you who have not yet tried out Opera, it's a small fast browser that includes all of Mozilla's key features, such as pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing -- and many more of its own. But while Mozilla is free, Opera costs $39 to register, unless you can live with having a banner ad living in its toolbar. And if you're not interested in tweaking with software and exploring every last option, Opera's interface is a mess -- cluttered, inefficient and confusing."

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For Kent, WA Guy - Java Desktop: Sun offers a $50 Linux desktop package that includes:

GNOME desktop environment, StarOffice Office Productivity Suite, Mozilla browser, Evolution mail and calendar, Java 2 Platform, Standard Edition (J2SE platform) and a Linux operating system.

wwws.sun.com/software/javadesktopsystem/

(I don't work for Sun but encourage everyone to break free and live a Micro$oft-Free life)

Rob Pegoraro: I saw a demo of this, but haven't tried out the release yet. FWIW, I'm planning on revisiting current Linux distributions later this spring, once they've rolled in the 2.6 kernel (this is a major upgrade to the foundation-level code, which I'm told is A Good Thing).

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RE: POP-Up blockers: I got the Google pop-up blocker and it works pretty well. However, today i have been getting an inordinate amount of those ubiquitous Save! popups. Not sure if you know these: they have a blue bulls-eye.

Why might this be?

Rob Pegoraro: You probably got some spyware/adware planted on your computer when you installed some "free" download. I don't think that the Google pop-up blocker will stop the ones you're seeing. Get yourself a copy of AdAware and see what it finds. You may be unpleasantly surprised...

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Mrs. Pegoraro ;-(: There is a Mrs. Pegoraro (not your mother btw) - I think the noise you heard out back was the collective sigh of the millions of female computer geeks bubbles just burst.

Rob Pegoraro: That's me, string 'em along and break their hearts :)

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New York: What is your opinion of Spybot-S&D?

Rob Pegoraro: Good, helpful program. But because it's so aggressive about looking for trouble, it can report issues that aren't really there--for instance, it will flag a ton of cookies on your computer, even though most aren't nearly as dangerous or harmful as the stuff we're talking about, actual programs running loose behind the scenes.

(Cookies are nothing but little text files that Web sites leave on your hard drive to store information about your use of them... the name's supposed to evoke somebody leaving a trail of cookie crumbs to find their way home.)

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I come not to bury IE, but to praise it: OK, so IE has its faults, but I've been using it for years (after switching from the now-subpar Netscape) and am 95% happy.

Yes, it's big, and yes, Microsoft integrated it into its OS solely for profit and market share, but it's -still- a good product.

It's the standard and everything is compatible, if not optimized for it. It features all the latest, well, features of web languages.

There are some customizations I wish Microsoft would incorporate, and there are the issues of hijacking and hacking and stuff, but if Netscape or Opera were the dominant browser, they would be having these problems, not IE.

So basically, the plusses outweigh the minuses IMHO.

Rob Pegoraro: I could not disagree more. IE has been collecting dust for years and is woefully behind its competition in such user-centric features as pop-up blocking and tabbed browsing. It's thoroughly unsafe online and is well behind the current Web standards. Microsoft should be embarrassed by the state of this product.

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Ballston, Va.: As a Mozilla user, to what extent do you encounter problems in browsing due to most websites' being optimized for IE?

Rob Pegoraro: I've been trying to collect a list of sites at which I must use IE, or at which I encounter serious usability issues in other browsers. I can only come up with four off-hand:

* The site for the Blue Knob ski area in Pennsylvania (the drop-down menus don't go away in Mozilla or Safari)
* Verizon Wireless's home page (a Flash display ad blocks some menus in Mozilla, although you can still click past that and use the site normally)
* The SideStep travel-search engine (requires an ActiveX control)
* Windows Update itself.

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Re: Opera: Rob,

I'll have to agree with the person from Oslo. Opera is by far the EASIEST browser I have ever used. So what if you have an ad bar at the top !; Have you ever seen the junk on AOL's homepage ? And their never ending pop ups ?

Rob Pegoraro: Um, that's why I don't use AOL as my Internet provider.

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Falls Church, Va: If I switch to Mozilla can I import my favorites...the idea of entering them into a new browser is overwhelming. Tina

Rob Pegoraro: Yes--all the competing browsers recognized a while ago that they had to make switching as easy as possible, so they all will import your favorites list automatically when you first launch them.

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W2K VS. XP: Rob,

That's a no brainer there. W2K is much more secure than Xp, regardless of not having the system restore feature. If you're a computer user of any intelligence you don't depend on the software to save you. Ever hear of doing backups ? Have we forgotten about that ?

You go ahead and use the XP that you had to download how many patches and fixes so far ?

Rob Pegoraro: I'm using Windows 2000 right now, in fact. I can tell you that 2000 has had no lack of patches of its own--which should be no surprise, considering it and XP are built on the same foundation.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi Rob. My IE browser was hijacked also. It started with the web page being reset to a spyware website and my disk automatically opening. For a week, I just kept resetting the homepage. I then made sure I downloaded all windows security updates from Microsoft (I have Windows XP). A week later, my computer quit working. It doesn't do anything but restart itself. I'm not very computer savvy. The last time a virus controlled my computer I was still under warranty with CompUSA and they replaced the hard drive (costing $1400 if I had to pay). Well, CompUSA says my warranty has expired. Who should I trust to try and fix this and what should I do in the future to protect myself. My computer is only 2 years old (a Sony desktop). Help!

Rob Pegoraro: If things have gotten that bad, your best option is to back up your data to CD, then wipe the hard drive--use the system-restore CD Sony gave you to reformat it and reinstall everything from scratch. You should never need a new hard drive; viruses can't make your hardware go bad, they can only ruin the software running on it.

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Washington, D.C.: Everyone keeps saying exciting things about Mozilla, so I gave it a try for an entire week. I found it to operate, in practice, just like IE. The tabbed browser thing was sexy at first, but in reality it turned out to not be any different than the way IE is displayed in the taskbar (a mouse click is a mouse click). In fact, the only differences I noted was that the automatic picture bar was gone (you can only save with a right-click, which some sites disable), I couldn't add a shortcut to a site to my desktop with a right-click, and I couldn't figure how to imitate the "links" aspect of IE that is in my quick launch bar on the side of my desktop. Things have gone very well since I switched to Sun Java as you suggested, and the Google task bar I downloaded months ago has blocked all pop-ups. Are there Mozilla features that are different from IE that I perhaps missed? Are there ways to imitate the IE features I note above in Mozilla? Truly, I don't see all the love. It didn't look or feel any different to me, and I sorely missed a few things I was used to with IE. Please let me know if I'm missing something.

Rob Pegoraro: Well, tabbed browsing may not be for everyone. Some of the features you want are in Mozilla and Mozilla Firefox--their installers automatically add desktop and Quick Launch shortcuts. Others are in progress (the latest builds of Firefox have added a save-image-to-desktop interface that looks significantly better than IE's). Others aren't there, as far as I know, such as the ability to add favorites to the desktop or the Quick Launch toolbar.

If those last features are important to you, but tabbed browsing is not, then, yes, you should use IE.

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Chantilly, Va: Rob,

I haven't used Netscape since AOL bought it out. I don't like either one, especially the AOL, which spreads itself all over your pc just like spyware. Can't get rid of it short of formatting the drive.

Been happier without em.

Rob Pegoraro: Netscape? Who's talking about Netscape? Mozilla is an open-source offshoot of Netscape that has zero spyware in it--the fact that anybody can inspect the code themselves guarantees that.

Netscape, meanwhile, is dead; AOL stopped developing it last year, fired some developers and cut a nice big check to start off a foundation to underwrite the continuing development of Mozilla.

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Greenbelt, MD: Although I have a Windows XP system, I still use AOL 7.0 to access my AOL account. (I found that AOL 9.0 works like molasses on dial-up.) Will the Google toolbar work with AOL 7.0? I think AOL 7.0 uses Mozilla (not sure which version). Thanks!;

Rob Pegoraro: Probably not--the pop-up blocking part of the toolbar requires IE 5.5 or newer. You'd need to update your copy of IE and run that on top of your AOL connection, instead of using AOL's built-in, IE-based browser.

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Fairfax, Va.: (S)he had a virus problem and CompUSA's solution was to replace the hard drive? Good lord. No wonder people feel so overwhelmed and confused when dealing with their computers. Many of the alleged "professionals" seem to have no idea what they're doing either.

Speaking of which, Rob, did you see the article on Salon about working tech support? It seems like the computer industry overall is extraordinarily poorly served by its own miserliness. Ultimately, it's driving away its own customers.

Rob Pegoraro: Well, that store didn't get the nickname CompUSSR for nothing, I guess

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Burke, Va.: Your article on browser hijacking mentions that IE is susceptible. I use Mozilla V1.5 and set it to not allow popups. Am I therefore completely protected against hijacking?

I find this version a bit slow on my 350 MHz PII. Will Firebird be faster?

Rob Pegoraro: Yup, you should be safe now, provided you've also downloaded and installed the Sun Java software. And, yup, Firefox should be quicker.

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Burke, Va.: off topic subject, but hope you have some quick advice. i bought a 6-in-1 reader to view my smart media photo card. plugged it in, read 3 cards and saved the photos to my laptop. put one of the cards back into my camera and (gasp!), it can no longer read the card. the message gives me the option of "Power Off" or "Format Card". Have i destroyed the cards (3 of them!!)? BTW - the card reader can still read them, but the camera can't use them. Any ideas??

Rob Pegoraro: No, you probably haven't destroyed the cards--just damaged the data on them. As long as you were able to copy the images off, there's no harm in reformatting the cards. (Depending on what kind of card you use, there are risks from static electricity--the exposed metal contacts of SmartMedia cards can cause problems, for instance.)

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Maryland: Is there a way to scan to see if your system has been hijacked?

Rob Pegoraro: Usually, it's painfully obvious--when you fire up IE, it opens four different windows, all full of ads. And every time you change your home page, it gets switched back the next time your run IE.

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Vienna, Va.: I know that you hate Microsoft IE as well as windows xp. I am interested in a review by you about Microsoft's upcoming service pack for windows xp (service pack 2) which will change IE, windows xp's firewall as well as many other security features.

Rob Pegoraro: This update--it's a free upgrade, due sometime this summer--is probably going to be the most important product Microsoft ships this year, and maybe next as well. I've read through the change list, and it looks as if the company has done its homework; SP2 should fix a lot of the worst flaws in Windows and IE. But I won't know for sure until I can kick the tires myself.

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Lanham, Md.: Rob,

My Browser was hiJacked recently at work. I was at a game site that installed a porn tool bar, porn favorites and changed my home page. It also installed several trojans that kept popping up adds for a variety of subjects.

My question is this, we are behind Microsofts ISA server as a firewall and Symantec Enterprise edition antivirus software. How come neither of these quality products were able to stop this hijacking??

Rob Pegoraro: Because firewalls are designed to allow Web content in. Your sysadmin would need to lock things down at the browser level, changing a lot of internal settings, to ward off this kind of attack.

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Reston, Va.: Rob, I use a Mac at both home and work - lucky me!- but can't use Safari on some of my favorite sites. Who pays attention to functionality issues between webware, site design and browser software? Is it up to Apple to persuade Novell, for example, to write code that allows one to access all of the features of Webmail? Do I write to Apple, Novell or both? Nigel

Rob Pegoraro: Without looking at the Web code involved and checking it for full HTML compliance--something I'm manifestly unqualified to do--you can't place blame. I suggest using the "report a bug" command (under the left-most menu) to bring the site to Apple's attention; presumably, they can figure out what needs to be fixed, whether it's updating Safari or talking to Novell.

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re norton 2004 and windows me: like williamsburg, my dell w windows ME is very sluggish since downloading Norton antivirus 2004. perhaps too little memory for all the new gizmos on 2004?

Rob Pegoraro: Could be...

I've already blown past my initial time limit, but I see a couple of additional questions that deserve a response before I sign off for today.

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Spybot S&D: Agree in total about how Spybot reports "problems" that might not actually be problems, but it is by far the best trojan hunter available. Just be wary of anything not related to browser hijacking and spyware. In other words be very careful with complaints about registry settings. Once you educate yourself on what is relevant and what is not, it is not difficult to keep your pc clean.

Rob Pegoraro: Yes. Only problem is, how are civilians supposed to educate themselves on these things? Is it fair that, after a quarter-century of alleged progress in home computers, they should have to?

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college park md: Rob,
Recently my one-year contract with Sprint PCS came around, and I called to cancel. I was recommended to cancel one of my two phones and just use the first one for emergency use only. Seemed to make sense, I don't use the phone too much, and it was a cheap. The guy NEVER said that this would automatically re-enter me into a new one-year contract, and to get out of it would be $100. I was told that I had to go through an automated renewal process (which i don't even remember, who would remember Legal Speak on the phone?). I think that I was intentionally not given this extremeley important piece of information by the human so as to get more money out of me. I want to write a formal complaint to Sprint PCS's president or VP of customer serivce. I plan to write letter after letter, to good ol' John A. Garcia. Do you know if Sprint has a direct corporate address/phone number (I remember your cell phone article a few months ago and thought that MAYBE you would know or have it stored somewhere).

many thanx

Rob Pegoraro: I don't have that contact info either--but it should be on Sprint's Web site (www.sprint.com/sprint/fastfacts/, perhaps). And I can tell you that quite a few wireless users have told me that complaining directly to the management does work.

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Falls Church, Va.: You said "I am militant about not keeping Windows up to date."

Did you mean about keeping it up to date? Because if you meant not keeping it up to date, then I am confused. Isn't installing the critical updates a good thing?

Rob Pegoraro: Yes, I meant I *do* keep the updates installed.

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Crofton, Md.: Rob, I am usually a fan of your column, but I was bothered by your rabid defense of Apple, and the blasting you gave the writer re the iPod battery comment in your last chat. First, it's my understanding that Apple DID NOT have any sort of replacement policy in place until the two guys in new york made their film complaining about the battery issue. Please don't dismiss this as trivial, an ipod is a pretty darn expensive purchase for most of us. Second, why are you so hot on iTunes, and Apple in general? Your very own informal survey of the music for pay sites showed Napster to have the better selection, and you can buy a song in mp3 format, not the proprietary aac format that will only work on an ipod..(i think) last, while apple products may be superior, if 95% of your audience has the OTHER os, why devote so much ink to the 5%ers? beta was better than VHS, but ultimately, it just didn't matter.

Rob Pegoraro: Fair comments here... my response is:

1) Apple introduced its iPod repair program before that "iPod's Dirty Secret" domain was even registered; it wasn't something thrown together in the face of bad PR.

Sure, I was wrong to snap at that guy in the other chat. But I was tired at getting the six millionth conspiracy-minded question about this topic, and in a real-time medium like this you'll see me occasionally fly off the handle.

2) Napster doesn't let you buy songs in MP3 format, only in copy-protected version of Windows Media that can't be used on the most popular MP3 player, the iPod. Furthermore, Napster's user experience is dramatically worse if you own more than one computer--you can't just copy your purchased songs over, you have to re-download each and every one of them. Not a good idea if your vacation home only has dial-up access!

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Washington, D.C.: Troubles with Apple:

I bought my 80-year old mom (who lives in NY) an EMAC last July -FWIW, this replaced her old PowerMac, which she loved]. She'd love the EMAC if she didn't have intermittent hardware troubles with it ever since it was new.

It's been in-and-out of the authorized repair facility most recently almost full-time since Christmas, with no resolution in sight. Apple has been pretty mean -- outright refusing to replace it (she DOESN'T want a refund, just a working computer!), dumping her on the local authorized repair facility, who is stumped (I offered to take it to the Apple Store in NY where I purchased it, but they said no, take it to the authorized repair facility).

Where can I go at Apple to get this resolved? My mom is very upset (she is a big email user and document writer), as her computer has been unreliable for some time now.

Rob Pegoraro: Enough bashing IE--let's bash Apple! Sounds like the company deserves it in this case. E-mail with the details, and I'll ask my contacts at Apple if this is supposed to be standard procedure.

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Reston, Va.: I like the price comparison of flat-screen TVs in your newsletter. Any surprises so far?

Rob Pegoraro: Thanks. The one surprise so far is that Samsung chopped about $500 off the price of that 43-in. DLP model I mentioned, which has since brought its retail price down to $2,900 or so. I hope to see more surprises in the coming weeks... my antique Zenith won't last forever!

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Rob Pegoraro: Whew... and I thought I'd have a slow week, considering how little e-mail I got about yesterday's laptop review. (I didn't see any questions about it at all today, so maybe my news judgment on reviewing it wasn't so hot :)

If I missed your question or you want to follow up on anything, e-mail me at rob AT twp.com.

Thanks! See y'all here in two weeks.

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