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Staying Safe Online

What a Tangled Web I Wove

Computer Naivete Cost Me a Bundle And a Bit of Sanity

By Kathleen Day
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page F01

My problem began the last Sunday in July, when my nearly teenage daughter, newly returned from a month away at camp, announced, "Something's wrong with the computer."

She couldn't "IM." (IM stands for "instant messaging." And for those a bit behind the times, yes, it can be used as a verb.) This alone would have qualified as a crisis (the IM failure, not its use as a verb) because it meant she couldn't start reconnecting with friends at home -- never mind that the telephone worked just fine -- or with the bevy of new friends she'd just said goodbye to so teary-eyed.

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In fact, her comment marked the start of a much larger headache, one that launched an odyssey that has taken $800 and roughly 48 man-hours over nearly three weeks to end. During that time, my personae alternated, usually several times a day. One moment I was the computer addict, the person stuck to the keyboard for hours and hours on end, driven by belief in a holy grail, that one more attempt would fix things. Then, when I pondered the time being wasted, I was an aspiring vigilante, keen to hunt down and kill all computer hackers.

By the end I came to understand that the meltdown of my home computer was my fault, the result of having switched to a high-speed Internet connection without installing a firewall or heeding those pesky warnings to download critical updates for Windows and anti-virus software. What wasn't my fault was the ordeal I had to endure to fix it.

But back to that Sunday.

I told my daughter not to worry, I'd fix it, and I sat down to do just that. The computer was, after all, indispensable to me, too. As a reporter, I have often written stories from home when they break late at night or on weekends, or if I'm sick or need to stay home with my daughter.

Immediately I noticed my PC was sluggish and that when I tried to go to a Web site it would divert me to another. As the day progressed, the diversions became more aggressive. I must have hit the control-alt-delete key combination two dozen times that day to determine which programs were running and try to delete what I thought might be the hijacker.

It was a hit-or-miss exercise. I found not one but maybe a half-dozen programs residing on my computer that didn't seem to belong. I set out to delete them, but it wasn't easy. Most started up as soon as I started my computer and couldn't be killed unless they weren't running, quite a Catch-22 for most computer users. I learned how to go into what's known as "safe mode," which allows only the most basic programs to run, thus enabling me to delete what I thought to be the offenders. It wasn't a fun process. Sometimes after I deleted a program, the computer would shut down abruptly, resulting in that agonizingly long reboot that chides a user for having improperly shut down the system. And my PC still didn't work properly.

I needed help.

In the six years since my husband and I bought this computer for family use, only once had we had to resort to paying a computer expert for assistance. It was earlier this year, in January, when we still had a slow, dial-up connection to the Internet and, it turned out, a virus. I hired Glenn Paterson, one of a team of Information Technology experts who keep the computers running in The Washington Post's newsroom and who moonlights as a rent-a-tech for people's home computers. He'd fixed our PC quickly and advised us to buy and install an anti-virus program, which we did. The anti-virus program from Norton came in a two-in-one package that included a separate firewall program, which I didn't bother installing because most computer experts I talked to said it wasn't necessary with a dial-up connection.

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