Winter away and can access all my files by moving to the cloud

Bonnie spends much of the winter in Florida. For a number of years, she has kept her computer at home powered on and she used remote control software to access her computer remotely. Years ago this was a good solution when there wasn’t an easy way to access your data outside of your computer. A lot has changed since then so I helped her figure out a way to leave her computer off while away yet still have access to all her important data. In order to move to the cloud, there’s some analysis to do.

What data do you need to access

The first question when it comes to moving your data to the cloud is what do you need to access? In Bonnie’s case, it was all her documents, such as Word, Excel, and PDF files plus email. Let’s go through how we made this work.

Files and documents

Bonnie’s computer runs Windows 10. Her files are are stored in “My Documents” which makes it easy to find and eventually relocate them. She has a free account from Microsoft which gives her 5 GB of space in Microsoft OneDrive. This means that all files moved to the OneDrive folder will be automatically synced to her OneDrive account. Then, when OneDrive is installed on her Florida computer, all these files will automatically get download to that computer. Any files changed while in Florida will then get synced up and back to her home computer. We moved all files to OneDrive and they appeared online in just a few minutes. As time goes on, she may need more space and can pay for additional storage on OneDrive when required.

Email

Bonnie uses Microsoft Outlook for mail and all of it gets downloaded to her computer. While this is very convenient for day to day communications, it’s not so good for being able to access her folders remotely. Bonnie has an email address with her local internet provider and did not want to move yet to a new address. She does have a Gmail account so we set it up such that Gmail folders appear in Outlook. We then moved all folders from Outlook into Gmail, using Outlook. It took awhile, but now Bonnie will file all messages in Gmail and can use Outlook to do it. As long as Outlook is set up on both home and Florida computers, she can see the same Gmail folders.

Additional Benefits

With her mail and files moved to the cloud, in this case OneDrive and Gmail, Bonnie no longer has to rely on using one computer and making sure that it’s turned on and available all the time. If she puts the OneDrive app on her phone and connects her phone to Gmail, then she can access her files from any device including mobile ones. The next step would be to identify other files such as photos and get them available online too. A proper backup scheme is still required as just having files on the cloud isn’t enough.

Do you have a reliance on one computer? What files do you need to move to the cloud?

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Finding your lost or stolen iPhone

Last week we were at a cousin’s birthday party in a bowling alley. With the party being held in the basement, cell phone coverage was non-existent. My sister arrived to pick up her kids and came downtstairs, in a panic. She had gone to the gym and her iPhone was stolen. She was frantic and told me she had tried calling me from a phone at the gym, but of course it didn’t reach me.

We went upstairs where I got a signal and started to work on tracking down her phone. Using Apple’s Find My iPhone app, I had her log into her Apple  account from my phone

enter your Apple ID / iTunes account login and password

The app started searching and sure enough it found her phone a few blocks away, and not where she had left it. That confirmed that someone had taken the phone, but now what to do? The first task was to put the phone in lost mode. This meant that the screen would come up showing a message that the phone is lost and a contact phone number.

Select your missing phone and tap on Lost Mode

She kept trying to call the phone and then finally someone answered. The woman who answered was quite bewildered as to who was calling her phone. My sister told her that she had the wrong phone. Finally, the message seemed to get through and the woman told my sister that she had accidentally grabbed the phone. Not to worry, she would come and drop it off where we were.

You can follow the path of your phone either as it’s coming back to you or as the thief is getting away

We followed the progress of the phone coming back to where we were. This missing iPhone had a happy ending, but it’s not always like this. If your phone is actually stolen you may be tempted to go and find it yourself. Do not do this! You’re better off calling the police and let them advise you about what steps to take to track down the phone.

Whether you have an iPhone or Android, there are tools to use that allow you to track it down. Even if not stolen, maybe you left your phone somewhere in your home these tools can help. Find My iPhone allows you to send a sound to your phone which could help in tracking it down. Make sure to enable these features on your phone when you get it – you never know when you’ll need it!

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Google Photos, great in the cloud, not so good from your computer

I recently read an article about Google Photos in the New York Times. There are numerous places online to store your photos and while I had tested out Google Photos a few years ago, I hadn’t continued to use it as an every day photo system. In this article, the author talked about the advancement of artificial intelligence and how accurately it was able to determine pictures of the same person. One of the main problems we face with taking so many digital pictures is that we can’t find them and end up not looking at them. Google has been working to solve this problem and their solution is to have you upload all your pictures and let Google figure out what is related, be it people, places or things.

This got me thinking about how I could use Google Photos along with the method I already use for storing and organizing my photos. I still prefer to have my master copy of photos and videos on my computer, stored by year, month and events. It’s backed up in numerous places, including offsite. What if I could have the best of both my system and Google? It was worth a try.

Syncing up to Google

I already have a Gmail account and I have uploaded numerous photos over the years, but more as standalone albums to share with people online.The first decision to make when putting your photos and videos in Google is cost. You can let Google compress your videos and photos and then there is unlimited storage, but if you keep them at their original size then you’ll have to buy space at whatever the current rates are.

I looked up the compressed rates and they’re pretty reasonable – 16 megapixel for photos and 1080p for videos. If you use this as secondary storage, then it’s not an issue, and for most cases, these are good enough quality unless you are doing professional photo or videos work.

Setting up the sync

First, before doing anything I made sure that my master copy of photos was backed up. I have a regular process where the external hard drive of my photos is backed up to network hard drives in my house. Once this was done, I continued.

I installed Backup and Sync from Google. It walks you through the steps for installation including deciding what you want to sync and what not to sync.

A few items to note in the screenshot above:

  • I clicked on Choose Folder and picked my external drive where I keep photos. That is the box that is checked on the list of folders
  • I chose the High quality, free unlimited storage option
  • I set it to don’t remove items, so that it would upload only and not affect files on my computer

I then started watching as photos and videos started getting uploaded.

Note that you can click on the Google Sync icon in the taskbar, shown above with a red circle.

Something isn’t right

As I watched the screen scroll with photos and videos being uploaded, I occasionally saw the word ‘deleted’ or ‘failed’. After awhile, it stopped and couldn’t sync a whole bunch of files. I knew it couldn’t be close to done as I have over 50,000 photos and videos! I use a program called FreeFileSync to back up my photos and videos to another hard drive so I used it in reverse to show me what files were on the backed up hard drive and not on my primary one. It showed about 60 pictures that somehow got deleted. That concerns me as I specifically chose the option to NOT delete files. I was able to put everything back because of the backup.

I am still experimenting with the software but at this time I cannot recommend Google Backup and Sync for anyone to use with their main copy of photos and videos. If you want to get your photos and videos into Google Photos, I would suggest something along the following lines:

  • Copy all of your photos to a temporary location
  • Install Google Backup and Sync
  • Point Google Backup and Sync to the temporary location
  • In future, install the app for your phone and let it sync from the phone directly
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When the cloud goes down

Last week my mom got a new iPhone so this was a perfect test for her to see how well iCloud backs up all her data and can easily restore it a new phone. When we went to restore her iCloud backup to the new phone, it showed that there wasn’t one. I checked closer and discovered that she had run out of space in her iCloud account, even though she had upgraded it from the free 5 GB to 50 GB of storage space. This ended up as a positive, as I saw that my dad also had upgraded to 50 GB and if they pooled their resources, they could share a 200 GB storage plan for about the same cost. They made the switch and then I kicked off a backup from her old phone.

The first lesson – check your backups

Once you have a backup system in place, make sure to check it regularly to ensure that your precious data is actually getting backed up. There’s no point in paying for something that isn’t working properly.

Waiting for the backup to continue

So before she could use her new phone, the backup had to complete on the old phone. I suspected it would take into the night so I suggested she let it run and then try the restore in the morning. Later in the evening the backup wouldn’t run at all and it showed that she had 0 GB available in her plan. Something had gone very strange in her account. At this point I decided to check my iCloud account and sure enough, it wasn’t working either. It was then that I discovered this very helpful status site that Apple  runs that lets you know about problems within iCloud:

https://www.apple.com/ca/support/systemstatus/

By the morning iCloud was up and running and the backup finished. My mom was able to successfully restore her phone and everything worked as expected.

The second lesson – it may not only be you having a problem

Sites like iCloud provide helpful status information so that you can determine if the problem is on your side or Apple. By knowing there is an issue with Apple, you can stop troubleshooting and wait for the problem to be resolved.

The downside of the cloud

This was a short outage of iCloud so it didn’t really affect my mom’s ability to use her phone. What if she needed some data that was in iCloud for a meeting? Several hours of outage might just be too much. We have to strike a balance when using cloud services. The are very convenient to be able to access from anywhere and are likely more stable than hardware we have in our house. Still, if you need a file and it’s on your computer, it’s likely you’ll be able to access it.

The compromise

Evaluate your files and data to determine how critical each is and what are the implications of losing access temporarily. If you have an important presentation, put that PowerPoint file in the cloud and also on a USB stick. If you can’t access some family pictures for a few hours, that may not have much impact. The cloud has become an invaluable tool for data access everywhere, but some advance planning will ensure that you’re covered when the cloud is taking a break.

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The Case of the Failed Hard Drive and the Files left Behind

When we think about data protection and backup, it’s easier to get an idea of what it’s all about if we can see an example in real life. Here is the first of hopefully a number of case studies of data loss and how to handle it.

Elaine is a retired social worker. She has used a computer for many years, mostly in her working life and also for keeping journals writing memoirs. Elaine is also very artistic and enjoys creating greeting cards for family and friends using her computer.

Several months ago, Elaine’s computer starting making loud noises and then Windows wouldn’t start. Since the computer was 10 years old, I advised her that this was a good time to look at getting a new one. Even if the computer didn’t start properly, we could could still possibly retrieve some or all of her files from the old one. Elaine ended up buying a new laptop and was able to get it up and running. Since she had subscribed to Dropbox a few years ago, most of her files were right there waiting once it was installed. But not all files – more about that soon.

The Diagnosis

Elaine brought over both her old and new laptops. I started up the old one and sure enough heard the fan motor loudly humming away. Windows did not start up so I was able to get to System Recovery. I chose Startup Repair.

From here it ran a scan trying desperately to find an installation of Windows to fix. Unfortunately, it came up empty, as you can see from the image below. If there were an installation of Windows to repair, it would have shown up in the list.

This meant that there wasn’t much to do on this computer. There are recovery tools that can be run that are booted up from a USB stick or a CD but I decided to try something else – take out the hard drive and attempt recovery from another computer.

I highly recommend keeping one or more extra hard drive enclosures in your computer supplies. These allow you to pop your hard drive into a box that turns it into an external hard drive. These usually come with USB cables so you can connect it up to any computer.

The Search for Files

Once connected, it didn’t look good for Elaine’s hard drive. I ran Windows Disk Management and looked at the hard drives listed. The following image shows a bunch of healthy, normal disk partitions. The one shown in red is RAW and this means that data corruption has occurred. Built-in tools for Windows will not let you look at or retrieve files from RAW partitions.

I did some research and found several programs that claim to recover files from RAW partitions. Several have free trials that will show you what files can be recovered but you have to pay to recover them. MiniTool Power Data Recovery will not only scan a RAW drive and show you what files it can recover but it will recover up to 1 GB for free. This is very helpful if you have a small amount of data to recover or want to test the software first to prove if it will work.

The Recovery

When I installed this software, it scanned the drive and came up with a many folders that it could recover. Elaine spotted several folders that weren’t in Dropbox, and therefore weren’t on her new computer. Since Elaine had less than 1 GB of data to recovery the free version of MiniTool was sufficient. Now that I have seen the program in action, I would recommend either the free or full version to anyone requiring data recovery.

Additional Data Loss Prevention

Elaine was very pleased when I found her numerous journal entry files and memoirs. She had saved all of these to folders not in Dropbox, therefore they were never backed up. Elaine had already invested in the paid version of Dropbox that provides 1 TB of data. I relocated all of her files to Dropbox and then reviewed where all the files were located. I then launched Word which is the primary program she uses for her writing. By default, Word saves its files in your documents folder. I changed this to Dropbox to ensure that all future created files are automatically saved in Dropbox. This should be repeated in all programs.

Elaine also brought over her digital camera as she wasn’t sure how to transfer files from a camera to Windows 10. I showed her how to put the SD card from the camera into the computer.

I then launched Windows Explorer and went through the process to import pictures from a memory card. The key take away here was not to use the default settings. I set the destination for copying the pictures and videos to Elaine’s Dropbox folders. This way the pictures would go directly to Dropbox. Elaine mentioned that she wanted to use the SD card as a backup for her pictures. I highly recommend against this. First of all, if you always keep your pictures on the memory card, how will you know what you have and have not copied to the computer? This makes for lots of duplicate photos.

Second, think of the memory card as your temporary storage for pictures. By emptying out frequently, you will always have lots of space for taking more pictures and videos. Of course, all of this assumes you are using a traditional digital camera and not a Smartphone.

In Conclusion

Elaine now has a new computer that contains all of her files. She was very fortunate that the files on her old computer were able to be recovered. Professional recovery services charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars for recovery. Software like MiniTool doesn’t work in every case so it’s helpful to try it first before engaging with data recovery professionals. By properly setting up save locations and having a proper system for using Dropbox or another cloud based service, you can make a computer failure more of a minor annoyance where you have to replace the computer instead of a disaster where your critical files are gone forever. Like the old cliche says, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

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The long and short of it – what data to keep and what to delete

My parents are in the process of downsizing their house to a smaller one. Part of the process is going through years of papers and memorabilia to determine what to keep and what to throw out. That seemingly important file from 20 years ago doesn’t look so critical when you look at it now. The collection of National Geographic Magazines might seem valuable but do you (a) need it and (b) do you have anywhere to put it. With digital data, there are many of the same issues and it’s important to be able to determine what is important for long term vs short term.

An important distinction to be made between physical and digital data is the amount of space it takes to store both. Having to find place for 500 magazines is not quite the same as having a big enough hard drive to store 500 digital copies of the same magazines. Hard drives continue to drop in price so it’s feasible to keep buying larger hard drives as your quantity of data increases. And it’s also like that your current hard drive purchase will be cheaper and higher capacity than the previous one.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help you think about what you should and shouldn’t keep.

This view of the Cabot trail in Nova Scotia is definitely a keeper

Photos and Videos

This summer we went on vacation in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We took lots of great pictures of the scenery. When we returned from the trip, I went through the hundreds of photos that we took and DELETED many of them. If there are 10 pictures of a statue then only the best one needs to be kept. The key thing here is to do your purging of pictures as soon as possible. If you wait until the end of the year then there’s a good chance you’ll never delete anything. The same goes for videos. Check your videos after you record them and if they’re no good, then get rid of them!

Financial Documents

These include all your digital bills and statements, receipts for products purchased and everything to do with taxes. I’m not one to give financial advice but I have been told to keep all tax related documents for 7 years. I have also heard that when there’s a tax problem, the tax department might go back even further. The reality if you save copies of documents then the files are not too big, at least compared to photos and videos. If you don’t do much else in digital filing, at least have a folder with files for years. Put everything in each year’s folder. Take it further by having folders for bills, statements, receipts, taxes, etc. This way if you decide to get rid of certain years, you know that the files are broken up by years. And it has the added bonus of making it much easier to find what you’re looking for.

Documents created in word processors and spreadsheets

Some of these documents are related to taxes or finances and should be filed along with the statements. Others are quick letters or notes that you might take that are never needed again. These too should be kept in folders by year so that you can quickly check through them at the end of the year to see what you actually need. Many of these are also small files that over time do not take up that much space on our ever increasing sized hard drives.

What to do with files that are kept?

The key take away here is to have an effective filing system so that you can better locate what you want to keep and what to get rid of. In future posts, we will talk about various methods for long and short term archiving. You should be able to actually find what you choose to keep!

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Will my grandchildren be able to look at my photos?

This week I was over at my cousin’s house and we were talking about old family photos. He had a stack of photos and pulled out this great shot of his grandfather, my great-uncle from when he graduated from university in the 1940s.

Nathan Fox 1940s
Nathan Fox, early 1940s

My cousin knew that the picture was somewhere in this pile and he was able to find it easily. It got me thinking about how this exercise in viewing a 75 year old picture might be in 75 years from now. At that time, it will be more a question of “where are digital photos stored on my computer?”

At the time of this writing, in 2018 there are very few printed pictures. That’s not to say that no pictures are printed. My wife enjoys making photo books from various family events and these are great to look at. All of the pictures are stored in my computer too.

I imagine that in 75 years from now, someone will want to look at an old picture but first have to figure out where it is. Is it on their phone or computer? Is it stored in the cloud? Today many photos are stored in the popular JPEG format. This common picture format can be viewed on almost all devices and has been around for a long time. One of the main downsides is that it uses a form of compression such that if you make changes, the quality of the picture will degrade. There are other formats that do not degrade but the files are larger and in some cases are not as popular or prevalent on all devices. The real question is this – how can I guarantee that my photos will be viewable in the future?

Let’s say that you have 20,000 photos stored over the past 20 years. That means you may have 20,000 JPEG images that potentially may be unusable if future computers cannot read them. The best solution that I have at this time is to be aware of what formats are popular today. Let’s say that it looks like JPEG will become used less and less – similar to VHS tapes and audio cassettes. This gives you time to convert your photos to other formats. I know of several free programs that can mass convert photos from one format to another. The same can be said for videos and other digital files. As long as you are vigilant in keeping up with what currently the standard then you will be prepared for the future. It’s also not a bad idea to get to know people who can help advise you about this too!

If all goes well, and you follow my advice about keeping your photos and videos stored by date and even labeling the files, then in many years from now when your grandchildren want to find a special photo of you, they can easily look through whatever digital / cloud system they have and will have the same good feeling you do now when you run your hands across an old photograph.

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Review: Apple iCloud Photo Library

On a recent vacation to visit family in Montreal, I decided to turn on Apple iCloud Photo Library so I could give it a proper test. With my system for storing photos, I wasn’t so sure that iCloud Photo Library was for me but I get asked about systems like it all the time so I decided a test was in order. Let’s take a step back. When iPhones first came out, all photos and videos were stored on the phone. When you wanted to do something with them off the phone, you plugged your iPhone into a computer and transferred the photos. As we move to a more phone-centric world and always connected, having the ability to automatically have pictures stored in the cloud is an option. With iCloud Photo Library, as you take pictures and videos, they are uploaded to your personal Apple iCloud online space. You can decide whether or not to do this through cellular or only on WiFi. Let’s walk through how this is set up and some important settings.

Enabling iCloud Photo Library

First, when I mention iPhone here, it also applies to iPads. If you have a cellular enabled iPad, then all the cellular considerations apply to. For WiFi only iPads, it’s only going to upload when it has a WiFi connection. On your phone, go to Settings-> Photos and tap on iCloud Photo Library. If you expect to take many photos and don’t want to have to manage space, choose Optimize iPhone Storage. This will reduce the size of photos on the phone but the full sizes remain online. enable iCloud Photo Library That’s all there is to enable iCloud Photo Library. Now when you take photos and videos, they will get uploaded to your iCloud account. If you have several Apple devices, you’ll be able to view and even share these photos and videos from anywhere. And even from any web browser you can log in to icloud.com to see and manage your pictures from there. As time goes on, you’ll have all your photos easily available. So in summary, these are the pros for enabling iCloud Photo library:
  • backs up automatically to the cloud
  • becomes available on all devices including any web browser
  • easy to share pictures with others

The Other Side of iCloud Photo Library

When the great features of systems like iCloud Photo Library are talked about, it’s always about the convenience and protection of your photos and videos. The questions I always ask about any system that stores my precious memories include:
  • How easy is it to get my photos and videos out in the future in case I want to change to a different cloud provider?
  • What happens if they go out of business?
  • What happens if the system is hacked and I lose everything?
  • If they do stick around, how can I ensure that I can give these photos and videos one day?
So let’s look at the “cons” to iCloud Photo Library. First, if you use Microsoft Windows, like I do, then it’s not as tightly integrated with your computer as it would be with a Mac (more on that analysis when I get my hands on a Mac)

Hard to sync photos between iCloud and your computer

It’s not easy to sync up pictures to a computer if you use “my” method of storing photos. You can install iCloud for Windows which gives you some tools for synchronizing things like web browser bookmarks, email with Outlook and photos. As you can see here, you can both upload and download photos from your computer. In this case, I have 80 photos and 13 videos from 2018 that I can download to my computer. There’s no way to say only download photos that I’ve added since last time or a specific range.

It would be very easy with this download method to lose track of what is in folders on your computer vs what is in iCloud. If you keep your photos in organized folders by year, month and event, a much better choice is something like Dropbox or OneDrive.

Managing photos in iCloud web site

If you log into icloud.com, you can browse through all your photos. There is no easy way to delete multiple photos – no ctrl-click, to select multiple, all you can do is select a “memory” which is photos on a certain date or album. Otherwise it’s one by one.

Long term existence of the service

At the time of writing this, 2018, Apple is in excellent financial shape and show no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. Having your photos in iCloud Photo Library works great as long as Apple keeps the service going, but what happens if in 20 years Apple discontinues the service or makes such a drastic change that you don’t want to keep using it? If you care about the long term ability to keep these photos, then suddenly having to move all of them can be very difficult. If you create “albums” or any other proprietary structures in iCloud Photo Library, all you’ll likely get in a download is every single photo.

Summary and Recommendation

As I have said before, never rely on only one service. Because of the way that Apple traps you into their ecosystem without the ability to sync to other services, I am unable to recommend iCloud Photo Library for anyone who is relying on it as their sole source to store their photos and videos. In future posts, I will talk about how to effectively use different methods to both have access now to your photos and videos and protect them for long term. Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

I deleted all of my vacations pictures by mistake

We recently returned from a fabulous week touring in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Along the way I took many pictures and videos of the beautiful sites to be found along the way. Without getting into a whole travel review, I will say that if you haven’t driven the Cabot  Trail, go and see it!

When I arrived home, I had a folder with numerous pictures and videos that were combined from mine and our friend’s camera. I was doing various manipulations and then at some point I somehow managed to delete the entire folder of pictures and videos!

Even though this happened, I took a deep breath and then copied back the files from my Network Attached Storage (NAS). I talked about NAS in a previous post. Backup and data protection isn’t only about protecting for loss in the future when something fails. It also applies, maybe even more frequently to protect us from our own mistakes!

When you are transferring photos from either your phone or digital camera, following these steps will ensure that you prevent a future loss of your data:

  1. Copy the pictures and/or videos to a folder in your computer
  2. Immediately make a backup copy to another location, preferably one that is not on your computer
  3. Do whatever editing or modifications you want, knowing that your original files are backed up to another location

When it comes to human errors in computers, it’s not a case of if it will happen but when. By taking preventative measures with your most important files, you can ensure that you don’t delete your vacation pictures before you’ve had a chance to properly protect them.

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Don’t believe the hacking scams

A relative of mine recently called me in a panic over an email he had received.  The first line of the email made him think that he was specifically targeted:

“I’m aware that <password previously used by recipient here> is your password,” 

The rest of the email looks something like this:

No wonder it seems so scary – someone knows your old password! But this isn’t as bad as it seems.

We hear about about hacks of websites all the time where lists of email addresses and passwords are compromised. What has happened is that hackers have obtained these lists and are sending mass emails to these people. If you haven’t changed passwords recently (or ever) then this email could actually have your current password. If you get an email like this, here’s what to do:

  • change your password on any sites that use the listed password
  • change your password on other sites that are of critical importance – like banking, email, other financial services

The experts will tell you that you should use different passwords on every site and to change them frequently. This is correct, but realistically, most of us aren’t going to do this so I say make sure the super critical ones are changed and are different. In future posts, I will talk about ways to track these passwords, in easy and secure ways.

Webcam Dangers

If you read this scammer email carefully, you can see that it references webcams. It’s true that there are sites that can hack your webcam (very rare) but there are ways to protect yourself.  I recently purchased a few of these laptop camera covers.  These stick onto your laptop over the camera and can easily be slide open and closed. This way, your camera can’t be used unless you specifically uncover it.

The best protection is your own common sense

I will have more to say in future posts about protecting yourself from online threats, but I can’t say enough about being observant about what you do on your computer and what you see.

  • If you aren’t sure about a website – don’t visit it.
  • If something looks wrong, ask someone who knows about online threats.
  • If you receive a strange email or attachment, don’t open it and delete it. You can always ask the send if they intended to send it to you, assuming it’s someone you know.

There’s lots of ways to protect yourself from online threats and we’ll keep this exploring this topic. Have you ever been hacked or lost data due to online scammers?Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail