Sandy Frankenstorm visits for Halloween

High voltage tower and lightning strikes

As I write this, it’s still around 8 hours before Hurricane Sandy makes landfall on the Mid-Atlantic. Hurricanes, or tropical storms and Nor’easters, can spin up more than just rain and wind. Thunderstorms are likely. A few reminders are appropriate here:

  • Surge suppressors protect your computers and appliances from power surges only if they are plugged into correctly-grounded outlets. Three-prong adapters are not adequate.
  • Surge suppressors protect technology from power spikes that are not extreme. A lightning strike that hits three poles up the street from you will likely be blocked by surge suppressors; a direct hit on the nearest pole, probably not, although on a near strike, a suppressor may still mean the difference between dead electronics and flaming electronics.
  • Cable modems pass surges through on the data line, sometimes without damage to themselves, and will typically destroy the network card or circuit in a computer connected to the modem, along with any router or switch in the circuit. Cable companies discourage the use of surge suppressors on the coaxial cable line–it makes it more difficult for their technology to pass a signal. So a surge suppressor that also protects the network cable, as it passes out of the modem, and before it plugs into a router or switch, is the best way to isolate that electrical path into your computers. I keep these in stock locally, or they’re available here from Amazon.
  • When in doubt, unplug power from computers before a big storm. A computer that’s turned off is still connected to power, and using about 2 watts to power the on-board clock and the electronic front-panel switches. A notebook that’s plugged in will continue to draw power to charge the battery. The best protection is to unplug from power and from any wired networks.

Fedex burned my package! (Not)

Fake Fedex email is a phish.

When I have to choose between informing email users about what kind of email scams are resulting in infected computers, and informing email scammers about what they’re doing wrong, I choose to turn on the lights, and hope the bugs run.

From today’s email, I see an email that claims to be from Fedex. The logos and reply address are correct, but in the header I see that the sending computer is Belinda…, which I’ve shortened, because Belinda has an infected computer and doesn’t know what it’s been told to do. So apparently, Fedex in the USA sends emails from the University of Melbourne. Not.

And here’s the email text, with errors left as they are:

Message Subject: “We can not diliver your package”

“We apologize, but it seem so, that we not can deliver your package. One of our trucks is burned tonight. In attachment you can find a form for insurance. Please fill it out and send it us urgent, because we must told amount of damage to the Insurance company.”

And the attachment is 65.3 Kb, and while that size might be possible for a form, the filename is “”. A document should be a PDF or possibly a DOC file, never a ZIP, which is a compressed multi-file archive. Inside the zip there is a file named “Insurance_FEDEX_-N774662.exe”. That’s a program, not a document, and I won’t run it; that’s a dangerous package to open.

In short: Be suspicious of emails that want you to open an attached file. They lead to repair bills.

Business Proposal from Johannesburg

Phishing emails

From the SPAM pile this morning…

Dear Friend,

It is with trust and sincerity that I approach you for assistance to transfer some funds into your bank account. Please do accept my apology if my mail infringes on your personal ethics. My name is Augustine Dinga, A Private Lawyer based here in Johannesburg South Africa. Honestly it will be my humble pleasure if we can work together.

I would like you to act as the next of kin to my deceased client, a citizen of your country that has the same last name with you who made a deposit of $23.5 million only with a Bank here in Johannesburg few years back. He died in a plane crash with his immediate family in a plane crash without any registered next of kin and as such the funds now have an open beneficiary mandate with a Bank, This means that any person from your country can act as the next of kin of the deceased person for claiming the inheritance funds without any risk involved.

Moreso, I have received official letter from the bank suggesting a likely proceeding for confiscation of the Fund in line with existing laws by the bank in which my client deposited the sum of $23.5 Million Dollars . According to the Government Law as provided in section 129 sub 63(N), South African Banking Edit of 1961 at the expiration of 11 years the fund will revert to the ownership of the South African Government, if nobody applies to claim the fund.

My proposition to you is to present you to the bank as the Next of kin and beneficiary of my deceased client so that the bank will pay this $23.5 million to you so that we can share the amount on a mutually agreed percentage of 60% for me 40% for you.

All legal documents to back up your claim as the deceased Next of Kin will be provided by me. All I require is your honest cooperation to enable us see this transaction through. I guarantee you that this will be executed under a legitimate arrangement that will protect you from any breach of the law.

If you are interested in this transactions, Please do let me know immediately so that I can give you comprehensive details on how to proceed.

Barrister Augustine Dinga

OK, for those who don’t know, it’s a variation on the classic Nigerian letter that I was getting on my fax machine 15 years ago, and by air post back around 1992. Basically, they claim to overpay and ask for a refund, sent by a method that can’t be reversed, and then the original payment, frequently a major U.S.  company’s check, is found to be fake, and that’s reversed, and after that, well, federal officials show up at your door. That’s here. Over there, which might or might not be in the country claimed, it only takes one fool out of a billion spams to make you rich, and there’s no risk. Nice little business.

I usually don’t reply to these letters; they’re just too sad. But maybe, just this once:

My Dearest Augustine Dinga:

I am so saddened to hear that your friend, whom you didn’t name, by the way, has passed away. That’s probably my third cousin, twice removed,  Ersatz Morgan Billy-Bob Jones Jr., who went down in a flaming trail of air cargo and land records being shipped to your country. So sad.

Yes, of course I’ll help. But I have a problem of my own. Perhaps we can help each other. There were all those flaming land records, remember? Some important ones were lost. I still have the original deed involved, of course, but I’ll need a buyer for the property, oh, and must have an overseas barrister, too, and I shoudn’t really go lower than $24 million, but I suppose for a friend of my poor crispy cousin, I could take the $23.5 million amount.

The property in question is something of a landmark, you see. Please let me know right away if you could consider buying it; it’s just massive, and a terrific income-producing structure that brings in tolls all day every day. We call it the ‘Brooklyn Bridge’.

Very Truly Yours, Etc, etc.

Jerry Stern is webmaster at and

Backup Security: Use At Least Three Devices

321 Backup from Science Translations

Backups are important. But how you backup your computer data is important. A quick reminder: Backup data to three different devices, and place one of them off-site, preferably at a considerable distance.

There are right and wrong ways to do this:

Right: Backup to an external hard drive, an online backup service, and DVDs or Blu-ray disks.

Wrong: Backup to an external hard drive, and two sets of DVDs. That’s three, right?

No, that’s two backups, and none off-site. The flood that you’re tempting fate for will arrive momentarily; move to higher ground. It’s two backups, because the two DVD sets are from the same package of DVD-R blank disks, and when DVD rot makes one useless, the other set will be, too–DVD defects show up by the stack, not just on single disks.

Right: Backup to an external hard drive, a USB flash drive stored in a bank’s safe-deposit box, and a DVD set stashed in a locked garage that’s not attached to your office.

Wrong: Backup to an external hard drive kept in the car, a DVD set kept in the notebook case and ready to head out the door in an emergency, and on a flash drive in the attic.

Nope, that’s no backups at all. The car is no place for hard drives with moving parts, and the attic is far too hot and far too cold for storing computer media of any kind. And that DVD set stored with or near any computer will accompany your computer when the burglar swipes your PC.

Jerry Stern is webmaster at and, runs Science Translations, and is online at

Floods Causing Hard Drive Shortages

by Jerry Stern

replace your hard drive with an SSD

Dateline, November 2011: First, the good news. Here in Westminster MD, I have hard drives in-stock for PC repairs and new systems. Not in central Maryland? Well, drives are scarce.

Floods in Thailand have caused extensive damage to factories that create at least a quarter of the world’s production of hard drives, and additionally create parts for hard drives made elsewhere. Hard drive prices have fluctuated, and inventories have disappeared from stores and online sellers. A basic hard drive that sold for $50 a month ago can be bought online as of today for $140, but only if you’re not picky about what brand, model, or speed of drive you buy. In my wholesale price lists, a distributor that usually stocks several hundred models of drives is showing 145 models as current, but only 5 as in-stock today, 13 drives ready-to-ship TOTAL, and every one of them is a specialty drive for a server, and priced to match. Even the old ‘IDE’ or ‘ATAPI’ hard drives are scarce, and they’re mostly used for system repairs now. There are ZERO in-stocks on the list today.

It’s going to be an interesting holiday season. Notebook computers for upcoming holiday sales are still available, but the selection may be uneven; most pre-built systems for the season are already built. Don’t expect Black Friday bargains on storage this year.

Projections I’m hearing from Western Digital put ‘significant disruptions’ as far out as mid-2012. They’re the worst-hit by floods, but all drive builders have problems in either flood areas or parts availability.

Back here in Westminster, I have enough drives to take care of my local customers; I’m still building custom PCs. Just don’t ask me to sell a bare drive without a computer attached.