Article, April 2007
Here, we arenít discussing PC problems such as disk crashes, but real life disasters, such as those represented by the four horsemen of the apocalypse: pestilence, war, famine, and death. Thereís not much we can do about these, but careful preparations will lessen the consequences. While itís not pleasant to contemplate woes, and you certainly donít want to become obsessed, some constructive worrying today could save you or your family much trouble later.
PCs have become indispensable tools for many of us. The conscientious user backs up regularly, probably to an external drive sitting beside the PC. However, if you experience a fire, flood, or theft, both your PC and its backup data will probably disappear together. If a theft occurred, not only have you lost your data, but somebody else has it. Youíll need to cancel your credit cards and close bank accounts immediately, but you no longer have the information you need to do this. Thus, there are two problems: replacing the lost data and stopping somebody else from misusing it.
The best solution to the first problem is to keep a backup of your critical data in a safe place, such as bank deposit box. Many banks offer free boxes to their customers, but you could also keep the information at work or with a friend. It will be most convenient to restore this critical data to your (presumably new) PC if the backup takes the form of diskettes or CD-ROMs. If your deposit box is too small or too full to hold a 5 ľ inch disc, use a 3 1/8 inch CD-ROM (holding about 200 Mbytes) or a USB thumb drive. The saved data will include, for example, your passwords, contact names and addresses, financial data, and family photos.
For the second problem, keep a paper copy of your credit card and bank account numbers as well as contact information for your financial institutions. You will want this data immediately, and it will take a little time to find a PC and print out the contents of a disc.
Youíve now taken care of disasters that happen to your home, but what if something happens to you? What information will your family need if you are not available or incapacitated? Certainly, this includes the user names and passwords for your computer and PDA. They will need the URLs, user names, and passwords of any sites you use for financial transactions, such as credit cards, banks, merchants that are authorized to charge your credit cards or make withdrawals from your bank account, employers, and retirement organizations. They will also need the passwords for any data you have encrypted, such as Quicken files or password storage programs. Finally, they will need your social security number, birth certificate, and life and health insurance policy information. You should have a paper copy of this information and tell your family where it is.
What do you do if a relative dies and you must obtain access to their PC and allow their family to carry on with their financial duties? If there is a BIOS password on a desktop PC, you must open the system unit. Most motherboards have a connector into which you can insert a jumper to restore the BIOS factory defaults and remove any passwords. Laptops have similar provisions, but you will have to contact the manufacturer to find what it is. Once the BIOS password is removed you can boot the machine, at which point you may find it has a Windows password. The safest procedure is to obtain a Linux ďlive CD-ROMĒ, such as Knoppix. With this you can boot Linux directly from the CD-ROM, which will let you read and copy, but not necessarily write, Windows files. Once you have copied all the critical files from the PC, you can reset the Windows password using one of the password-cracking programs that are available on the Internet. IMPORTANT EXCEPTION Ė Windows 2000 and XP Pro allows files and folders to be encrypted. If this has been done, resetting the Windows password will render these permanently unreadable. Fortunately, few users use this feature. There are also PDA password cracking programs, but those Iíve found work only on the PC desktop program that backs up the PDA; Iíve not seen one for the PDA itself. If there are encrypted Quicken files, Intuit promises to remove the passwords for $10 per file; see their Web site for more information. If you are more adventuresome, Quicken password-cracking programs available on the Internet.
If the relative uses on-line banking, contact the bank to obtain a new password and change the ownership of the account. Monitor the account carefully for automatic transfers, both deposits and withdrawals. You probably want to stop these. Also contact all credit- and debit-card vendors to close the accounts, and notify employers and, if appropriate, Social Security of the change. Open and read carefully all letters; some bills and checks appear to be junk mail. Finally, be alert for scams; for instance, you might receive unordered merchandise or claims of debts.
Having to deal with these issues is especially difficult in times of stress, and preparing the information before they arise is a much better approach.
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