NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, February 2009
The News this Month
By Greg Skalka, President,
Under the Computer Hood User Group, California
president (at) uchug.org (click to email author)

This article has been obtained from APCUG with the authorís permission for publication by APCUG member groups; all other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

It is prime holiday shopping time, and the deals are out there, tempting us to stimulate the economy. Target advertised a $200 Acer Netbook even before Black Friday. There will probably be lots of good deals all the way through New Yearís Day, as the retailers are hurting and are looking for ways to get customers into their stores. This holiday season will probably see additional increases in online shopping, as shoppers try to save money, gas and time.

One way Iíve used to save money on purchases is to take advantage of manufacturer and store rebates. Over the years Iíve submitted hundreds of rebate forms and received thousands of dollars back. Iím currently waiting on eight rebates, for a savings of $124. Normally I would expect a check in the mail for each, but six of them are for Visa prepaid cards.

The prepaid plastic card for rebate payment is the latest rebate trend. They force the consumer to purchase something to redeem them, rather than just deposit them into a savings account, so they provide additional economic stimulation. They also reduce costs for the issuing manufacturer or retailer. One article I read listed the manufacturerís cost for a rebate check as $1.85, while a prepaid rebate card cost about 6 cents.

Besides having to buy something else, there are a few additional consumer pitfalls with prepaid rebate cards. It is best to make a purchase that is greater than the cardís value, as any amount remaining is not refunded, but stays on the card, and it is often impossible to check a cardís balance. These cards do expire (as do rebate checks), so they should be used promptly. Some rebates provide a store-branded card that can be used only at that retailer.

Many people dislike the hassle of filing for rebates. It is estimated that up to 60% of eligible consumers never bother to file. I figure that Iím getting a savings on my products at the expense of those that are not willing or able to file and track their rebate submissions. The prepaid rebate card adds a little more inconvenience, but if it allows more rebates to be offered, Iíll keep buying and applying.

McAfeeís 12 Scams of Christmas

Anti-virus software maker McAfee recently released its list of 12 popular online attacks for this holiday season as a warning to consumers:

1. Charity phishing scams - be careful who you give to
2. Fake invoices from delivery services to steal your money
3. Social networking scams - fake friend requests lead to malware
4. The dangers of holiday e-cards - clicking can lead to malware
5. Discount luxury gift sites that lead to malware
6. Shopping from open Wi-Fi networks can lead to identity theft
7. Risky holiday searches - fraudulent holiday web sites provide malware instead of Christmas carol lyrics
8. Fake job-related sites prey on unemployed
9. Too-good-to-be-true auction-site deals that never arrive
10. Password stealing scams - malware that contains keyloggers
11. E-mail banking scams
12. Your files for ransom - ransomware scams

Iíve heard of many of these scams, but some were new to me, or were things I didnít really consider. It is good to be charitable, especially during the holiday season, but it is good to be reminded that there are scammers out there ready to take advantage of your generous nature. Just as with banking scams, donít respond to e-mail donation solicitations directly.

It is unfortunate, but you really need to be suspicious about every e-mail you receive and every web site you go to. Iíve read about holiday e-cards that carry malware, so I typically donít send or open them. I didnít really consider before that cybercrooks might set up holiday sites, hoping to entice me to download wallpaper or screensavers laden with malware after finding their site in a search for holiday song lyrics. It also never occurred to me that crooks might succeed in taking over my PC, encrypt my computerís files, and then ask for payment of ransom to unencrypt them. I think I take enough precautions to make this unlikely.

Iíve wondered, though, about using public or open Wi-Fi connections for secure activities. All the advice Iíve seen, including McAfeeís recommendations, say that online shopping and banking should not be done at a public Wi-Fi hotspot, but only through a secure Internet connection at your home or work. That makes sense, but where does that leave public Wi-Fi? Is it only useful for benign web surfing? How do you safely access you online bank account when traveling, and donít have a secure Internet connection?

I read one intriguing posting on CNET that accessing an online banking site from a public Wi-Fi connection is safe, as the bank employs SSL (secure socket layer) encryption of the data between your PC and their site. This also seems to make some sense. I know that VPN (virtual private network) software like StrongVPN (http://www.strongvpn.com) and others claim to secure Wi-Fi links. Services like GoToMyPC (http://www.gotomypc.com) also claim to allow remote connection to your home computer in a secure way. Iíd like to find out more about SSL and VPN connections, so that it may be possible to use free Wi-Fi to bank and shop.

New Communications
I installed Skype (http://www.skype.com) on my laptop a few months ago so that I could use it to allow Gene Barlow to give our group the webinar presentation on Acronis True Image. I think Skype is great for audio and video communication over the Internet, though Iíve only found a few occasions to use it. Iíve done some test videoconferences with our editor, Art, and my wife has used it with our netbook computer to call me when she was away on business. The main downside to Skype is that it must be run on both ends for a free call. You can use it to make a call to any phone from your PC, but that incurs a charge. Unless the person on the other end of the connection is willing and able to use Skype, it does not help you much.

Iíve been making all of my recent long distance calls over MagicJack, and have had no problems with it. I look forward to taking it on a trip and being able to make calls for free over free Internet service in a hotel or hotspot. I even bought a compact corded phone on eBay to use with MagicJack. Its limitation is the U.S. call restriction; it may be able to call International, but Iím sure there would be additional fees involved. The company does advertise it as the perfect communication tool to take on a foreign trip to call back to the U.S. for free. Iím hoping for a chance to try that out one day.

Another great communication tool that Iíve started using is drop.io (http://www.drop.io), which I learned about from our editor, Art. It provides a free ďdrop boxĒ for transferring up to 100 MB of photos or any other files to anyone. You create a drop, upload the files and provide the drop name and password to the recipient, who then downloads the files from the drop.io site. I recently had to provide 300 MB of photos to someone, so rather than mail them a CD, I set up three drop.io drops and sent the access info through e-mail.

Iíve read about a new online service called Snailmailr (http://www.snailmailr.com) that may be of use to me one day. For $0.99, it will print and mail up to two pages to anywhere in the world. That is not bad, considering the cost of postage and the hassle of getting it into the postal system. Since the letters are mailed from the U.S., it would be a great way to inexpensively and quickly send letters here from abroad.

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