Thursday, August 8, 2013

12 Tips for Fighting a Computer Virus

Working desktop support for a small firm, that gives admin rights to all its users, means I spend a lot of time fighting viruses. We're also nice enough to help out family members, friends and just about anyone else who stops by the office. So I've seen quite a bit of crap over the last several years. Here are some helpful tips and tools that I use on a regular basis to fend off the nasties.

Prevention is key.
The best way to fight viruses and unwanted add-ins (like tool bars) is to avoid them in the first place. There are a lot of anti-virus programs available and they range from free to pretty expensive. Your computer or internet provider probably even has a free trial of one of the more popular ones built it. I've even run machines with no anti-virus software, you just need to know what to avoid, so here's some tips.

1. Back up your system! 
There are a lot of ways to back up your system. Pick one and use it. Often! A good recent back up can be the difference between losing a few recent things and losing everything.

2. Anti-virus software.
If you run anti-virus or anti-spyare programs, know what they are and how they work. There are a lot of bugs that masquerade as anti-virus programs. Knowing what you have will help you avoid the "You're infected! Click here!" Trap.

3. Don't click on pop-ups. 
Unless you're sure of what it is. If it pops up unexpectedly, you probably don't want it.

4. Watch out for webpage redirects. 
If a site you go to a lot, suddenly looks strange, check the address bar and make sure you are where you want to be. Even the most mainstream websites are vulnerable to redirects.

5. When downloading a program, be cautious of where you get it from. 
The first hit on a search engine is often a paid advertisement and their download may have extra crap shoved inside it. Try to get your software from a trusted source. I prefer the developer's site whenever possible.

6. Pay attention during installs.
Don't just start clicking "yes" and "I Agree" buttons. Even big firm software like Adobe Flash and Sun Java have toolbars and browser add-ons that will be checked by default.

Prevention didn't work. Now what?
So you tried to be good, but you picked up a bug anyway. It happens. Here's some tips to help rid yourself of the nasties.

My handy dandy virus tools stick.
1. Do not power off your computer. 
Some people like to hard shutdown right away, because they get scared that the virus is wreaking havoc. The problem is, many of these critters propagate when you restart and infect deeper into your system and you might not get a chance to flush them out later.

2. Check your running programs and processes for anything fishy.
Ctrl+Alt+Del and start the task manager. (Pro tip: some viruses will block the Ctrl+Alt+Del shortcut. If so try using Ctrl+Shift+Esc). Under applications, End Task on anything suspicious. I also like to end Internet Explorer here, as sometimes trying to "X" it closed will invoke additional pop-ups and redirects. Under the processes tab you might also be able to spot some funny business and End Process on them. But be careful here! There can be a long list of stuff here, and it's difficult to tell what's what sometimes. When in doubt, leave it be.

3. Delete your temp files. 
Go to C:\windows\temp and also to C:\Users\[your username]\AppData\Local\Temp and delete everything in both places. Some things probably won't delete, but don't worry about that right now. For XP machines the path will be slightly different for your users folder. It's C:\Documents and Settings\[your username]\Local Settings\Temp
If you can't see some of the folders, they may be hidden. When you are in the C: folder, click the Organize drop down, select Folder and search options. In the window that opens, click the View tab and tick the bubble Show hidden files, folders, and drives. (for XP it's in the Tools drop down menu under Folder options).

4. Run some scans.
Now is the time to try and find and kill your virus. Spybot and Malwarebytes are my go to programs. They are free (for home use) and you can have them both scan at the same time. Many times they will be enough. When they aren't, we typically move on to Rkill and Combofix. Watch for fake "downloads" when looking for virus tools. Often there will be big green DOWNLOAD buttons that are paid advertisements. Pay attention and look carefully, you don't want to make things worse.

5. Check your browser(s) for add-ons.
I recently had an infected machine come through that had, I kid you not, 17 different toolbars installed. These things come in all over the place and will really slow your browser down. Different browsers (and versions) put them in different places, so you may need to use a search engine to locate the path, but for Internet Explorer 9 and 10 (the most recent 2 as of this writing) click the gear icon on the right (or the tools drop down menu if it's visible) and select Manage Add-ons. Here you find all your toolbars and browser add-ons. Click the drop down on the left under "Show:" and select All add-ons for a complete list. Disable and remove with extreme prejudice. Also go through the other sections, like "Search providers" and "Accelerators".

6. Check your installed programs.
Go to the Control Panel and click Programs and Features (or Add or Remove Programs) and look for any installed programs you find suspect. Again, be careful here, you don't want to remove something useful! If you have a stubborn program that won't uninstall, check out the Microsoft Fixit for removing programs. In fact, I recommend keeping the whole Fixit Portable on a USB drive, along with you favorite virus fighting tools, just in case you get a bug that blocks you from using the internet.

Beyond this, you start to get into some really advanced stuff and I recommend seeking some professional help. If you get to playing around with registry settings or folder permissions without a clear understanding of what you're doing, you can really wreak havoc on your machine. You do have that back-up handy, just in case, right?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Troubleshooting an engine that won't start, dies or runs rough.

I started my DIY path with cars. I went from not knowing how to change my oil to completely rebuilding engines within a couple years. I've had many issues with vehicles that wouldn't start. From dead batteries, to broken cam shafts and timing belts, to water in the fuel tank.

Here's the basics on troubleshooting a car that won't start. I'll reference this in the context of it being a car that recently ran and suddenly won't start or run. Cars that have sat a long time, or that were bought not running, can follow the same process, but can also have deeper issues, like seized motors.
A lot of this is geared towards modern fuel injected cars with DIS (distributorless ignition systems), but I will try and cover all bases as best I can

The basic components of an engine that make it run are: Fuel, Air and Spark. Remove one of these and you get a dead motor. So let's look at some common problems and solutions.

  • When you turn the key, you get nothing or get fast clicking sounds.
9 times out of 10, this is a battery issue.

First check to make sure the battery cables are secure and not overly corroded. A loose positive cable will give you a no start. Especially if you were just driving and now it won't even click.

Next, make sure the battery is charged, or jump start the car with another car. If it starts after a jump, but won't start again after running for 20 minutes or more, it's time to replace the battery.

If you know that the battery is good, you might have a bad starter. It could just be stuck. Sometimes you can tap it with a hammer and get it to crank again.

  • Car turns over, but won't start.
If it's cranking, but won't fire, chances are you have a fuel issue. This is where things can get a bit complicated, but follow the steps below and we'll get it figured out.

First, I like to listen for the fuel pump, as this is easy to do. Turn the key from the off to on position (not start) and you should hear the pump priming. The sound can vary in location and pitch, but you should hear something.

If you hear the fuel pump, or don't know what to listen for, the next step is to get a little fuel into the motor and crank it again. For modern fuel injected cars, you'll need to locate the throttle body (larger or performance vehicles may have more than one) and spray some starter fluid in. It's helpful to have 2 people for this, so one can spray while the other cranks.
For older carbureted cars, you can pour a little gas (doesn't take much!) or use starter fluid right into the carb. Pro tip: Brake cleaner is essentially the same as starter fluid and can be used here too.

If it starts with some fuel added, but quickly dies, then you probably have a clogged fuel filter or a bad fuel pump. If it continues to run, but doesn't start again after you shut it off, or dies at, say, a stoplight, then it's probably the pump. Sometimes the engine starting is enough to pull fuel through once it fires, but it won't last.

If it still won't start with fuel forced upon it, you may have a spark issue.

Start by making sure the connection to your coil pack or distributor is solid. Also look for any beaks or melted spots in the wire(s). If everything looks good, check for spark. To do this, pull one of the spark plug wires and stick a paper clip in the connection that normally mates up to the plug. Hold the wire by the insulation, so you don't get a shock (gloves may be a good idea too, if you're nervous), and hold the paper clip a few millimeters away from something grounded. And engine bolt is usually a good spot. Have some one crank the car and look for the spark to arc from the clip to the bolt.
If you have no spark, you might be looking at a new distributor or coil pack (as applicable).

  • Car dies while driving.
Did you run out of gas? Your gas gauge may be lying to you, so don't rule this out right away.

If not, did you notice any warning lights come on, specifically the battery light? If so, your alternator is probably the problem. Sometimes they will linger and may only trip the battery light if you're using a lot of accessories, like the radio, headlights, heater/defroster and windshield wipers. Or you'll notice the lights dim at stop lights before it dies.

It is also possible that you have something else draining the system. I had a car with a short on the starter wire that acted like a bad alternator, once upon a time.
If the lights are still on and bright, you may have a bigger problem, like a broken timing belt.

Does it idle then die when you hit the gas? Or does it die pulling away from a stoplight? This is often a fuel pump issue.

  • Cars runs, but not well.
Does it sound "lopey" or like it's missing a beat?

If so, you probably have one or more bad spark plugs, spark plug wires or your coil pack (or distributor) is going bad or a bad/clogged fuel injector.

Check all the wires to the plugs, coil pack (or distributor) and fuel injectors (if applicable). Make sure they are tight and look for shorts of breaks.

If the wiring looks solid, next pull a plug wire, while the car is running. If it gets worse, that cylinder is good. Put it back and go to the next. When you pull one and there's no change, you've identified the problem cylinder. Now you can check the plugs, swap wires, etc. to try and determine if spark is the problem. If you swap plug wires to troubleshoot, don't just pull a wire from the plug end and switch it. You need to pull it from the other (coil pack, distributor) end as well, or the firing timing will be off!

If the wires and plugs seem good, try disconnecting the fuel injector (if applicable) for the problem cylinder(s).

Does it run worse when give it gas, or make a strange noise when you do so?

This can be the sign of a clogged air filter, or a catalytic converter going bad. Or someone has stuffed a sock in your tailpipe (it happens). Or maybe even a seized turbine in a turbocharged car.

Check the tailpipe first, since that's the easiest.
Next, remove the air filter. Don't leave it out long, especially in in dusty/dirty environments.
If these check out, you'll need to disconnect the exhaust upstream from the cat to determine if it is the problem.

Does it rev up and down, especially at idle? Or otherwise seem "off"?

This can be from a bad Idle Air Control (IAC) sensor, or the Throttle Position Sensor (TPS). Check the wiring to any sensors you can see, especially on/around the throttle body. Sometime removing the IAC and just cleaning it will fix the problem.

These few things should cover most no start issues you come across. I've dealt with all the above several times and most of them can be checked out with minimal tools. Replacement of things like fuel pumps, alternators, and even spark plugs, can vary greatly form car to car. Some are easy to locate and replace, others can be an all day project requiring specialty tools. Once you have identified the problem, check around the internet for forums for your particular vehicle, or pick up a repair manual at the local automotive store for tips, tricks and how-tos for specific repairs.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Frigidaire Affinity E64 error

If your Frigidaire Affinity dryer is beeping at you and giving you the "E64 CALL SERVICE" business, chances are you have a bad heating element. The good news is, with a screwdriver, a pair of pliers (a multimeter if you have one) and a new heater element you can fix this yourself and save a couple hundred bucks.

Below I outline a step by step process to do this on the Frigidaire Affinity, but this guide may help with other dryers, as they basically all function the same way.

A WORD OF CAUTION: You will be handling a lot of thin sheet metal components. Be careful as it is easy to cut yourself on them.

First you'll want to unplug the dryer and shut off the water source.

Then disconnect the vent hose and the water feed (if applicable). Be sure and shut off the water valve first, or you'll have a mess!

You can use a screwdriver, but a small socket makes life easier.

Larger pliers are better, but you can get by with a standard set.
Next you need to remove the lid, the back and the lid brace. To remove the lid: remove the screws and pull straight back. It may resist a bit at first. If it does, wiggle it a bit and it should break loose.

Just a couple screws hold the lid on.

Now remove all the screws holding the back piece on. Don't forget the ones in the middle, including the access panel.

There are a lot of these guys.
The brace screws are are next. After you get the brace unscrewed, just pull it up and out of the way.

A couple on the top and a couple in the back.
Next (if you have a pedestal), remove the top screws of the pedestal brackets. Note: these screws are slightly different, so keep them separate.

Leave the bottom screws in, for now.
Now you'll want to remove the screw holding the vent tube in. It should be screwed in at a slight angle. After you unscrew it, push the tube in as far as you can to facilitate removal of the back.

Unscrew and push.
Now unscrew the power connection (you did unplug the dryer first, right?) and remove the back. It may take some effort to clear the tube, brackets and water connection. I usually pull the top out at a good angle and work it back and forth to free it.

I like to mark the wires before I remove them.
A bit of angle helps.

If you can't clear the water connection,
try loosening the mount screw under the padding.
Now that you have the back off, you can pull the vent tube out and move it out of the way. The heating unit is on the right and you'll need to remove 3 screws and some wiring connections to free it.

Screw 1.

Screw 2.

Screw 3.

Unscrew these sensors with the red wires.
Unplug these ones. I like to mark them for good measure.
You can unplug this one. No need to undo the bolt.

 Now that the unit is free, turn it so you can pull it out, It may take some doing, but it should come out without too much trouble.

Once free, if you have a multimeter, you can test the coils. Set the meter to the lowest ohms setting and test each coil. You can also do a visual inspection, although it might not be obvious.

Note setting and what zero resistance looks like.

Good should read around 20-50.
Busted coil on the right.
Once you have verified the problem, via multimeter or visually, you can replace the part and reassemble. WARNING: When reassembling, do not over torque the screws. Sheet metal bends very easily. Snug is good!

Reassembly is basically just the reverse of removal, however you may have trouble with the pedestal brackets when putting the back cover on. If you do, loosen the bottom screws on the bracket to give a little more wiggle room.
A stubby screw driver, or small ratchet helps on the lower bracket screws.

The new part will likely not have the mounting bracket attached, so be sure and not damage it when removing the heating unit.

Shiny new unit.
Now I know what you're thinking: "Hey, I only had one bad coil out of 3, maybe I can just replace that one!"
I had the same thought, but I figured I'd replace the whole unit anyways, since that's how they sell them.
But I did think: "Well, I might as well pull these good coils and stash them for later in case this happens again. Because I'm smart like that!"

But when I pulled the canister open, I quickly saw that the other 2 coils were also broken, but just in such a way that they still made contact to complete the circuit. It also became apparent that switching out a single coil would be no picnic, and probably not worth the trouble of keeping them around, even if they were intact.

So there you have it. Hopefully this has been some use to you and saved you a couple bucks.