Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Internet Explorer: critical security updates

Microsoft have just released a set of important security updates for Internet Explorer for Windows to fix some critical vulnerabilities, so if you don't set your Windows updates to happen automatically, you ought to go update your computer manually ASAP.

See Microsoft Security Bulletin MS10-108 for more info.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Credit card fraud - what to do?

There's a good blog post by security expert Ross Anderson on how to get money back from the bank for a fraudulent credit card transaction, which may help consumers who've fallen victim to card fraud.

He recounts what happened when a dodgy debit appeared on a credit card his wife uses, and the long rigmarole he had to go through with NatWest in order to get a refund.

He finally had to start a claim against the bank in Small Claims Court before they would refund him, and says:

"So it seems that the optimal bank complaint procedure is one letter, then a writ. But do take care that your case remains on the small claims track."

(Because if the claim gets moved from small claims and you lose, you may be landed with having to pay the bank's legal costs of defending the claim.)

He's helpfully put the documents online.

I've had a couple issues myself over the years but my credit card company (not NatWest) have never quibbled about sorting it out and have in fact been very helpful, fingers crossed that it won't happen again.

Broadband speeds: Ofcom may act on Code

I've banged on for a while about UK broadband speeds often not matching up to the speeds advertised by ISPs ("headline" speeds) - they normally advertise the maximum possible speed achievable (I'm tempted to say "by someone living on top of the telephone exchange in perfect conditions"), which is not necessarily, and indeed probably not, the average top speed that most internet users would experience in practice.

To date we've only had a voluntary code of practice on broadband speeds for ISPs, from December 2009, by which "ISPs who have signed-up to the Code commit to provide information to consumers before they enter into a contract about the maximum broadband speed they can expect on their line, and about the factors that will affect their actual speed. "

Recently, UK comms regulator Ofcom carried out a mystery shopping exercise (full PDF report by Synovate), and it may come as no surprise to many of us to know that they've found that ISPs aren't fully complying with the Code of Practice. Ofcom noted, "although more information on broadband speeds is now provided by ISPs following the introduction of the Code (-2-), information is still often not sufficient to allow consumers to have clear expectations about the broadband service they sign-up to."

From Ofcom, I've emboldened and italicised bits:

"The research found that the majority (85 per cent) of telephone mystery shoppers were provided with an estimate of the maximum speed available on their broadband line before signing up with a provider.

However, almost half (42 per cent) of these shoppers had to prompt providers for their speed late in the sales process.

In addition, three quarters (74 per cent) of mystery shoppers were not informed that their actual speed was likely to be below their maximum line speed

The research also showed that shoppers often received a wide variety of different estimates of the maximum line speed from different ISPs for the same line."

What explains the big differences? Well, Ofcom found that:

  • ISPs use different methods to calculate and present line speed information
  • Some ISPs often gave estimates for maximum line speed as a wide range (such as "10-20Mbit/s") - which could lead customers to expect much higher speeds than actually received.

As a result of the mystery shopping, Ofcom means to tighten the Code to ensure consumers are given adequate information about their broadband service when making purchasing decisions. "This involves working with the ISPs to ensure that they are able to give more consistent and accurate information on line speeds." More specifically, Ofcom said they'll:

  • "work with ISPs to agree a consistent and accurate way of calculating and presenting access line speed information and amend the Code accordingly;
  • amend the Code to require ISPs to commit to giving the access line speed estimate early in the sales process, i.e. before asking the customer for bank details or a MAC. Currently the Code only requires ISPs to give this information before completion of the sales process.
  • find ways of ensuring that ISPs give consumers better information on why and how actual broadband speeds may be lower than headline speeds.
  • explore with ISPs whether it would be appropriate to add a new provision in Code which allows customers to leave their contract period without penalty if the access line speed received in practice is significantly below the estimate given at the time of signing up."

Their press release said, "Ofcom expects to be able to agree changes to the Code by summer 2010. If agreement cannot be reached with ISPs, Ofcom will consider whether it is necessary to introduce formal regulations." And Ofcom indicated they'll also do more mystery shopping to check if there are improvements in compliance.

Frankly I don't think that's good enough; I previously pointed out the key shortcomings of the voluntary Broadband Speeds Code, which I thought wouldn't actually help consumers much, and it's disheartening to be proved right.

It's also disheartening for consumers that Ofcom are only considering working or exploring things with ISPs - why not involve consumer groups like Consumer Focus, or indeed the official Communications Consumer Panel?

I feel that consumers should be able to terminate their contracts immediately if they find the speed they actually get is significantly less than what they were told, rather than be stuck for a year on speeds much lower than they were sold on. The Ofcom Consumer Panel (the former name of the Communications Consumer Panel) had pointed that, and other issues, out as long ago as 2007.

For what it's worth, see Ofcom's advice for consumers on broadband speeds. More to the point, you might consider taking part in Ofcom's broadband speed tests, and even raising the argument that there have been unfair commercial practices on the part of the ISPs.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Open Word document as read-only (one-off)

Previously I covered how to set a Microsoft Word document to open read-only as standard. Now, here's a tip on how to open a Microsoft Word document in read-only mode on just a one-off basis (Word 2003, but I think it's similar in 2007).
  1. When you choose the menu File > Open, single left click on the document you want to open on a read-only basis on this occasion.
  2. Next, on the bottom right of the File Open dialog box, click the down arrow to the right of the "Open" button, outlined in red in the pic below:

  3. Then in the menu that comes up, pick "Open Read-Only", and that's it, the selected document will now open in readonly form!

It's somewhat tucked away, isn't it? Well here's another trick - if you want to open a Word document as read-only through Windows Explorer or My Computer, there's also a way: just hold down the Shift key, rightclick on the filename, and there'll be an "Open as Read-only" option in the rightclick context menu, which you can select (works in Vista anyway):

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Google Reader captchas I have known...

would almost certainly be followed by

- as far as I'm concerned!

Where on earth does Google get these from? No, I don't think I want to know...

Friday, 5 March 2010

Help test UK broadband speed claims

UK regulator Ofcom seek volunteers to help them test how far real broadband speeds experienced by consumers actually match up to broadband speeds advertised by internet service providers. This will be in partnership with SamKnows, who say:

We aim to provide the UK with reliable and accurate statistics on the actual performance of broadband connections, and not just the speeds that they are advertised as being "up to".

If you want to help out and you meet the requirements, you can sign up to register your interest.

The test will involve your getting a glamorous "‘White Box’ that sits in the consumer’s home, which does not monitor the home network or web traffic, but focuses solely on the relevant ISP’s network."

From their similar research in 2009, Ofcom found that the average ‘up to’ headline speed in April 2009 was advertised to be 7.1 Mbit/s - but the average broadband speed obtained by users was in fact only 4.1 Mbit/s (megabits per second) i.e. just over half the advertised speeds.

Ofcom have produced a guide on issues and factors to consider when you're looking for a broadband deal.

Remember, not only may actual average speeds be significantly less than the "up to" speeds ISPs advertise in big bold letters, but also the usage allowance may not in fact be "unlimited" even though they say it is - see my blog post on ISP and mobile networks' top speeds, "unlimited" usage & consumer rights.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Thunderbird: search one folder only, stop constant indexing slowing down computer

I hate the recent "upgrades" to Thunderbird email search. The search box in the toolbar now searches all my accounts by default. And, possibly because I've disabled the dreaded Gloda indexing, it's wrong, it doesn't include more recent emails in the search at all, so it's useless as well as slow. And I hate that I can't size the two halves of the search results tab, so the left half takes up way too much space. I hate the font. I hate everything about it! It's a major problem and big annoyance, to me.

So here's a tip: the workaround to get proper search back is to rightclick on the folder you want to search, then choose Search:

This enables you to search just one folder of one account e.g. the Inbox. Which is much faster than the toolbar search box, and oddly enough it does search everything properly. The two types of searches must be using different indexes, somehow.

Unfortunately I still can't figure out how to search all the folders of a single account only, i.e. the way the old Thunderbird search box used to work.

A not very satisfactory workaround is, in the new search window that comes up with the right click, to then choose another folder in the "Search for messages in" dropdown. And so on. Which mean you lose the previous search results, of course.

If anyone knows how to get Thunderbird to search all folders of just one account, please tell me. My "desperation" solution now when I need do do that is simply to login to the account in Gmail in my web browser and use the standard Gmail search there!

The big Thunderbird update before this one killed my computer by indexing everything constantly by default. To stop that, go to Tools, Options, Advanced, General, under Advanced Configuration UNtick "Enable Global Search and Indexer", and OK).

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Consumer tips when shopping: your rights

Not tech-only, but helpful and not everyone knows these tips, which apply to shopping in person and for item 4 online or by mail order or telephone - from the good ol' UK BIS, so mostly relevant to UK consumers only, I've added the bits in italics:

1. Not my style – some might be surprised to learn that you do not have a right to a refund if you simply decide you don’t like what you have bought.

2. Six month rule - if you make a claim for a repair or replacement of faulty goods within six months of purchase it’s actually up to the retailer to prove that the goods were not faulty when sold to you. [Note: this may not help if you're buying from outside the EU, or indeed possibly even the UK.]

3. No receipt required - you do not need a receipt to obtain a refund for faulty goods. However, you may be required to show proof of purchase with a credit card slip, bank statement or cheque stub.

4. Online is fine - if you buy goods on the Internet you also have the right to a seven working-day ‘cooling off’ period from the date you receive the goods, with the right to a full refund regardless of the reason for return. [Note: this applies to phone orders or mail order too, but it only works when you're buying from a retailer in the UK or EU. You need to tell the seller within 7 days of receipt that you want to return the goods, but you don't actually have to return the goods within 7 days, as long as you do return them ASAP and certainly within 30 days, safest to take that as 30 days after the order or at most 30 days after receipt. Buying from outside the EU e.g. the US is another matter, and much, much riskier for EU consumers - I'm planning a different blog post on that as I've been burned myself.]

5. Returning it to the retailer - when you buy goods, your contract is with the retailer not the manufacturer and you should always go back to the retailer to make a claim.

6. Fit for purpose - the goods you buy from a retailer should be fit for purpose and of satisfactory quality. If they are not, you are legally entitled to make a claim for a refund, repair or replacement. [Again, you will likely encounter problems in practice if you're buying online from outside the EU, e.g. the USA, even if the goods are faulty.]

7. Act quickly - if goods are faulty and you wish to claim a full refund you must return the goods to the retailer within a reasonable period of time.

8. Smarter sales shopping - you are not entitled to a refund on sale goods if you were made aware by the retailer that the goods were faulty or if the fault was obvious. Also, if you change your mind about liking the goods you aren’t entitled to a refund.

9. Nearly new –you have similar rights to a refund, repair or replacement as you do for new goods but remember that the law doesn’t expect second goods to be of the same quality as new ones.

10. Stick up for your rights – if the retailer is failing to acknowledge or respond to your consumer rights, in the England and Wales, you can file a claim (under £5,000) with the small claims court.

See further this info on your rights when shopping online. For help with problems - Consumer Direct.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Internet shopping perky & on the, er, up, at least for some…

Well, it's heartening to know that amongst all the doom & gloom of the recession, UK fine art print retailer grew their turnover by 120% in the six month to February 2010 compared with the same period last year, thanks largely (geddit?) to "a provocative Kelly Brook photo". Good that she's helping the British balance of payments, eh?

It seems North America, including Canada and the US, has been the source of the strongest, ahem, growth - in sales, that is, with demand particularly high for black and white photography prints of celebrities, according to the press release. Best sellers in the category have also included photos of burlesque artiste Dita Von Teese (and no, I'm not linking to those!).

There. That's me doing my bit for British exports.

Blogger users beware: phishing attack

According to security firm Trend Micro, bad guys are sending emails to Blogger users, pretending to be from Blogger.

The email asks users to "update" their accounts by clicking a link - which seems to lead to a Blogger login page starting with the same domain name as the real Blogger site, but in fact is a fake page where, if you enter your Blogger login details, they'll steal them.

So beware.

Granted, people might not be surprised that British politicians were taken in by Twitter phishing scams last week, but when even someone as tech-savvy as Cory Doctorow has had his account hacked (according to a Yahoo! story), it shows you just can't be too careful.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Microsoft browser choice: which browser, or how to get rid of the update item?

Windows users may have noticed these last few days that in Windows Update if you click to view the "important updates" that are available, the list includes "Microsoft Browser Choice Screen Update for EEA users of Windows.."

If you didn't click the "More information" link to find out what it's all about, well it's to do with Microsoft's agreement with the European Commission, after many years of toing and froing, to offer Windows consumers a choice of browsers (even if Microsoft's Internet Explorer is their default web browser) - see this Microsoft blog post for the history.

Apparently 77% of Britons don't know about it, though hopefully now the BBC have covered the story that percentage will have reduced!

Interestingly, the browser choice screen update is UNticked by default, so a user has to actively choose to tick the checkbox before it's downloaded.

According to Microsoft:

"This application creates a shortcut on your desktop. This shortcut lets you visit a Web page in which you can select which Web browser you want to install. Additionally, the first time that you log on to the computer after you install the application, Windows Internet Explorer starts automatically and displays the Browser Choice Web page.


If your computer is running Windows 7, the Browser Choice application removes Internet Explorer from a pinned location on the Start menu and in the taskbar.
If you do not set Internet Explorer as your default Web browser, the Browser Choice application does not make any changes to your computer."

Which browser?

If you want to choose a new browser, which one will you go for?

As regular readers of ACE know, in fact I use all the main Windows-compatible browsers; there's absolutely no reason why you can't have them all, apart from disk space or memory, and these days most computers are fine for that.

Firefox. I think Firefox with NoScript is probably the most secure, and the most flexible and powerful given that you can get loads of third party extensions (TabMixPlus is the other essential extension, in my view, plus Greasemonkey for my Blogger customisations). I use that e.g. if I'm not sure about a site I'm visiting. I have a master password and use it for convenience with lots of sites requiring login (with cookies saved for sites I regularly log in to, but the other cookies deleted on closing the browser). Not banking sites, though.

Internet Explorer. I use IE for online banking sites, because most banking sites will work with it. Similarly for some other sites, when I'm ordering online. Also, if I want more privacy while browsing, while I'm logged in to Google on Chrome I'll browse in IE (or indeed Firefox or Opera) so that Google can't track which sites I visit in the other browsers - as long as I'm not logged in to Google on those browsers too, of course.

Opera. My absolute favourite for speed, lightning quick, so it's good for research - I can have loads of tabs open easily, saving them in a single session for a single topic. But not all sites will support it, especially login sites, and I don't think the built-in cookie control is fine-grained enough. And Google Desktop Search, which I use mainly to keep track of sites I've been viewing, doesn't index sites visited via Opera (or for that matter Chrome, oddly enough!)

Google Chrome. Quite fast, but not as fast as Opera. It's good that extensions are now possible in Chrome and some Greasemonkey scripts work in Chrome, but there are 2 big disadvantages. The tab switching puts lots of people off - if you try to Ctrl-Tab to switch tabs, it goes to the one on the left, not the most recently used (MRU) tab, which to me is critical from a workflow viewpoint. Also, if you have lots of tabs open, as I like to, and you switch to a different tab, it takes quite a while for the tab's contents to display (no such problem with Opera). I'm convinced that Google have been heavily advertising Chrome in the EEA these last couple of months, e.g. London Underground Tube posters, in order to make the Chrome logo familiar to consumers so they'll be more likely to select it in the choice screen.

How to turn off the update item

If like me you've already got the browsers you want and don't want that browser choice Windows Update item to keep cropping up nagging you daily, here's a tip: the easiest solution is to get rid of it by right clicking on the item, then choosing "Hide update" and clicking "OK":