DSL Troubleshooting

An ISP in Wales recently solved their town-wide DSL problem by locating and disconnecting a resident’s old TV. It’s an extreme example of a common problem with DSL service: DSL signal is very touchy and vulnerable to interference. And that interference can be caused by so many different things along your phonelines. If you have persistent DSL problems, here’s some troubleshooting info for you:

  • Connect your DSL modem’s phoneline directly to the wall jack. Only use the phone cable provided with the modem by your ISP. That phone cable from the dollar store or that line that came with your fax machine may not be an adequate replacement.
  • Do NOT route the modem’s phoneline through a surge protector. Avoid connecting the modem’s phoneline to duplexers or splitters or couplers, unless directed by your ISP. If possible, eliminate splitters and couplers elsewhere in the house.
  • Disconnect old fax machines, answering machines and rotary telephones elsewhere in your house. Really, anything attached to a phone jack in your home could be offending your DSL modem. If your DSL behaves better after detaching some of these devices, you can reconnect them one at a time to figure out which is to blame.
  • All other devices connected to your phonelines must run through DSL filters. These filters are typically supplied by your ISP — call them if you need some! An unfiltered device can upset your DSL modem, even from across the house. Your DSL modem should not be filtered, unless your ISP supplied you with a special duplexer for attaching both a modem and a phone to the same jack. That sort of dongle is actually filtered on one side (for a phone) and unfiltered on the other (for your modem).

Also, make sure not to stack your DSL modem on top of your router or any other electronics. Stacking can lead to overheating, which causes frequent outages until the modem is totally cooked!

Each time you make a change or improvement to your wiring, reboot your modem. But do NOT use any hard-to-reach Reset button, unless directed by your ISP. If you use the Reset button (usually by inserting a toothpick into a hole on the rear of the modem), you may erase important settings and make your situation worse.

If all else fails, it may be time get a new modem. Besides normal wear and tear, DSL modems degrade due to power surges that travel over the phone lines. I recommend you go to your ISP for your replacement modem, to ensure that they support you with any future issues.

Dark Patterns: Auto-Renewal Traps

ABCMouse was recently punished by the FTC, to the tune of $10 million. They were fined for a variety of deceptive practices, including recurring charges to customer credit cards for membership renewals that were either not disclosed or difficult to terminate.

Auto-renewal traps are nothing new. ABCMouse is certainly a big name, but many other companies do business this way. They store your payment info and charge you periodically, even after you’ve stopped using the product. They sign you up for automatic payments, and create a confusing or complicated process for defeating that feature.

These dark patterns are widespread on the web, and I encounter them most commonly with antivirus companies and other software services. But to focus solely on auto-renewal traps, here’s what I can recommend:

  • Review your credit card statements every month, to catch unexpected charges.
  • Track down and disable any renewal options you don’t want, by logging in to your account at the relevant company website. Don’t remember your account password? Use the Forgot Password tool at that website to get logged in.
  • If using the website proves difficult, instead chat or call the company and ask for auto-renewal to be turned off. Expect that they will try to dissuade you. Repeat your request as often as you need to, don’t let them sidetrack you, but also don’t mistreat the agent. They are programmed to act in their way, and you should persist as you would against a stubborn computer.
  • When all else fails, or if you simply run short on patience or time, disconnect and then call your credit card company. Explain that you tried and failed to work with the company. Ask to dispute the renewal charge and they should promptly help you get your money back.

And if you feel any company is breaking the law or hurting people with their tactics, report it to the FTC.

Color Blindness & Using Color Filters

If you are color blind or have any other vision sensitivities, check out the color filters in your computer. Most operating systems offer these built-in tools, to make your screen easier to see and use.

In Windows 10, go to Start -> Settings -> Ease of Access -> Color Filters.

On MacOSX, go to Apple Menu -> System Preferences -> Accessibility -> Display – Color Filters.

Besides color deficiency-specific filters, you’ll also find others for inverting colors and switching to greyscale. These can all be turned off and on without harm or needing to reboot.

On a Chromebook, you would have to install an extension from the Play Store. Dalton looks to be the best one I can find right now. And if you want to apply color filters to your Chrome browser only, I imagine you can install Dalton on any PC or Mac, as well!

Fake Flash Drives for Sale

1TB or 2TB flash drives are not cheap! If you’ve seen an ad or an offer for a Terabyte Flash Drive for a low price ($20-50), it is a scam. While terabyte-sized flash drives are finally coming to market, they are still expensive (~$200).

Consider this legitimate flash drive, made by PNY. It’s a known brand-name at a significant price, $189. I can assure you: You can trust in this product and its pricetag.

Now regard this no-name 1TB flash drive for $30. Seem too good to be true? It is! The listing is deceptive and a scam. Here’s how it works:

If you buy this flash drive and plug it in, your computer will report a 1 or 2TB capacity. But the flash drive has been programmed to lie to your computer. There’s only about 16GB of space on there, and the dishonest programming will cause you to lose data as you fill this thing up with files. Once you reach the true capacity of the drive, it will self-corrupt and the drive will become unusable.

Unfortunately, this scam is common on Amazon and eBay. These scam listings often have decent reviews, but if you look, you’ll see warnings of fraud in some of them. And many people might honestly buy these flash drives and use them without problem, if they only store small amounts of data on them.

Don’t risk your data! It’s best that you avoid these deceptive products. I recommend that you stick to well-known brand-names when buying flash drives (e.g.: Sandisk, Samsung, PNY, Corsair, HP, Microcenter). Those companies will always be truthful with their technology items.

UPDATE: I bought one of these drives, to get some first-hand experience with them. For $30, I received a 2TB drive (even though I’d ordered a 1TB), but the packaging was devoid of any words or info. My computer told me the FALSE capacity:

There are no tools or ways within Windows 10 to determine the truth, but a nifty program called ChipGenius quickly revealed that the drive’s TRUE 16GB capacity:

I’ll soon have a conversation with the vendor, to get my money back and report the fraud.

SECOND UPDATE: Amazon appears uninterested in pursuing this issue and has not removed any fake flash drive listings. I have pressed their agents to give me contact info for fraud specialists in their company. And they have grudgingly given me some email addresses to write to. But when I send detailed info to those addresses, I get robo-responses back that are off-base, and to which I cannot reply.

I made one final attempt (just now), and spoke with an honest-seeming Amazon rep. He agreed with me that the items may be suspect, but he could only “report the sellers” of the items. When I pointed out that the sellers change from week to week, while the items stay the same and remain listed for sale, he had little else to add.

So I have reported this issue to the FTC and the Office of the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection division. We’ll see if that does any good…

Recovering Data from an Unbootable Computer

For many years, I’ve recovered data from defunct computers for my customers. But while the pandemic is on, and my fieldwork is on-hold, this service is one of the few things I cannot offer remotely. So, I think it’s time I describe this process in detail, in case some of you are comfortable doing it yourself.

DISCLAIMER: Please do not open up or dissect any computer if you are not comfortable with such. BlueScreen takes no responsibility for any breakage or loss you encounter while entering the chassis of any computer, using this information!

So your computer doesn’t boot. The files are usually still sitting there on the hard drive, waiting for harvest. The first step is to free to the hard drive from the useless computer. Most desktop towers have a easy slide-away side panel, while All-in-One and laptop computers can be more complicated. YouTube is your friend, if you cannot figure out your way inside — simply Google for “hard drive replacement” and then type out the make and model number of your computer. You might also go to your computer manufacturer’s website and look up the manual on your device.

With desktop computers, you’ll typically only need a Phillips-head and flathead screwdriver. And some desktop are tools-free, meaning you’ll be able to find and pop out the hard drive using only your fingers! But with laptops, you might need smaller tools, and with Apple computer, you’ll need very specialized screwdrivers (Apple often uses Pentalobe screws, to discourage laypeople from fixing their own computers). You can always use Amazon to find such tools, after searching for “laptop tool repair kit”.

With the right tools and instructions, let’s say you’ve freed the storage drive from the computer. Now what? Then, you have to find the right adapter, so that you can connect the drive via USB to another working computer.

Identify the connector on your drive: a SATA connector looks like this, and an old-school PATA connector like this. Some higher-end laptops have special SSDs inside that look like a stick of RAM. Once you know what type of drive you have, it’s time to head on over to Amazon or Newegg, and seek an adapter.

Search your favorite technology-selling website for “SATA to USB adapter” or something similar (‘PATA’, or ‘M.2 SSD’, depending on your type of drive) and you’ll quickly find something that can attach to your bare drive. This adapter fits the majority of drives out there. And if you want, you can also search for “SATA to USB enclosure” (or something appropriate to your drive), if you want to permanently change your drive into an external, reusable device.

Once you’ve obtained your adapter and connected your drive, you simply connect it to another working computer with the included USB cable. In most cases, the drive will pop up immediately on your screen! Use File Explorer or Finder to locate your files and drag them onto the computer or other storage drives. If you go into the Users directory and double-click your account name, you’ll probably find Documents and other important file folders.

In some rare cases, this doesn’t work. You get the correct adapter, everything connects perfectly, the File Explorer window appears and… nothing is there. If the computer shows an empty drive or offers to initialize the unreadable partition (DON’T!), then it could just be a problem with the Boot Table at the beginning of the drive. Sometimes this gets scrambled, but the files may still be there. As a last-ditch effort, try connecting the drive to a computer with a different operating system (Windows, MacOSX, Linux). I have had many instances where a Windows computer told me there were no files on my drive, but a Linux system revealed 25GB of photos sitting there, waiting to be copied off.

If after all of this, you still see no data, then perhaps the drive is truly dead. Electrical surges, drops, reformatting, disintegration of internal ball bearings, old age & other flukes can defeat the above methods. You still have a further option, but it will cost you. There are many data recovery labs that use special techniques and equipment to recover data from broken storage media. It can cost hundreds of dollars, but they are the true miracle workers. If you’re ever in this kind of need, I can recommend Gillware — they’ve done reliable great work for my customers.

If you are attempting this process, and hit any snags, please reach out to me! I’m happy to advise or answer quick questions to get you back on track.

How to Physically Clean Your Computer

Once or twice a year*, your computer needs dusting! Their grills and cooling elements attract dust, and too many years of particulate build-up can lead to overheating and shorter lifespans. An inexpensive can of compressed air is all you need to knock loose any accumulated dirt. Here’s an example of what to buy: https://www.amazon.com/Falcon-Compressed-Disposable-Cleaning-DPSJB/dp/B0000AE67M

Shoot this at any and all ports, grills, vents and openings on your computer, and blast away! Try blowing into each opening using different angles of attack, as well. You may also want to jet it at your keyboard, to knock loose any crumbs or bits of biomass. And if you are courageous enough, you are allowed to take the side panel off of your desktop tower and spray this air anywhere inside. Aim for any big fans and grills!

If you encounter any stubborn dust build-up, I’ve found that Q-tips and small paintbrushes are generally safe for brushing and dislodging.

Don’t use a vacuum on (or in) your computer. And I can’t recommend any industrial air compressor, as I worry the air could be too strong for some of the delicate internal parts. A can of spray air, as pictured above, cannot harm your computer or tech device.

Secondary to dusting is wiping. Your screen probably needs some spots or streaks cleaned off of it, once in a while. The best thing to use is a wipe that was specifically designed for cleaning electronics. Here’s an example: https://www.amazon.com/Fellowes-Pre-Moistened-Screen-Cleaning-99703/dp/B00004Z5LR

Please don’t use paper towels. Please don’t use regular household spray cleaner. Those can harm your screen surface, causing irreversible scratches or yellowing. Please NEVER spray anything directly at your screen, as the run-off could seep in and ruin your device. In a pinch, you can lightly dampen a microfiber cloth or chamois cloth with distilled water (and maybe a hint of vinegar) and wipe your screen panel gently.

The compressed air and screen-cleaning wipes are available at many places, and may be less expensive at Walmart, Staples, Costco, Target or other stores that sell office or computer supplies.

* Or more often, if your computer’s environment is particularly dusty. Computers that live in garages, crafting zones, libraries and pet-heavy zones may benefit from a monthly cleaning.

The Thank-You-for-Your-Purchase Scam

A common scam starts with an email, stating you made a purchase, when you truly didn’t. Here’s a recent example:

$500 for “Microsoft Windows Defender Firewall Online”? Many people will miss that that doesn’t make much sense, nor does the From: address. The panic from an unwanted $500 credit card charge often causes people to jump for the phone, but please don’t call or respond to this message! Remain calm and recognize this for the ploy that it is.

The bad guys want you to pick up the phone and dial that shady number. They want you to ask for a refund, because once you ask for anything, they’ll try to manipulate and feed you more false info. Even if a caller wises up and refuses to fork over a credit card number, they’ll still have his phone number, and that leads to more scam calls down the road.

It’s best to disregard this email, if you get it. Just delete it. If you need further peace of mind, simply call your credit card company and talk to them about it. Review your statements and you’ll see that this charge never happened.

Vote by Mail

The pandemic has many citizens looking to vote by mail this autumn, and the time to get ready for this is now. If voting by mail is permitted in your state, it will take some paperwork & waiting to get you confirmed for it.

For those interested, go to https://www.usa.gov/election-office and choose the state in which you are eligible to vote in. Search that state’s election website for more info on “absentee voting” or mail-in voting. Each state may have a different procedure for you to sign up, if you want to vote by mail.

For my state (VA), I had to be a registered voter to even start this process. Then I had to apply to vote by mail. After waiting some weeks, my application arrived. I filled it out and sent it in to my local registrar. That registrar will verify my info and later send me an official mail-in ballot for voting.

The process isn’t hard, but it also isn’t as quick and simple as ordering a pizza. So don’t wait until the last minute!

Any Virginian who votes by mail can check their ballot (and entire voting history) at:

https://vote.elections.virginia.gov/voterinformation

If you’re in another state, check your state’s elections site for similar tracking!

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