Wednesday, 30 November 2005

Thomas Hawk wrote about a severe problem he had ordering a camera from an abusive online retailer that's really nothing but a major, unethical sales scam operation. The fact that he wrote about it and pointed to a number of other people's experience is great, and it brought to mind a number of other things that people need to know, especially this time of the year.

First of all, there ARE unethical, bad people out there trying to sell YOU their stuff. And there are some that will threaten, extort and otherwise manipulate their "customers." It doesn't just happen to other people - it can and will happen to you, too. Protect yourself and do your homework. While the vast majority of online retailers are good, solid companies, there are the few bad apples, just like in any community, that make it bad for everyone they can take advantage of. 

  • If the price is too good to be true, it's probably not true. Seriously. Don't fool yourself.
  • Do your homework if it's a company you have never head of or dealt with. You're trying to save money, so spend some time. That means getting information about the company. A good way to do this is to look for bad information online, by using Google or another search engine to search for "The Company Name"+scam (like this and this show some serious info). Look for the NEGATIVE information. Keep in mind that there are times when the bad guys will try to make themselves look good by posting positive information. It happens.
  • Don't rely solely on the Better Business Bureau to tell you what you need to know, but do be sure to check information there. The company Thomas wrote about has a record with the New York BBB that's pretty terrible. Also be sure to use epinions.com's "Online Stores and Services" search and read through the whole lot. Again, there are bad guys that will post fake positive comments about themselves - so be a pessimist.
  • Always use a reputable credit card, never use a check or debit card. If you ever need to reverse charges, a credit card with purchase and fraud protection is invaluable; You can't reverse cancel payment on a check that's already posted, and you fighting the debit card battle is painful if the money has already been pulled from your account. Credit cards provide lots of real protection, so use them for these purchases. That's why I have credit cards, really, is to protect myself if ever needed for major purchases. That and true emergencies. Other than that I think they are evil, heh.
  • Did I mention "If the price is too good to be true, it's probably not true?" Okay, well it's worth repeating.

Finally, based on other people's experiences with the company Thomas had his problem with, I'd suggest you never, ever do business with Price Rite Photo, which also uses a number of other business names. Check the BBB for retailer names and aliases, and alway always always be careful and suspicious of the too-good-to-be-true deals.



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IT Security | Safe Computing | Things that Suck
Wednesday, 30 November 2005 05:20:00 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, 29 November 2005

It's a question many of us in the security field have been asking for some time. How is a user supposed to know they are on the correct web site when they enter their credentials or make an online purchase? How are they supposed to know when it's not the trusted site they're on?

I was having a side conversation about more ways to solve this problem with some coworkers today (common topic in our line of work), and this evening I ran across some details on the IEBlog discussing how Microsoft is dealing with it in IE7 (found via Mark Harrison). And other browser vendors are playing nicely, too. Ahh, solving problems is such a good thing to see... Nice!

IEBlog: Better Website Identification and Extended Validation Certificates in IE7 and Other Browsers

Here are some visuals that show what the user expeience looks and feels like in the dev versions. Visit the link above to get the complete details.

Fig 1, IE7 address bar for a known phishing website detected by the Phishing Filter 

Known Phishing Website 

Fig 2, IE7 address bar for a suspected phishing website detected by the Phishing Filter

Suspected Phishing Website

Fig 3.1, IE7 address bar for a site with a high-assurance SSL certificate
(showing the identity of the site from the SSL certificate)

Identity of Site from SSL Certificate 

Fig 3.2, IE7 address bar for a site with a high-assurance SSL certificate
(alternating in the name of the Certification Authority who identified the site)

Showing Name from Certification Authority



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IT Security | Safe Computing | Tech
Tuesday, 29 November 2005 21:35:05 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Monday, 28 November 2005

Because some things are truly worth repeating each year, and because sometimes people do things that are just so damn wrong... Everyone should have their own copy of this Christmas music classic:



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Humor | Random Stuff
Monday, 28 November 2005 19:40:19 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Leave it to the Oregon Lottery to come up with the holiday marketing stunts to top all stupid holiday season marketing stunts. Thank God for the lottery people... And here we were starting to worry people might actually take Oregon seriously for a second...

So, here you have it: Scratch-and sniff lottery tickets in a beautiful fruitcake flavor. Yeah, seriously. Scratch the card, and it smells like f-r-u-i-t-c-a-k-e. Uhhh... Yuck.

People actually want to buy this crap? Wow.

To top it all off, be sure to check out the (actually somewhat amusing) MP3 files being used to promote the seasonal cash-collecting game.

It's all at http://spiritoffruitcake.com.

Sheez...



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Random Stuff | Things that Suck
Monday, 28 November 2005 19:30:54 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Sunday, 27 November 2005

Over at VoIPSpeak, there's an article describing how to set up Asterisk@Home, a distribution of the Asterisk open source PBX software for Linux, in a virtual machine on a Windows box. It uses the recently-released (and free) VMWare Player for virtualization.

Note that Asterisk@Home is actually a bit of a misnomer - it's more like "Asterisk-Plus" - a package of the Asterisk PBX with many of the more common and popular add-ons and enhancements packaged up. Installation is simplified and the heavy lifting is mostly done for you. Running in a no-cost VM environment, it's really easy to mess with and learn from. Set up a couple soft-phones and you'll be able to try it out all you like.

(via Digg)



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Sunday, 27 November 2005 14:38:53 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Ask-encarta-im1This one is perfect for students, who (we all know) spend way too much time on IM anyhow. So in the if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em department, have them add encarta@conversagent.com as a contact on their MSN IM people lists. Chris Sells pointed out this service - which ties into the Encarta online encyclopedia - the other day, and so I tried it out.

If you ever have to research things for classes or work and want a more accessible way to do so, you'll find it cool and useful.

Just open a conversation with the "Encarta Instant Answers" contact in your list and start asking questions. You'll get results right in the IM window. If there's information available from Encarta online (did you know you can use pretty much everything from Encarta online???), the agent will offer to share it with you in an expanded window (see below).

It works quite well, and has already tied up a bunch of my time. I'll be keeping this one in my IM contact list for sure.

Ask-encarta-im3
(click above for a larger view)



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Random Stuff
Sunday, 27 November 2005 06:45:20 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Saturday, 26 November 2005
Microsoft's Major Nelson, XBOX Live Director of Programming grand poobah, says they're cranking out new consoles and shipping XBOX 360s to stores weekly, so there' still a chance.

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Random Stuff | Tech
Saturday, 26 November 2005 19:38:15 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Tuesday, 22 November 2005

Microsoft yesterday announced a zero-day exploit that affects Internet Explorer. The Zero Day Security weblog describes it well:

"A UK group known as 'Computer Terrorism' has released a proof of concept zero day exploit for fully patched Windows systems running Internet Explorer 5.5 & 6.x that takes advantage of a previously known JavaScript vulnerability. Microsoft Security Advisory 911302 covers the essentials. The only Windows systems seeming not affected are Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2003 with SP1.

"Of course, to be compromised the user must first browse to a malicious web site. According to Computer Terrorism: Contrary to popular beliefs, the aforementioned security issue is susceptible to remote, arbitrary code execution, yielding full system access with the privileges of the underlying user.

"Several informative sites include Microsoft, FrSIRT, MITRE, US-CERT, InfoWorld, eWeek and SANS (which suggests disabling Java or using another browser and has a BleedingSnort Rule on their site).

"Get ready for a patch blast from Microsoft on this one."

Microsoft's comments have been updated with the latest information. From their Security Advisory 911302 information page:

"...We have also been made aware of proof of concept code targeting the reported vulnerability but are not aware of any customer impact at this time. We will continue to investigate these public reports.

"Upon completion of this investigation, Microsoft will take the appropriate action to help protect our customers. This may include providing a security update through our monthly release process or providing an out-of-cycle security update, depending on customer needs.

"This issue was originally publicly reported in May as being a stability issue that caused the browser to close. Since then, new information has been posted that indicates remote code execution could be possible. Microsoft is concerned that this new report of a vulnerability in Internet Explorer was not disclosed responsibly, potentially putting computer users at risk. We continue to encourage responsible disclosure of vulnerabilities. We believe the commonly accepted practice of reporting vulnerabilities directly to a vendor serves everyone's best interests..."



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IT Security | Tech
Tuesday, 22 November 2005 22:32:52 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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I was on the phone with a professional contact today, a guy who happens to do cybercrime and anti-fraud work in his job as a special agent for the FBI. That's a part of what I do in my day job, by the way - help chase down bad guys on the 'net and interact with law enforcement to shut them down. It's a fairly effective way to keep one foot in the door of my previous career (police work) and at the same time be firmly planted in the computer technology world. I also get to working with some really smart people who build great software that is used to prevent fraudsters from reaching victims.

Anyhow... So I was on the phone with my anti-fraud cohort, and he had that "FBI-agent-having-a-rough-day" sound in his voice. He's one of these guys who's always very positive, but it was clear quite a bit of work had been cut out for him and his coworkers over the past day or two.

It turns out there's a new set of fake emails running around that try to look like they came from the FBI or the CIA, and which have an attachment that is actually a virus.

Now, let's get one thing completely clear: If you ever get an unsolicited email that has a file attached, DO NOT OPEN THE ATTACHMENT. It doesn't matter if it's from the President of the United States or the Creator of of the Universe... Email is inherently insecure, and if it looks out of place, it probably is. You can read the FBI's press release about the situation here, which describes the fake emails in some detail.

This is just another example of social engineering and the fact that given the opportunity, people will fall for almost anything. Oh - and if you don't have antivirus protection at your email service provider, change providers now. Seriously. Get a GMail or Hotmail account or something.

I'll tell ya one thing... Whoever had cohones enough to construct that virus variety to send email pretending to be from the FBI is in for a rude awakening. Seriously, seriously stupid move. Heh.



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IT Security | Safe Computing | Tech
Tuesday, 22 November 2005 22:16:50 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Last night I contemplated waking up earlier than usual, getting in the car and going down to the local Wal Mart (well, as local as can be when you live in the sticks) to get in line to buy a XBOX 360 console. After doing some rough calculations in my head last night, I realized that between travel and work, I'll hardly be home between now and the end of the year, so maybe right now isn't the best time for me to buy one anyhow. Oh, but I will be buying one, no worries there.

Still, Wal Mart is on my drive to work, and so I decided to grab my standard morning coffee from the little store at the bottom of the hill, drive into town, and do some people watching. After all, I realized, it's more the excitement and the weirdness of the hype around the event than the console itself. An XBOX 360 today is the same box and hardware as you can buy later. But the launch fans? That only happens once.

So I headed out for the big ol' St. Helens, Oregon Wal Mart. I listened to the radio on the way there, and heard stories of gamers in places like Manhattan, NY, where apparently people had been lined up forever (like lots of places around the country) and Bellevue, Washington, where Bill Gates went to the local Best Buy and picked up his own console. Somehow I don't think he needed to do that, but hey - it was cool. 

Honestly, I was more interested in watching the people when they opened the store than I was in buying a console on Day One. I'm more interested, too, in how much they'll be selling for on eBay later today, and about when the day will be that they start dropping them off the backs of trucks at stores in huge numbers. One friend says he thinks it will be on Thursday night. Another person I know tells me the store he pre-ordered from called and let him know his delivery would be delayed, and that they were not sure if he would get his before Christmas. People are lining up everywhere. Clearly, the demand is high and the supply (either artificially or in actuality) is short.

Anyhow, back to the local Wal Mart. I wasn't sure what to expect in the Big Town of St Helens. I pulled into the parking lot and saw a small crowd of about 15-20 shivering people huddled right next to the front door of the store. A couple of people were (smartly) waiting in their vehicles with the heat on. I pulled up and deduced that the Wal Mart store has probably handed out numbers to the first people to show up, but that's where things got more interesting. Every employee that came anywhere near the front door was the target of sly, mean-sounding questioning. "Are they coming to open the door? Hurry up, it's f***n' cold out here! What?!? No?!?!? G*d d*mnit!"

When it came time to open the door and head for the counter - and keep in mind, everyone had a number - the race walk through the door turned into a jog, and then quickly into a sprint for the back of the store, where ten boxes sat stacked neatly behind a counter. I followed (at a walking pace, of course) to observe. A couple of people commented on the foot race and we all laughed a little. Mostly the people (at least those who didn't have a number) noticed how strange the whole thing was. All this for a video game console? Hey, for some it's what life is all about, I guess.

So, I started to think about the gamer personality. Some of the people were needlessly quiet and cagey, not really letting on as to who had what number, and some were not even providing information about whether numbers were even given out. It was amusing, really. There was this competitive hype attitude. The need to be first, to sneak around that metaphoric corner on the battle map and shoot your opponent in the back of the head.

It's really kinda interesting.

Fist fights, secrecy, celebration, celebrity, short supply, bright green boxes, launch hype, auction hype and even more random hype. Some will be upset they can't get one, others will be upset they pre-ordered and the kid down the street was first, and others will be holed up in their rooms for the next five days with lots of Mountain Dew, Red Bull, Doritos and Little Betty Snack Cakes turning a whole new shade of pasty white with a day-glow green tint brought on by the magical glow of the XBOX 360, only to emerge into a world where the colors are not quite as bright, the definition is not quite as high, and the people with guns in their hands are the ones you want to avoid. Ahhh, the life...

Merry Christmas and all that. Earlier and more bizarre every year. 

But hey, dude, it's a sweet console.



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Random Stuff
Tuesday, 22 November 2005 09:44:25 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Monday, 21 November 2005

Holiday_lightsYou think your house decorations are awesome? Are you one of those people who tries each year to out-do your neighbors? Or are one of the out-done that suffers the effects of Mr. Uber-Decorator?

Well, no matter who you are and no matter what your motivation, I bet you've never seen a house decoration display quite like this one. Seriously, the picture at right is not even close to what the video shows. Wow, cool...

UPDATE: As it turns out, the man who built it is named Carson Williams and he lives in Mason Ohio. Apparently, the show attracted so many people that when a couple cars had an accident, the police could not get to the accident because the streets were jammed up with other cars, so Carson had to stop the display each night, at least for a while.

Here are some other links for ya:

http://www.christmaslightfinder.com/
http://www.twasthenightbefore.com/webcam-2005.htm
http://www.pensacolalights.com/
http://www.christmasutah.com/
http://www.kindlachristmas.com/Videos.asp
http://www.welovechristmaslights.com/



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Geek Out | Random Stuff
Monday, 21 November 2005 21:27:51 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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The Microsoft anti-malware team has posted information about their products' ability to remove the rootkit associated with the Sony DRM mess that everyone and their brother has written about over the past couple weeks. If you don't know whether your Sony CD was one that may have installed this junk on your computer, there's a list of CD titles available here. If your CD is not on the list, it's ok. If it is on the list, Sony BMG will send you a replacement.

Safety_live_one

If you think you might have a problem (or if you just want to make sure you're cleaned up in general), go to the Windows Live Safety Center, where you can scan your computer for this and other malicious or bad software and clean it right up. Select the "Full Service Scan" followed by the "Quick scan" option. You'll need to install the ActiveX control for the scanner.

And the other two removal tools the team works on are also able to resolve the problem:

"The Windows AntiSpyware Beta will be able to detect and remove this as well with the 11/17/05 signature release. Detection and removal will also be added to the December release of the Malicious Software Removal Tool which will be released the second Tuesday of December."

If you've not yet used the Windows Live Safety Center, it's a great place to run a scan on any computer for a variety of potential problems, without having to download and install special software programs. The complete scan checks for open ports that might cause problems, viruses, malicious software and more. It can also clean up temp files and defragment your hard drive to improve performance and reliability. This whole services thing is looking pretty promising.

 



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IT Security | Tech
Monday, 21 November 2005 20:06:28 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Hard core console gamers are already camping out tonight in front of Best Buy stores and other retailers hoping to get their clammy paws on a new XBOX 360 console, which are in predictably short supply at stores as the launch happens Tuesday.

And be sure to check out the XBOX360 Fanboy blog for all the latest news. Heh. Bill Gates is even going to show up at the Bellevue Best Buy store to hand out the first one and play some games with the crowd.

I'm not, like, old or anything (ugh), but I'm not as young as I once was. Still, I might wake up early (I tend to do so anyhow) and truck it on down to the local WalMart, where they have exactly ten consoles that will be on sale at 7am tomorrow. Word is the Fred Meyer store (for those not in the northwest, take WalMart and fancy it up significantly) in the next town over got seven units and will be doing a lottery for whoever is in line at 5am, then selling them when the store opens at 7am. In the city, people are lined up at Best Buy stores to get one of the 50 units that each store supposedly has.

When I stopped by the WalMart on the way home, the phone at the electronics counter was ringing off the hook. The guy at the counter just shook his head, and told me that phone's rung more than a couple hundred times today with people asking about the XBOX 360 console.

So here are the real questions we're all wondering about:

  • How many units shipped for launch?
  • When will the truckloads of consoles hit the stores? Should we start a pool?
  • Is this possibly a planned shortage thing, or is the supply really that low?
  • What will they be selling for on eBay tomorrow afternoon?

I dunno... I know I'll be buying one of these, but I'm not quite sure if I'll be getting up bright and early to scrape the windshield and stand in the sub-freezing temperatures to gamble on something I might not walk away with. Heheh... Maybe I am getting old.



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Geek Out | Random Stuff | Tech
Monday, 21 November 2005 18:15:58 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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Engadget Holiday Gift GuideThat infamous and terrific gadget-lover's blog, Engadget, has launched it's Engadget Holiday Gift Guide for this holiday season at http://holidaygiftguide.engadget.com/.

We know sorting through the thousands of gadgets on the market right now can be a bit of a pain for anyone doing some shopping, so we’ve gotten together our annual Engadget Holiday Gift Guide in order to help make sense of what’s worth dropping some coin on this year.

Even though online shopping means no one really has an excuse anymore not to buy early, we’re going to be running up our gift suggestions once a day until December 24th, so high-tail over to
holidaygiftguide.engadget.com for the latest! And be sure to check back often, as we’ll be posting a variety of gift suggestions sure to please the full range of recipients everyone’s got, from nerds-extraordinarie to Mr. and Mrs. Enduser.

NOTE: These products are selected by the Engadget editors, not Best Buy, and we didn’t check to see whether they’re for sale at Best Buy or not.

That Sony VAIO XL1 Media Center PC is lookin' pretty nice...



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Monday, 21 November 2005 17:57:32 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
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 Sunday, 20 November 2005

Microsoft's CTO, Ray Ozzie, posted earlier today about his views on SSE, of the Simple Sharing Extensions to RSS and OPML that Microsoft recently published as an open draft specification (licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike model). Ozzie knows a lot about sharing information - He created Lotus Notes and was the founder of Groove, a terrific and innovative collaboration platform that Microsoft acquired not that long ago.

He describes the problem with sharing and combining loosely-coupled information.

"As an industry, we have simply not designed our calendaring and directory software and services for this 'mesh' model. The websites, services and servers we build seem to all want to be the 'owner' and 'publisher'; it's really inconsistent with the model that made email so successful, and the loosely-coupled nature of the web."

So he's talking about how to extend RSS and OPML to allow synchronization.

"There are many great item synchronization mechanisms out there (and at Microsoft), but we decided we’d never get short term network effects among products if we selected something complicated – even if it were powerful. What we really longed for was 'the RSS of synchronization' ... something simple that would catch on very quickly."

Note that this is not the same stuff that's gluing RSS into the core of Vista and whatnot - rather it's a simple way to mesh, communicate and synchronize information from multiple sources in XML. It's nifty, simple and smart. I think I've got my mind wrapped around it now. Very cool. Geeks, read on:



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RSS Stuff | Tech
Sunday, 20 November 2005 21:05:40 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
#