Patrick Marshall answers your personal technology questions each week.
Q: I live in a retirement community and have become aware of what I believe are improperly configured Wi-Fi guest accounts at the community. Given most seniors’ minimum knowledge of computers and what secure really means, I’m concerned they are exposed to significant hacking. The company refuses to change, and simply relies on the standard disclaimer to “use at your own risk.”
A: Whether it’s a retirement community or a coffee shop, if the Wi-Fi network doesn’t require a password to log in you can figure that there is no security at all. Anyone can log in and view the activity of others who are also using the network. And even if there is a password required to log in, yes, passwords are relatively easy for hackers to crack. So unless you have your own Wi-Fi router and you’ve protected it with a very secure password — one that is at least eight characters long, uses special characters, and doesn’t employ predictable sequences — you have to figure that a hacker could be capturing your internet traffic.
If security is a concern, I recommend using a virtual private network, or VPN. VPN software encrypts all your traffic. Connect to that public Wi-Fi network and before you do anything else launch your VPN program. Once it connects to the VPN host server all your communications with sites you visit, and any emails you send, will be encrypted. Even if a hacker intercepts your transmissions he or she will not be able to make any sense of them. (I can’t swear that the National Security Agency doesn’t have tools that can crack commercially available encryption, of course, but I figure you’d be pretty safe from everyday hackers.)
Q: My question is about old screen savers. I have one that was on my old 32-bit machine, but it won’t run on my 64-bit computer. I tried looking up the originator of the screen saver but they are long gone. Is there any way I could enable it to run on my new computer? I love the scenery — Puget Sound views of the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, etc.
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— Francis Gregory
A: Most 32-bit apps should work on a 64-bit computer. But not all.
Why not create your own screen saver? You can easily collect lots of images of Puget Sound scenery on the web and save the images in a folder. Then click on the Start button and then Windows Settings, Personalization, Lock Screen. You’ll find controls for specifying what kind of screen saver to use — including slideshow — and you can specify a folder of images to use.
Q: Help! All of a sudden my Gmail account is loaded with unsolicited business … at least seven per day. What’s going on?
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— Bob Lalande, Tacoma
A: I’d say you’re lucky to get only seven per day! The account of mine that you just sent to receives at least 30 pieces of spam a day. And yes, I’m using a spam filter.
My guess is that a spammer who isn’t being blocked yet by Google’s spam filter just got your email address. That can happen a number of ways, but the most common causes are a user inadvertently clicking on something in an email or website, or the spammer using malware to access another user’s address book in which you are listed.
Google will likely snag and block that spammer, but if you want to speed the process report the spam. Just highlight the offensive mail and then click on the Report Spam icon in the toolbar above the inbox.