By: Lance Ulanoff
When things go terribly wrong with technology, you may have to go that extra mile to find the right answers.
I’ve been having a rough couple of technology months. First, my test system gets attacked by powerful malware that forced me to rebuild the laptop from scratch and then, just this past week, my family’s desktop PC went bonkers (yes, that’s the technical term).
The laptop drama was a bit more straightforward. I’d been using this Windows 7 test system for over a year and hadn’t bothered to put any security software on it. It had never had an infection or a hiccup; Windows 7’s own baseline defenses seemed to be doing just fine. Then one day, pretty much out of the blue, my search results started acting like they were possessed. I’d perform a search on Google or Bing, click on the desired result and end up somewhere else. It was never something objectionably like adult material, weird photos or even incessant pop-ups. Instead it was just a site, which vaguely related to the original search, trying to sell me something.
I turned to PCMag’s security analyst Neil Rubenking, who quickly identified the problem as the nasty TIDserv malware. This pernicious bug has apparently beaten the defenses of some of the best security software—which made me feel a tiny bit better about not protecting the laptop. At his suggestion, I downloaded MalwareBytes, which found traces, but couldn’t clean it. Neil and I then turned to Symantec, which has developed PowerEraser, a tool that is supposed to clean your PC when nothing else can. It failed, as well. Finally, Symantec sent me beta software they had developed specifically to handle the TIDServe Malware. Guess what? It failed, too. Meanwhile, the infection was showing its nastier side. The more I ignored the links in the redirect sites, the sicker my laptop got. Soon, it would only boot to a full screen 50% of the time (the other half I got a white mouse on a black screen). Ultimately, I rebuilt the system from scratch (backed up my data and reinstalled Windows 7). Then I installed Microsoft’s free security suite, Microsoft Security Essentials.
Problem Number 2
My desktop problem was, in some ways, scarier and much harder to solve. One day I came home and my wife told me the computer was acting funny, she also mentioned—in passing—that we had a power outage (this will become important later). Every time she tried to visit her Hotmail account, Facebook or any log-in-based site, the browser (Internet Explorer 8 and Chrome 5) told her that the site had an invalid security certificate and warned her the destination might not be safe to visit. She could override the warning and get to the site, but this was getting annoying.
I decided to first run a Norton Internet Security 2010 full system scan to see if the system had somehow become infected. I ran the scan overnight and found nothing, but also noticed that the NIS icon in the task bar had a red “x” in it. I was no longer protected. NIS has a nice big “Fix” button on the interface, which is a one-click way to clear up most security issues. I clicked, it ran, but the red x remained. Was this Symantec’s way of telling me my subscription had run out?
There was still a week left in my security software subscription, but I went ahead and upgraded anyway. It didn’t help. Norton Internet Security couldn’t download new signatures or fix itself. I also tried to run Windows Update, but my system told me the service was disabled and I might need to restart my system. However, when I checked the status of the Windows Update Services in the Services Control panel, it was still enabled. An hour and a half on the phone with a very helpful Symantec technician only led me to the realization that my problem could be worse than I thought.
Remember the power outage I mentioned? During that conversation with the Symantec support tech, it became clear that the power outage may have in some way damaged my computer and could be the source of all its issues. My HP PC and peripherals were all plugged into a surge suppressor. I know that’s little protection against a real power surge, but, hey, we’d never had one before. In any case, the Symantec technician suggested trying to restore the PC to a previous state and said that it might even be necessary to reinstall Windows.
The good news was that my PC was probably 85% backed up. As I continued to work on repairing the system, I also backed up my remaining data to a half-terabyte Iomega NAS I have in the basement. With that completed, I decided to try a system restore. Opening the Windows Utility, I found half-a-dozen fairly recent options, with two-thirds of the restore points from before the power surge. I knew I would have to reinstall my Norton Internet Security 2011 Update, but if this fixed my PC, it was worth the trouble.
I still couldn’t update Norton Internet Security or open any sign-in-based Web page in any browser without first accepting a “security risk”. I started to face the painful fact that I would likely have to rebuild this PC, too. The only good news was that starting over with a PC is one of the best ways to return it to its more youthful, peppy, new-car-smell-like state.
I found my Windows 7 Ultimate 64 disc, ran the installation…and then things got worse.
Windows couldn’t authenticate. It would try, fail and tell me I wasn’t running a genuine version of Windows. Windows Update still didn’t work, and Web browsing to any page where I had to sign in was still virtually impossible. I could, however, search on Google. I typed in the description of my problem and the security alert (“There is a problem with this website’s security certificate”) I saw every time I tried to access email, Facebook, etc; The results were alarming. Some blamed malware, but many others pointed to BIOS issues. I even found a few that mentioned a power surge. Some of the crowd-sourced support sites recommended flash-updating the BIOS, others, a CMOS battery replacement.
Your CMOS actually never truly shuts down—it runs on a battery and maintains the correct time, date and other information necessary to boot the system. Your main viewport and control panel for the information on the CMOS is the system BIOS. According to the posters, a surge or power outage like the one I had could scramble or even destroy the CMOS and BIOS. If Windows and the PC’s system clock were out of sync, it could result in a variety of issues, including browser-related ones, and even the inability to use Windows Update.
I rebooted my system, but held down F10 so I could access the BIOS. The day and time looked fine. I booted into Windows again and checked the date, it looked fine. I began to despair that I would have to replace the CMOS, battery or, if the surge had done more damage, my entire motherboard (which likely meant, for me at least, buying a new PC).
I booted into the BIOS at least two more times until I finally caught the error. Yes, the day and time were correct, but not the year. I’d assumed that out-of-sync “clock”, really meant “time” and not the entire date. My system thought it was 2013! There was a three year discrepancy between the subsystem and Windows. I changed the date in the BIOS, rebooted and found I had solved my PC problem. Web browsing worked without an issue. Windows Authentication worked. So did Windows Update and Norton Internet Security.
What did I learn from my two Tech Nightmares?
Block it first: When I read Neil Rubenking’s security software reviews, I often note how most of the applications do much better at blocking malware than they do at cleaning infected systems. I think I’m a living proof; if you don’t block the bad stuff, good luck prying its talons from the guts of your PC.
Windows is terrible at self-diagnostics:. Even when it reported why Windows Update wasn’t working, it was wrong. The software simply has no solid way of telling you exactly what’s wrong with it. I wonder if part of this is because the OS and BIOS are still separate. If Windows could somehow automate BIOS and OS synchronization or at least error check on its own, situations like this wouldn’t last very long.
Rebuilding your PC isn’t always the answer: If you’ve read this far, you probably realized that wiping my system and reinstalling Windows was, in the case of my home PC, an unnecessary step. Don’t get me wrong, Windows is still an OS that could use a good scrubbing every once in a while, but I probably wasted two or three days preparing for the scrub and then completing it.
Surge protectors are useless things: I’ve been relying on a $20 surge protector to shield the delicate components of my PC from unexpected power outages and surges and it couldn’t handle the real thing. Consumers think Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPSes) are heavy, ugly things—and many are—but they handle power inconsistencies like nobody’s business. I’ll be looking for a good one.
Image Credit: Metro Centric
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