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Best Practices

There's a quite a few articles here on my site that drill into a number of topics including those on staying safe, maintaining privacy, and avoiding fraud of various kinds.

So in this article, I'll circle those topics together in to a punchlist of sorts that you can use to check against your own computing and online habits.

There's a lot to cover so I'll keep this pretty much to an executive overview and include links that'll take you into more details. Or you can Google these various bits of advice for how-to and other details.

So, shall we dance?

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Your Phone

Your smartphone, be it iPhone or an Android model, is utterly intertwined in your life. You must take all due precautions. Here's a list in no particular order of good smartphone habits. The how-to examples I provide are only for iPhone because that's what I have. Sorry about that. If you're curious as to why I have the iPhone then read more here.

▶︎ Lock your phone

 

Shocking as it may be, I've encountered clients with no PIN or password on their phone. Yet most people have their phone tied to sensitive accounts, like email, banking, social media, etc. and have super-personal data like contacts and passwords. If you lose your phone and there's no PIN or password then you could be in a dire world of hurt if a bad actor gets their hands on it. The damage they can cause you is nearly limitless. Put a PIN on your phone. Go ahead and do that now. I'll wait...

▶︎ Fixing app-overload

Most apps are the candy-aisle junk food equivalent of downloaded phone software. Sugary, empty calorie loaded, teeth-rotting apps that can pick your pocket by nickle and diming you in the form of innocuous-looking in-app purchases and subscriptions.

 

Apple and Google made a combined $129b(!) in 2022 just from their respective app stores. $129 Billion. Let that sink in for a moment... If you have a lot of apps on your phone there's a good chance you have paid them a part of that.

Go through all your screens and remove apps you haven't used in a while. You can always download an app again if you decided you need it. If it was a pay-to-download app, re-downloading is free. This is especially true of games which can chew up a lot of space. When considering an app to download, ask yourself if you really need it or not. Are the reviews decent, like 4+ stars? Has it been downloaded only a few hundred or a few thousand times? Not a good sign. Or over a million? That's better.

 

The fewer apps you have on your device, the better.

▶︎ Watch those subscriptions

Closely related to app-overload discussed above, so many phone apps today are subscription-based. It's the best way a software developer can keep the revenue flowing.  Developers need to earn a living, too, so that's okay -- to a point.  Just don't lose track of all the things you're subscribing-to as that can add up pretty fast.

To check on that for iPhone, click "Settings" then make sure you're at the top with word Settings in large type and your name right below. If not, scroll to the top. Tap your name. On the next "Apple ID" screen, tap "Subscriptions" about half way down and you'll see them all, active and inactive. Most are either monthly or yearly. If you do cancel a subscription, you'll still get whatever time was remaining for the current period. All this does is prevent the auto-renew. So scrutinize those subscriptions and delete the ones you don't use.

▶︎ Review permissions

Apps frequently ask for permissions they don't need. One of the most requested is location services. Some apps by their nature are better when location services are allowed, like a mapping app or a what's-near-me app. But most apps don't need to know where you are in order to work. Don't allow it. And never allow "always" to an app unless it's a covid contact tracer or something equally critical.

On iPhone, tap "Settings", then scroll down a bit and tap "Privacy & Security" then on the next screen, tap "Location Services".  Here you will find a list of all apps that have requested location services and you can pick and choose which ones to deny. Most of mine are set to "While Using" or "Never".

▶︎ Disable lock screen notifications

Lock screen notifications is a feature that shows you text messages, calendar alerts, unread email, and other things on the lock screen. Problem is, allowing such things to display on a locked device is a security hazard.

Why is that? Because if your phone is lost or stolen and someone finds it they can see incoming notifications without unlocking your phone! This may help suss out who you are. If the theft was targeted (e.g. stolen from you specifically) then they'll certainly know your mobile number. That means they can cause various password reset codes to be texted to your phone and see them on the lock screen. Not good.

It's okay for the lock screen to show that you have messages to read. But not its contents. Here's how:

On iPhone, tap "Settings", scroll down and tap "Notifications". You'll see a long list of all your apps and how notifications are set for each one. To make text messages more secure, scroll down and tap "Messages" them scroll down to "lock screen appearance". And right under that, you'll see "Show Previews". Tap that and select "When Unlocked".

Now, when you get a text message while your phone is locked, it'll just say that messages are waiting, but without showing the contents.

Me? I don't allow any app to show notification contents on the lock screen. And most apps I don't allow notifications period. They are the new spam. I don't want or need to see most of them.

▶︎ Eliminate unwelcome emergency alerts

This is more of a personal choice depending on your situation. Various types of emergency alerts can cause your phone to loudly screech even while on silent. Presidential alerts, weather alerts, public safety alerts, and AMBER alerts to name a few.

There may be times and places when such alerts could be unwanted: In a court of law (judges really get pissed-off at that), a movie theater or live performance, rocking your child to sleep, and other situations you may think of.

Most phones, including iPhone, allow you to selectively disable the alerts that you don't want to hear.

▶︎ Don't pair your phone to a rental car's infotainment system.

I've rented numerous cars over the years and I'm always amused at the private information that I find in the car's infotainment system from the previous renters of the car.

Most modern cars can communicate with mobile devices using Bluetooth or USB. Upon connection, most phones will ask you to grant various types of access to the car. Be very careful with that lest you inadvertently sync all kinds of personal info to the car.

Best practice is to never plug your phone directly into a rental car's USB port. Bring a 12 Volt "cigarette lighter" adapter that has a USB output on it. This is the only way to guarantee that you are making a charge-only connection with no data transfer possible. You can also buy charge-only USB cables and adapters that do not allow a data connection.

If you want to blast your tunes from your phone while driving a rental then bring a Bluetooth speaker.

▶︎ Be cautious about public USB charging points.

Don't connect your phone to dodgy looking public USB charging points. They can possibly infect your phone (called "juice jacking"). Better to bring your own AC adapter and plug into a proper AC mains outlet or bring a "juice pack" (portable battery). The main exception is the charging kiosks in most airports, especially in the secure area, or on trains and planes. They are generally safer because that's a more controlled environment. Juice jacking isn't common, but it's possible, so no need to chance it when bringing your own charger is so easy.

▶︎ Put your email address on a sticky label on your phone and other devices.

Not everyone is a bad guy. Make a label using one of those small label makers to put your email address on the back of your phone and other devices. If you lose your phone there's a decent chance someone will find it and email you to arrange the reunion.

Case in point: I left an iPad on a bus in Barcelona some years ago, having been pretty tired from just arriving from the US. Boy was I upset! Fortunately I had put my email address on the back of it using a sticky label. Later that day I received an email from a random Spaniard saying they found my iPad and would leave it with the lost and found at the airport where they were heading. I picked it up the next day, safe and sound. That label and of course the good Samaritan saved me several hundred bucks! This is also an excellent reason to put a PIN on your devices (which I had on the iPad).

Your Computer, Tower or Laptop

▶︎ Browser Privacy

Because of Google's rapacious data collecting practices, the Chrome browser has become a big privacy concern these days. Microsoft Edge is reportedly a lot better on the privacy front, from what I read on various tech forums that I hang out on.

But I recommend using a more privacy-focused browser such as Firefox, which has been around for many years, or Brave, a more recent upstart.

Whichever browser you use, I strongly recommend the uBlock Origin add-on. uBO is a privacy enhancer that blocks unnecessary cookies and other trackers and blocks nearly all advertising. It makes browsing far more tolerable than what it would be otherwise.

To install uBO, click the link for your browser:

▶︎ Battery backup

If your computer is a tower model then you should have a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) that keeps the power on even if the mains fail. Costs are between $70 and $150 or so depending on runtime.

Laptops can benefit from a UPS as well but it's not as important since laptops have their own battery built-in.

▶︎ Data backup

If you're like most people, you have documents, pictures, videos, and maybe music stored on your computer. How bad would it be if you lost everything on your computer? That bad? Then you need a data backup solution to protect against that loss.

I recommend a backup solution that uses an external hard drive. They're waaaay faster, hold more data, and don't have subscription fees. I have developed a backup solution using Macrium Reflect, an excellent backup tool.

▶︎ Reboot at least one a week

Rebooting freshens up performance by killing unnecessary processes, freeing up memory, reclaiming "leaked" memory, and allows operating system and software updates to complete their installations. Don't shutdown. Just do a restart. Modern computers reboot in less than one minute.

Also, do leave your computer on at night. The monitor can be set to turn off, but the computer itself should stay on. The reason is that a lot of maintenance things happen at night -- updates, backups, etc. Shutting down a non-busy, non-gaming tower computer at night might save you a few bucks per month but then you'll have to wait while those update install.

▶︎ Passwords

If you have a tower (or a laptop that never goes with you) then it's not super important to have an unlock password. I mean, I do recommend having a password, but it's not as critical.

For a laptop that you take around with you, then definitely yes, you must have a password. And that laptop must be secured using the full disk encryption feature that comes with Windows and Mac. Most modern laptops have this feature already enabled.

Do use a password manager to store your passwords. The browser's built-in password manager works well. You can also use 3rd party password manager that has additional useful features. I'd recommend 1Password.

As for all your online accounts, you need a strong, unique password for each of them. More on passwords here.

▶︎ You don't need a 3rd party anti-virus program like McAfee or Norton.

Modern and supported operating systems today (Windows 10/11 and MacOS) have pretty decent security already included. If your new computer comes preloaded with McAfee, Norton, or other 3rd party product then delete it. If you particularly want a 3rd party product then I recommend Malwarebytes. Nothing else.

▶︎ Uninstall software you don't use

Just like with your phone, obsolete programs can build-up over time on your regular computer. But here you've got to be a bit more careful because there's lots of software that you may not recognize but that is needed for your computer to run properly.

So when looking at all the installed software and choosing what to remove, select only those that you are familiar with and probably installed yourself but no longer need. Maybe you have Turbo Tax installed but you no longer do your own taxes. Or you have a printer driver installed for a device you no longer own. Delete these.

▶︎ Physical clean-out

Your tower computer has a lot of empty space inside and several fans and vents to keep things cool. Problem is, those fans suck in dust like a shop-vac. Dust will clog the cooling fins on the CPU heat sync and dust bunnies collect all over inside. If you are comfortable enough to disconnect all the cables (and remember where they go) then you can take the computer to the garage, remove the side panel (one or two screws, usually) and either blow out the dust with an air compressor air-gun or vacuum out with a shop-vac.

If you're a smoker then this may not work. Compounds in cigarette smoke turns the otherwise easy to remove gray dust into a brown sticky tarry mess that is very difficult to clean. It's stinky and gross. Fortunately these days it's rare to see a smoker's computer.

Do this once a year.

▶︎ Recognize fake virus warnings

You visited a web page them BLAM, you see breathless dire warnings and maybe hear a voice coming from the computer, telling you you're infected. There's usually a phone number to call. Closing the error screen may be impossible. It's a fraud. Never call the number.

 

If you can't close the screen showing the error then you need to force a log off by holding down the Ctrl Alt Delete keys, just like the old days. You'll see an all blue (probably) screen showing a few options such as Lock, Switch user, Sign out, etc. Click "Sign out" and wait a few seconds. You may then see another message offering a "Force Signout" option, if Windows is getting stuck. Click on the "force" option if you see it.

After the sign out is complete you may log back in as usual. Then when you open the browser again, if it asks to restore previously open web pages, click "no".

Other Technology

▶︎ Inkjet maintenance

Inkjet printers can dry-out if not used. And once it's dried-out then priming it again can be difficult and is sometimes impossible. To avoid that, print a small full color photograph every couple of weeks to keep the ink plumbing working. A 3x4 print is good and won't use much ink. You can also use my printer test page.

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