Wednesday, 8 January 2014

A potential trap for those trying to submit their self-assessment online

It's getting to the 11th hour for those who need to submit their on-line self-assessment to HMRC. And I've heard from a couple of my clients - both highlighted their concerns with me this week - who've been misled into believing that they're submitting their self-assessment via the official HMRC web site but, in fact, are doing so via a web site named Tax Return Gateway owned and run by a company trading under the name of Who 4 Ltd.

The problem seems to arise because when searching for the HMRC site. Like most I'd do a search (via Google or some other search engine) using criteria such as 'HMRC' or 'self-assessment' or 'tax return'. And if I do that the site that comes out at the top of the results is one named 'Tax Return Gateway' rather than the official HMRC site. And that is as intended because Who 4 Ltd pays Google for the privilege of having their name come up right at the top of the tree in the search results, hence the subtle pink background.

To be clear the service provided by Who 4 Ltd is bona-fide and relevant to folks who need to submit their self-assessment or other HMRC-related submissions. And they have added a disclaimer to their site which states that they're not associated with HMRC. However Who 4 Ltd is there to make money and is keen for its site's visitors to pay somewhere between £150 and £1150 for submitting their self-assessment via its site, hence its design and branding which is too easily mistaken for HMRC in my opinion.

I've not been through the TRG site and therefore haven't actually seen this for myself but apparently when someone using the site runs into difficulty they're directed back to HMRC for telephone assistance. And it's no big surprise that HMRC staff are not willing to assist someone who's stuck submitting their self-assessment via the Tax Return Gateway site. So for both of my clients their attempt to submit their self-assessment via the Tax Return Gateway site was either unsuccessful or not completed and the advice given by HMRC staff was to restart the self-assessment submission using the proper self-assessment form on the HMRC site.

So while this is not fraud its a concern that apparently many are being deceived into thinking they're using the HMRC site when, in fact, they're not. And some may even end up paying to submit their self-assessment via the TRG site when they had no intention of doing so.

Bottom line... if you're going to use the web - even if it is to do something as ordinary as submit your self-assessment - you have to be vigilant... it's a jungle out there ;-)

Sunday, 17 November 2013

A bit about CryptoLocker and how to protect yourself from its effects

Such is the newsworthiness of CryptoLocker that even the mainstream news media has, just recently, been publicising the bleak consequences associated with a victim's pc getting infected with the this virus/ransom-ware. For users of Windows-based computers there is genuine cause for concern. However for most - including those who have up-to-date internet security software - it's unlikely that you'd be unfortunate enough to get infected. However there is still a risk. And, although anti-virus software will clean the infection from your computer, the damage that CryptoLocker inflicts to your documents, images and videos is potentially costly. I say that because it's reversible but only after a victim has handed over a big (~£200) chunk of money to the extortionists behind this piece of malware. So prevention and precaution are, by far, the best options.Here are my top tips for protecting yourself from getting into that situation of having to pay a ransom to criminals to get your data 'unlocked':1. Ensure your antivirus/antimalware software is working properly and is up-to-date. 2. Be very cautious about opening any unsolicited emails, especially those with attachments or links.3. Make sure that any data you value is backed up to CD or DVD or to a drive or device that's not left permanently connected to your computer.Additionally I've used and recommend the use of CryptoPrevent which works by applying changes to your system which make it harder for CryptoLocker to establish itself on your pc. There are free and subscription versions with the subscription version auto-updating itself.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

What is vGrabber and how do I get rid of it?

What is it? vGrabber is best described as a browser hijacker and/or malware (malicious software)

How is it spread? It's typically promoted via browser pop-ups which entice the viewer to install it. It's also known to be piggy-back installed along with other free software.

What happens if it gets installed on my machine? Once installed it will most likely do the following: add the vGrabber Toolbar to your browser, change your browser's homepage and default search engine to Furthermore you’ll notice the appearance of random pop-up adverts and you'll be spontaneously redirected to a whole bunch of rather unsavoury websites featuring misleading content. Some of what you see will be fairly standard, some of it will be adult oriented. There'll also be more invitations to install apps that are likely to contain more malware. So, understandably, vGrabber is not something to ignore or to think of as harmless.

So lets look at how to get rid of vGrabber...

1. Uninstall the vGrabber toolbar and, if there, any of the other items you see in this screenshot using Control Panel -> Add/Remove Programs (Windows XP) or Control Panel -> Uninstall a program (Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8).

2. The vGrabber toolbar can be uninstalled like any other browser add-on or extension. The uninstall process differs slightly depending on which browser you are using. I've provided the steps for the most commonly used browsers as follows...

Internet Explorer

Click the Start menu.
Select Control Panel.
Click Uninstall a program under Programs. (Or click Programs and Features.)
Right-click the relevant toolbar and select Uninstall.


Click the Firefox button (or Tools menu) at the top of the browser window.
Select Add-ons.
Select Extensions.
Click the Disable or Remove button for the relevant toolbar.


Click the Chrome menu  (or wrench icon) at the top of the browser window.
Select Settings.
Select Extensions.
Find the vGrabber and/or search conduit toolbar and click the Remove button .

3. Use a malware removal tool to perform scan of your pc. Malwarebytes antimalware and Hitman Pro are both good for carrying out this task. I've also just tried Junkware Removal Tool which, based on my own testing, also seems to be effective at clearing vGrabber as well as a bunch of other similar junk from an infected pc.

That should do the trick. But let me know if you've followed these steps and haven't been able to get rid of vGrabber. I'll be interested to know in case I need to update these instructions.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Make sure your computer's keeping its cool

Laptop keeping its cool?
To be clear I'm not suggesting your laptop should take a dip to cool off!

I've seen heat and fan noise issues affecting several of my clients now and thought it'd be helpful to share my thoughts and some recommendations on this topic of laptop/desktop cooling problems, the most common causes and what can be done about them.

Excess heat's much more prevalent with laptops because, by their very nature, they've got a lot of components packed tightly into a relatively small enclosure and consequently, heat dissipation is a bigger challenge. However under normal circumstances that heat dissipates effectively enough to maintain a 'healthy' internal ambient temperature. With desktop computers there's typically a lot more space within the outer casing for a larger volume of air to flow around and keep things cool. So heat build-up isn't normally such an issue. That said, desktops do still need to be attended to. So read on. 

There are a couple of factors which will directly impact the normal cooling process; I see and deal with both quite frequently. The first is a physical issue and is the build-up of a layer of household dust and fluff within the computer's cooling/ventilation system. In most computers there's an active cooling system which is driven by a small, thermostatically controlled fan. i.e. the fan only spins up when the internal temperature rises above a pre-determined threshold, prompting a need for more cooling. It's also possible that the fan has a variable speed which increases when further higher heat thresholds are reached/exceeded. You're most likely aware of this fan from both the noise it generates and the plume of warm exhaust air it pushes out across the desk when running at full speed.

The next factor typically arises if you're hosting a lot of software or apps on your computer. By having lots of apps running in the background you're giving the computer's CPU a heavy workload to manage before you even start to browse the web or type that email. Malware is another possible and most unwelcome contributor to your computer's background workload. This heavy workload, in turn, results in the CPU generating more heat which results in a need for more cooling, hence the cooling system is more frequently called upon to keep the temperature down.

So if your computer's internal fan is constantly on and its drone is apparent it's possible that one or more of the above factors is contributing to that situation. The question is: what can be done to address that?
Air vents on the underside of a laptop should,
ideally, be clean and free of dust and fluff as above.

For the dust/fluff build-up aspect, with the computer powered off, just take a look at the inlet/outlet vents around your computer's casing to see if there's any sign of an accumulation of dust hindering air flow. Any that's there can normally be cleared using a clean paint brush. For a desktop computer that's tucked away under a table or desk it's worth making the effort to pull it out to gain access to the back. That's normally where the main cooling fan is located and there's probably a vent or perforated section to the case where the fan draws in or blows out air. Just check that the vents are not blocked or obstructed by dust or anything else. Clean any accumulated dust off with a paint brush. For a more serious build-up of dust it may be appropriate to disassemble the computer to enable a more complete and thorough clean. But caution is needed if going there. If unsure seek help from a trained technician.

For the malware aspect, it makes perfect sense to have good internet security software that's actively scanning for and preventing infections at all times. For those who are happy to go with the subscription-free option I'd say Avast Free is probably the best one currently available. For the subscription based products Kaspersky Internet Security is generally highly regarded for its very good detection rate.

In Windows 8 the Control Panel entry (highlighted
in yellow) to access and remove apps looks like this.
For the software clutter aspect take a good look at what's installed and remove anything that's not needed or essential. Note. If you're unsure about what's a valid candidate for removal best err on the side of caution and leave it be. To see a list of what's installed go to the Control Panel and then,depending on which version of Windows on your computer go to Add/Remove Programs (Windows XP), Programs & Features (Windows Vista & Windows 7) or Programs (Windows 8). As a general guideline anything from Microsoft, your computer's vendor or your internet security app is best left alone. All others are potential candidates for removal. Again, if unsure about doing this seek help.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Some things to consider when contemplating a SSD upgrade

If you’re thinking of getting a Solid State Drive (SSD) for your desktop or laptop computer the chances are you're looking for a performance boost. Either way here are a few things to consider before proceeding. 

A SSD is a type of computer storage device that has no moving parts. In fact an SSD is a bit like the memory card used in a digital camera but bigger and faster. The lack of moving parts and architecture of the SSD allows data to be transferred to and from it at very high rates. Consequently that delivers a big performance boost to most modern desktop or laptop computers which is the main reason they’re so appealing.

Many who’ve been interested in an SSD upgrade since they first appeared on the scene have the perception that it’s prohibitively expensive and, therefore, are unwilling to go there. You may also feel that a 128Gb or 256Gb capacity is insufficient for all programs and files. Whatever your concerns, I’ll do my best to address them.


SSD prices have been dropping steadily for a couple of years now but have stabilised. At the time of writing it's possible to buy a Samsung 840 series 250Gb SSD for under £140 which is a great product at a very reasonable price. For most 250Gb of storage in a laptop or desktop is plenty. However for those who need more space £270 will buy the larger 500Gb SSD from the same range. The smaller 120Gb drive comes in at just under £80. it's also worth considering the alternatives discussed later on in this article.

Performance Expectations

If you’re thinking about upgrading your current desktop or laptop with a SSD here’s what you should expect to see from the first reboot. Startup will be a lot faster. Programs and files will launch or load faster, and your search results will also turn up faster. This short video provides a demonstration of the kind of performance difference I've seen in real world situations. Furthermore in an upgraded laptop it’s likely that, when not connected to the mains, battery life will show an improvement. The reason for this is because the power consumption of an SSD is much lower than that of a mechanical HDD. It's also likely there'll be a reduction in noise levels as a SSD is completely silent.

However, to be clear, having a SSD on your system will not improve all aspects of it's performance. For example the speed at which your pc’s browser renders web pages is more likely to be limited by internet connection speed and, perhaps, graphics performance. Similarly tasks which are dependant upon the speed of the computer’s CPU such as rendering a video will continue to be limited by the speed of the CPU. In short the SSD upgrade will address what is most likely the computer’s biggest bottle-neck. However it won’t miraculously transform the computer into something it isn't.

OS & App Migration

If you’re getting a SSD with a brand new computer you may want to skip this section and move on to the next. This section is for those who are upgrading a computer with a mechanical HDD to a SSD. 

A key part of the migration process is the transfer of your current operating system and all installed applications. For most the path of least resistance involves imaging or cloning the contents of the existing HDD and replicating that image straight over to the SSD. With that in mind it's desirable to be able to have both HDD and SSD connected while running some drive imaging program.

In some cases SSD vendors include a kit with their SSD. But if not they're available to buy separately. The migration kit is likely to contain a CD and a cable or adapter to facilitate the temporary connection of the SSD to the computer via USB for the duration of the cloning process. Once that’s done, the SSD is mounted inside the computer and, in most cases, that’s in place of the existing HDD. However it is perfectly feasible to have a system which makes use of both a SSD and a HDD where there is physical space within the computer to do so.

Laptop users who need the extra storage space may have the option to replace their laptop’s DVD drive with a compatible caddy within which the SSD/HDD is mounted. This allows the user to retain the existing HDD and add the SSD. This approach enables the benefits of SSD performance plus the benefit of the storage capacity of a HDD to host larger volumes of data. In this configuration it’s normally the case that the SSD hosts the operating system and all apps and the HDD contains user data to exploit the benefits of both devices.

For those without the luxury of enough internal space for multiple drives cloud storage may be the best available compromise. Cloud storage delivers a whole bunch of other benefits aside but I’ll save that detail for another article.

It’s worth noting that cloning a system from HDD to SSD can, in some cases, give rise to compatibility issues. I’ve, personally, not encountered any in the migrations I’ve done thus far but have been advised that it is possible. With that in mind the ideal World approach is to install the OS and all apps from scratch which can be a lengthy process, especially if, for whatever reason, the installation media is no longer available. Having installed the OS and all apps I’d most likely use a utility like Windows Easy Transfer or an equivalent to backup and transfer all user data and configuration settings.

Installation & Warranty

If you know how to install a HDD into your desktop PC, installing a SSD is very similar; in fact it’s practically the same. However, there are a few things to note when installing a SSD.

Laptops are all built differently and while most make it easy to gain access to the internal HDD there are some which will be more complex, requiring more time and effort in disassembly/reassembly to install a SSD.

For desktop computers access is normally quite easy. So installation may even, in some

cases, be a tool free experience. However it’s worth checking how an SSD is going to be mounted inside the computer’s drive bay. I say this because a SSD is physically much smaller than the default sized desktop HDD. In this case it’ll probably be best to use what’s known as a mounting kit within which the SSD sits. The outer edges of the kit then sit snugly within normal sized HDD bay.

Also important to remember when installing a SSD is to check and, if necessary, modify the computer’s BIOS configuration so that the SATA setting is at AHCI rather than IDE. It may alternatively be called SATA Mode Selection or SATA Mode. Each system will name it differently but you’ll easily find it with a little exploring around the BIOS. Performing this step ensures that you get maximum performance from your SSD.

If your desktop or laptop is still under warranty and you’re concerned about voiding the warranty it’s worth contacting the vendor to seek advice. They may provide a retro-fit service whereby they’ll replace your computer’s HDD with an SSD while retaining the warranty.

It’s normal to expect a SSD to come with a multi-year warranty. However it’s undesirable to be in a situation where the warranty process is needed. So it’s advisable to choose a SSD that’s got a good reputation. User reviews are a good source of product quality and/or follow-up service provided by the vendor. Additionally for Windows 7 users it’s advisable to follow these tips from Microsoft to ensure you maximise the chances of getting a long lifespan with speedy performance out of your SSD.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

How to overcome the Excel error: There was a problem sending the command to the program.

I was asked to help a client who'd unexpectedly lost the ability to open Excel documents sent to him as email attachments or by directly double-clicking documents he'd previously created. The above error was the response he was seeing when attempting to open Excel docs.

There was no obvious explanation for the issue which had just started to happen recently. Nothing had, apparently, changed in the Windows 7 Starter Edition on his Samsung netbook. The Office version in this case was 2007.

A bit of time invested in searching the web revealed this to be a fairly widespread issue affecting multiple versions of both Word and Excel. Thankfully those searches also turned up a bunch of different possible solutions and workarounds posted in various forums and blogs.

I'm not planning to include all possible solutions in this article because there are lots to choose from. However the following is the one which worked for me and is associated with Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE). To implement it follow these steps:

1. Within Excel click on the big Office button in the top left corner.
2. From the menu that opens click on the Excel Options button.

3. On the Excel Options screen click on Advanced. Then scroll down to the General section and deslect (remove the tick) adjacent to the Ignore other applications that use Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) setting.

At this time I don't really understand why this setting needs changing from it's default in order to regain the ability to open Excel documents. I'm also unsure what impact may arise from implementing this change. However for my client this appears to be an acceptable workaround with apparently no loss of functionality.

I plan to update this article again as and when I manage to discover the proper resolution to this issue, meaning: I can have DDE enabled and open Excel docs without seeing the above error. Or if there's anyone out there who's already gained that understanding and is feeling generous enough to share the detail with me please post a comment.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Add a one-click shutdown tile to your Windows 8 Start screen to make it simpler to shut down

It takes too many actions to shut down a Windows 8 pc/laptop; more than it took in previous editions of Windows and for no good reason that I can see. But on the plus side it's easy to add a one-click tile to the Start screen which takes care of that problem very nicely. The following instructions will take you through the steps to create your own Start screen shutdown tile...

1. Click the Desktop tile or press Windows + D to get to the desktop
2. With the mouse cursor over an empty space on the desktop right-click and select new > shortcut.
3. Type shutdown /p in the location box then click Next, then click Finish
4. Optionally right click on the shortcut and choose the Change Icon button to select a more meaningful icon if that helps make it more relevant.
5. Right-click on the newly created shortcut and choose the Pin To Start option. Job done!