Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bounce Back Emails

I recently learned that people don't actually look at what the bounce back message tells them!  I had no idea that the average user would just see the subject and get frustrated, irritated or give up sending the message.  That black hole they call the Internet has rejected my attempts and I have no other option but to tell that person I can't email them.

Actually, those bounce back emails almost always give you a clue as to why your message was returned.  It is usually just a one line error message that gives the "geek in charge" the information to know why when they get a bounce back question.  Each server out there can send there own messages but there are basic reasons for the bounce back and messages usually mention one of them.  Most people just don't try to look for it because it is buried in a lot of geek speak.

Here are a few common ones and what they mean to you.

Mailbox Not Found, user unknown, invalid user name - these are all messages that mean what they say.  They usually mean you have something wrong in the address or the address you have really is no longer valid.

Content not allowed - this kind of response means the server on the other end is reviewing the content of the emails coming to the server and you didn't make the cut.  Content rejections don't always refer to naughty nightie kinds of content.  Content that can be noticed by blocking software includes things that refer to credit card numbers or social security numbers.  Things that make it think you are trying to get someone to send information via email that shouldn't be sent unsecured.  (You should never, ever include any social security number or credit card numbers in an email).

Once you have been blocked for this reason you have to get someone at that site to "clear" your email address.  No matter how many times you try - you will be rejected.  Sometimes from then on no matter what the content is in future emails.

Your address/domain has been blacklisted - Not a good feeling.  Yes, it means what you think it means.  You are listed as a very bad person to exchange emails with due to something making you look that way.  This is very upsetting to some people and not a simple process to resolve.  There are many different Blacklist services that review email traffic and try to ID the trouble servers and accounts.  They do a really good job so if you end up on this list it is usually because something really is wrong, not because they are.

The last time I dealt with a client who was blacklisted the problem turned out to be a setting at their Internet provider that made them not pass a test with the ONE Blacklist company they were listed with.  That one listing made emails get blocked by several large companies just because they happened to use that list.  Once the ISP found the problem and made a change the name was removed within a couple of hours automatically. It did take a while to figure that one out, though.

Server not available, server busy - Sometimes, you get this message just because the server is having trouble on their end.  If the server gets really busy or needs to be restarted you will get these types of messages.  Those just need time to work themselves out.

Backscatter - It is very important to note there is one other bounce back that can happen which doesn't have anything to do with you.  If you start getting bounce backs that are strange emails you never sent, something else is happening.  You are being hit with backscatter.

Spammers will use all kinds of tricks to get past email servers and get to your inbox.  In order to get around things they set up their spam to make it appear like it came from you.  You never did sent it, it just looks like you did.  That is why you sometimes see your own email address on spam coming in.  They are tricking the servers to let them in.  The Spam Filters figure out  it really is spam once it gets in to the server.  They reject the email and return it to who they think sent it - YOU.

Backscatter if very unsettling when it happens.  Some users hit with it will get hundreds of bounce backs.  Unfortunately, there isn't much that can be done until the servers clear out their messages.  There is no way to know where the spammer sent the information and nothing you can do to block it.  It just eventually stops.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Backup Considerations for Home Offices

Backup is the most expensive easy thing to forget about. It's like insurance. If you don’t have it, you will wish you had it, eventually. If you do have it, you think you rarely use it. When a crisis hits there is enough stress without dealing with the fact that you lost that important data on top of everything else.

There are many options to manage a backup. I recommend using more than one. You shouldn't put all your bytes in one basket.

Carbonite, Mozy, Dell Datasafe, Norton Online Backup and iDrive are a few of the many online backup solutions. For single computers it is a wonderful tool. You get data backed up to their server location secured and off-site automatically. Features and prices vary but there are some basic things I believe you should evaluate when making a decision on a service.

Your backup should be fully encrypted before it gets to their server. This means they can’t even look at it on their servers. All they see is there is a secure encrypted file. You have the encryption key and the ability to log in to see your files.

Can you recover everything up there or just one thing?  You may only have one file that got hosed by some bad program. You don't want to restore everything just to get at one thing.

Understand the amount of data and types of data you can save. If you have 30G of music and the backup plan allows for 25G total and of that 25G only half of it can be music files, the solution is not a good idea for you.

As with anything that seems easy and wonderful...... There are some caveats.

When you install the software it usually tells you it will set up the back up to run for standard settings automatically. Those settings include things in the “normal” places people put things. You should have the ability to go and mark anything that isn’t in that normal list to be included in the automatic backup.

Multiple hard drives may be an issue. If you store data on a C drive and a D drive or a C drive and an external hard drive you may only be able to back up data from the C drive. Know this limitation before you proceed. If you are trying to back up pictures and music from an external drive, it may not happen at all.

Unless you are sure what you have to be backed up and where it is stored, you can’t be sure everything you need is actually being backed up.

A slow computer on a slow connection will get slower running these online backup routines. They may tell you it doesn't create a problem but it does impact the system. You don't notice it very much on a newer, faster machine but you will on an older one. There are some tweaks you can do to help with that on the settings, usually.

As I mentioned originally, I suggest there are multiple backup options in your plans. You don't have to back up every single thing twice but important things should be redundantly backed up. Important documents or financial records, a DJs music collection or a photographers pictures or any other thing you hold dear should be saved in multiple places.

Consider using a flash drive to save those really important things separately from time-to-time. For example, financial records should be saved at the end of a period and then drop them off in a safety deposit box. The tiny flash drives hold plenty of data without taking up lots of space.

Also, consider investing in an external hard drive to use just for backing things up. Your system can be set up to save certain things automatically or you can do it manually. This solution protects your data in the event of a system failure but not if your computer and hard drive meet a miscreant or Mother Nature's Fury while in the same physical location.

Finally, a periodic review of what is being backed up and where is always a good idea. In the digital world we live in today we need to keep copies of everything important just like we did before with paper.

Yes, I said "we" - I am that old. :)

Antivirus Options for Home Office

There are several free version of antivirus software available for download. They are free because they are stripped-down versions of full featured products. Companies offer the free version to get you in the door so you will order an upgrade to the paid version. It allows for the most basics systems to be protected from the thugs that attack systems all over the world.

Some good free ones are offered by AVG, avasti and Avira.  You can do a web search for the name and free to get the links directly to them.

Remember, these are stripped down versions of a full featured security application.  Most will protect you from viruses and a good bit of spyware but they will not protect you from every threat you could run into on the Interwebs.  There are other things out there like phishing sites, rootkits, etc that will not be completely blocked.  You can read the differences between the free version and the paid version on the vendor website to see what is not included.  (There should be an easy to find comparison chart on the site or you probably shouldn't use the software.)  

Also, remember to always check the status of your antivirus software on a regular basis.  You should periodically confirm that scans are running without having to kill a lot of things every time.  Plus, make sure all it’s databases and software are up to date.  You should be able to set all of that to happen automatically.  But, just like everything else in the world, you have to check on it now and then to be sure it is doing ok.

That being said, there is no reason you can’t use one of these and save the money.  At least you are protected from the most dangerous stuff. Free protection that is up-to-date and verified to be scanning is the minimum configuration that should be allowed on any network, even a network with only one computer connected to the Internet. That is still a network.

If you are using your computer to run a small business, it is always better to use a full featured [paid for] security software application to protect your data and system integrity. If you can't afford the paid versions, don't run your system without the free version, at a minimum.