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Beware of a new Android threat targeting your photos and texts without even opening them

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Beware of a new Android threat targeting your photos and texts without even opening them

Another day, another malware threat is trying to get your data. 

Well, brace yourself, because there’s a virus that’s been around for a while that’s out there that’s gotten even worse.

It’s called XLoader, and it’s after your photos and texts on your Android device. Yes, you heard that right. 

Your precious memories and messages are in danger of being snatched by this malicious software.

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Android phone. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

What is malware?

Malware is technically any software that’s designed to disrupt the system of its intended target. With malware, the person or entity behind the attack can gain access to your data, leak sensitive information, block you out and take control of other aspects of your privacy and security.

MORE: TIPS TO FOLLOW FROM ONE INCREDIBLY COSTLY CONVERSATION WITH CYBERCROOKS

What is the XLoader malware strain?

According to McAfee, the XLoader malware — also known as MoqHao — has been around since 2015, targeting Android users in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Once it’s on your device (which it’s gotten much better at doing), it’s able to run in the background, taking your sensitive data, whether it be photos, text messages, contact lists, hardware details and more.

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Hacker typing on a laptop. (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson )

MORE: BEWARE OF NEW ANDROID MALWARE HIDING IN POPULAR APPS

How does XLoader get onto your device?

One of the reasons XLoader is such a major threat is because, unlike its previous strains and other malware, it can get on your device that much easier than before. Generally, malware gets onto your device via a phishing scam. However, because people are more skeptical about opening or clicking on suspicious files or links — and because there are integrated apps that help warn you of these files — it’s more difficult for these traditional phishing scams to be effective, but XLoader has gotten clever.

First, you receive a text from an unknown sender

Like ordinary malware, XLoader often spreads through malicious links sent via text messages. This is a unique type of phishing scam known as “smishing.” However, scammers are aware that most people don’t click on texts from people they don’t know. So, another way they attempt to be successful at this is by first gaining access to a phone number that has your number in their contacts, and they target you that way. You won’t think twice when you receive a text from someone you know. Once it gets past this step, XLoader can get onto your Android device in two ways:

1: You click on the link which leads to downloading the APK file

Next, the unsuspecting victim would see a link in the text message. The link may look less suspicious than typical malware links because they are typically shortened and look less spammy and more legitimate, like a link that someone you know would send you.

A RANSOMWARE REALITY CHECK AS US IS A TOP TARGET OF ATTACKS

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If you end up clicking on this link, it will direct you to download an Android APK file (standard file format for Android), which are files that are used to sideload apps outside the official Google Play Store. This method, therefore, bypasses Google’s security measures and increases the risk of malware infections. It can happen in a matter of seconds, and if you click “install,” then the XLoader malware will be on your phone before you know it.

Once the malicious APK is downloaded and installed, XLoader can launch on its own without any further action from the user, silently running in the background and performing its malicious activities.

2: You launch the app yourself, but fall for a Google Chrome decoy

If you decide you want to launch the app directly on your own, XLoader is already there waiting for you by impersonating Google Chrome. When you click “launch,” the XLoader malware displays a very familiar-looking Chrome pop-up that will first ask you to grant it permissions by clicking “allow” or “deny.” If you click “Allow” (thinking it’ll lead you to the “app”), you’ll be unknowingly giving it access to your SMS.

Afterward, it will even display a pop-up that says, “Choose Chrome to prevent spam,” giving you two options — your default SMS app or Chrome. Because these decoy pop-ups replicate Google’s style completely, it gives the user a false sense of security that it can be trusted.

Once it’s there, it can grab your photos, texts and other sensitive data on your Android, most of the time, without you even realizing it.

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Google Chrome decoy. (McAfee)

6 ways to protect your Android from XLoader and other malware

Now that you know what XLoader is and how it gets onto your Android device, be sure not to click on any links in text messages that are unusual. If the text came from someone in your contacts, reach out to them directly (via phone call or messaging on another app) and confirm that they meant to send you it before clicking on it. Here are some other ways to protect yourself from XLoader and other malware attempts.

1. Avoid sideloading apps and shortened URLs: Refrain from sideloading apps (installing apps from unofficial sources) and clicking on shortened URLs in messages, as these are common vectors for malware distribution.

2. Be careful granting permissions: Exercise caution when granting permissions to apps. The question is whether an app truly needs access to certain device functions or data.

3. Limit the apps you have on your phone: Sometimes, having a lot of apps on your phone can make it easy for you to be exposed to malware. These apps can let in malicious code over time, and the more apps you have to keep track of and update, the more likely your Android will be vulnerable.

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4. Only download reputable apps: Additionally, when you download apps, make sure they are from reliable and legitimate developers. Check reviews and do some research before just hitting “install.”

5. Don’t neglect software updates: Your phone has a way of keeping itself safe with software and security updates. Don’t forget to do them.

6. Have good antivirus software on all your devices: The best way to protect yourself from malware like this Xloader virus is to install antivirus protection on all your devices. Having antivirus software on your devices will make sure you are stopped from clicking on any potential malicious links that may install malware on your devices, allowing hackers to gain access to your personal information. Get my picks for the best 2024 antivirus protection winners for your Windows, Mac, Android & iOS devices.

Kurt’s key takeaways

Malware is, unfortunately, inevitable. As we become more educated about how to prevent these threats, the hackers creating them are always working on ways to outsmart us, while the malware itself becomes more sophisticated. This new strain of XLoader is just one example of that. And, while it’s currently focused on targeting Android users, it’ll likely be just a matter of time before it begins targeting Macs and other devices.

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The best way to protect yourself, therefore, is to stay up-to-date with the latest cybersecurity trends and ensure your devices have good antivirus protection. Additionally, continue best practices for protecting yourself from suspicious links and downloads.

How stressed are you these days with malware like XLoader or other types of viruses trying to steal your data?  Should more be done to stop these crooks? Let us know by writing us at Cyberguy.com/Contact

For more of my tech tips and security alerts, subscribe to my free CyberGuy Report Newsletter by heading to Cyberguy.com/Newsletter

Ask Kurt a question or let us know what stories you’d like us to cover.

Answers to the most asked CyberGuy questions:

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The future of AI gadgets is just phones

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The future of AI gadgets is just phones

At any given time, there are between five and eight phones on my desk. And by “my desk,” I mean any combination of tables and countertops throughout my house. So when I watched the Humane AI Pin reviews start pouring in last week, I did what any logical person would do: grab the closest phone and try to turn it into my own AI wearable.

Humane would like you to believe that its AI Pin represents consumer tech at its most cutting edge. The reviews and the guts of the pin say otherwise: it uses a Snapdragon processor from four years ago and seems to run a custom version of Android 12.

“It’s a midrange Android phone!” I declared at our next team meeting, waving around a midrange Android phone for effect. “You could just download Gemini and stick this to your shirt!” Simple. Trivial. Give me 10 minutes, and I’ll have a more powerful AI gadget whipped up, I said.

Hardware is hard, y’all.

Ideally, I wanted an outward-facing camera and a decent voice assistant I could use hands-free. An iPhone in a shirt pocket was an intriguing solution but a nonstarter because a) none of my shirts have pockets, and b) Siri is just not that smart. Thus, my earliest prototype was a Motorola Razr Plus clamped to the neckline of my shirt. This, unsurprisingly, did not work but for reasons I did not anticipate. 

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First off, you can’t download Gemini from the Play Store on a folding phone. That was news to me. But even once I’d sideloaded it and set it as the default assistant, I ran into another barrier: it’s really hard to use a voice assistant from the cover screen of a flip phone. The Razr wants you to flip the phone open before you can do anything aside from get its attention with “Hey Google.” 

The things we do for content.
Photo by Allison Johnson / The Verge

Running Gemini in Chrome on the cover screen actually got me closer to what I was looking for. But trying to tap buttons on the screen to trigger the assistant wasn’t working very well, and neither was operating Google Lens out of the corner of my eye. Also, Gemini misread “recycle” on a tube of toothpaste as “becicle,” which it confidently told me was an old-timey word for eyeglasses. It is not!

Prototype two was the same Razr flip phone running ChatGPT in conversation mode on the cover screen. This meant the app was constantly running and always listening, so it wasn’t practical. But I gave it a shot anyway, and it was a strange experience talking to an AI chatbot that I couldn’t see. 

I want an AI that can do things for me, not just brainstorm stir-fry ingredients

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ChatGPT is a decent conversationalist, but we ran out of things to talk about pretty quickly once I’d exhausted my chatbot go-to’s: dinner recipes and plant care tips. I want an AI that can do things for me, not just brainstorm stir-fry ingredients.

I ditched the foldable concept and picked up a Pixel 8 and a Pixel Watch 2 instead. I set up Gemini as the default assistant on the phone and figured that would somehow apply to the watch, too. Wrong. I had one more card to play, though: a good old pair of wireless earbuds. Life on the cutting edge of technology, baby.

Honestly, earbuds might be the AI wearable of the future.
Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

You know what, though? It kind of worked. I had to leave Gemini open and running on my phone since Google doesn’t fully support Gemini Assistant on headphones. But I took a picture of a Blue Apron recipe I was making for dinner, told Gemini to remember it, and left my phone on the counter. As I moved around the kitchen, I asked Gemini questions I’d normally have to peek back at the recipe to answer like “How long do I roast the vegetables for?” and “How do I prep the fish?” It gave me the right answers every time.

What was more impressive is that I could ask it tangential questions. It helped me use pantry ingredients to recreate a seasoning mix I didn’t have on hand. I asked why the recipe might have me divide the sauce into two portions, and it gave me a plausible answer. And it did something the Humane pin can’t do yet: set a timer.

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It wasn’t perfect. First, I had to unplug the Google Home puck sitting on the counter because it kept trying to butt in. Gemini also told me that it couldn’t play an album on Spotify, something that that Google Home speaker has been doing for the better part of a decade. The watch came in handy for that, at least.

What started as a goofy stunt has convinced me of two things: I really do think we’re going to use AI to get more things done in the future, and also, the future of AI gadgets is just phones. It’s phones! 

I love a gadget, but guys, I lived through the era of camera companies trying to convince us that we all needed to carry a compact camera and our phones everywhere. Phones won. Phones already come with powerful processors, decent heat dissipation, and sophisticated wireless connectivity. An AI gadget that operates independently from your phone has to figure all of that out.

And you know what looks a lot less doofy than a pin with a laser on your chest? Earbuds. People willingly wear them throughout the day right now. And the doofy factor definitely matters when it comes to wearables. I’m having a hard time seeing how a separate gadget can beat the humble phone plus a pair of earbuds or something like the Meta Ray Bans. Maybe there’s room in our lives and our pockets for dedicated AI hardware — the gadget lover in me is all for it. But I think it’s more likely that we have all of the ingredients we need to make good AI hardware right in front of us.

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Why is Windows 11 so got dang annoying?

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Why is Windows 11 so got dang annoying?

A couple of weeks ago, I ran out of screen on the one external monitor my work-issued MacBook Air can run. So I switched to my five-year-old Windows desktop and plugged in another monitor. Love it. Productivity through the roof. But it means that I’m finally spending significant time in Windows 11, and gosh, is it janky.

There are some things that Windows does very well compared to macOS and Linux. All the games are there, for one thing, and Windows runs on all sorts of hardware without a lot of fiddling. You do not have to spend a thousand dollars minimum on a non-upgradable machine to use it. You also generally do not have to download a bunch of drivers or spend six hours in the command line hand-assembling the goddamn operating system.

But for every headline like “Notepad in Windows 11 is finally getting a spellcheck feature,” there’s a “Microsoft is stuffing pop-up ads into Google Chrome on Windows again.” For every Windows Subsystem for Linux, which rules, there’s a ”Microsoft starts testing ads in the Windows 11 Start menu.” Microsoft seems dead set on stuffing Windows 11 full of “features” that steal your attention or try to convince or trick you into using some Microsoft product instead of the thing you were going to use. I am 30 or 40 years old, and I do not need this.

I grew up on Windows 3.1, NT, and 95. I got through college on a Dell desktop. I worked for MaximumPC magazine for five years, for god’s sake. I have built scores of PCs. I am typing this on my main personal computer, a mini-ITX gaming rig I lovingly hand-assembled in 2019. I stay using Windows.

But for the past few years, I had been spending 40-plus hours a week using the relatively sedate macOS for work and my off-work hours spending as little time as possible at a computer. So, even though I upgraded my desktop to Windows 11 about a year ago, I hadn’t spent that much time with it. When I did use my PC, it was mostly for household admin or (rarely) playing a game and, therefore, not interacting much with the OS itself. I am a frog who’s been out of the pot; I just jumped back in and got scalded.

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I am a frog who’s been out of the pot; I just jumped back in and got scalded

At some point, a button appeared next to my Start menu. Clicking it or even hovering over it covers a full third of my monitor with stuff I never asked for and am not interested in. A firehose of news glurge. Stock prices. The weather. (That one is useful, but I can get that plenty of places.) There is also now a button in the system tray for Copilot, my everyday AI companion, which is present now across Microsoft products in inverse proportion to its utility.

Absolutely love to have this pop up every time I mouse near the Start button.

The Start menu has been mostly garbage since Windows 8, but it’s now almost entirely useless in its default state. Half of it is pinned apps that I did not pin or even install. And I don’t blame the OEM. I am the OEM, and I did not put these here.

Somewhere in the last few versions, Windows seems to have forgotten how to index the files on my computer. So if I try to pull up a program, a file, or a setting in the usual fashion — by hitting Windows and starting to type — it mostly shows me results from the web, which are useless because it’s using Bing to find them.

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Microsoft has done something truly remarkable with support documents, too. That info used to be baked into the OS. Now if you are in the display settings window (for example) and you go to the support section and click “Setting up multiple monitors,” it opens up Microsoft Edge — even if it’s not your default browser — bings the phrase “how to add multiple monitors to your windows 11 pc site:microsoft.com,” and displays a page with a single result: an info box excerpting the relevant support page on Microsoft’s website, plus a link to open the exact Settings screen you just arrived from.

This is a) bonkers and b) still a significant improvement over the last time I tried this when a similar link returned zero results. This is Microsoft’s corporate synergy at work. Why keep all those Windows users to yourself when, with a single click, you can make sure the Bing and Edge teams eat, too?

Edge used to be a slightly improved version of Chrome. Now it’s jammed full of sidebars and bloatware. (It is arguably still an improved version of Chrome.) It keeps asking to change my default search engine back to Bing (I shan’t), and its default homescreen is, yep, full of garbage. 

Just another beautiful day in opt-out synergy land.

Why would one of the world’s biggest tech companies put out an operating system that’s so… janky? Well, part of it is surely the 30-plus years of building each new version of the operating system on top of the old one. That doesn’t really explain why stuff that used to work fine seems to be replaced with new systems that don’t, but something else might.

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Windows is tremendously successful. It makes money. It has over 70 percent of the desktop market worldwide. Edge, which is still a pretty decent browser, and Bing, which is a search engine, have much smaller slices of their respective markets. Every Windows user Microsoft can pester, harangue, or trick into switching to Edge or Bing or Copilot over the competition is great for Microsoft, so it makes some kind of spreadsheet sense to jam in as many opportunities for synergy as possible.

It’s not just Windows, obviously. Every damn app wants to steal your attention a million times a day. And many budget phones and Windows computers come bloated with preinstalled adware and bloatware that companies pay OEMs to jam in there. Ritually banishing bloatware is a time-honored tradition among Windows users.

But used to be, that junk was separate from the OS itself. Samsung’s version of Android has plenty of bloat, but that’s Samsung’s version, not Android itself — there’s a reason the phrase “a clean version of Android” is stock among many phone reviewers and why Pixel phones get praised by reviewers at a much higher rate than they get bought by customers.

Ars Technica already wrote a good, practical guide to turning off most of the crap that Windows 11 includes. And this is not my first rodeo. I can turn off most of this junk. Most people will never bother or won’t know how or won’t realize that it’s optional. They’ll just learn to tune it out, mostly. Once in a while, they might click something, and then some part of Microsoft gets some money.

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The secret meaning of your iPhone clock’s 4 different colors

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The secret meaning of your iPhone clock’s 4 different colors

While casually scrolling on your iPhone, you may have noticed different colors behind the clock in the top left corner. These colors are not random, and you should know what they mean. 

You might see a blue, green, red or purple color as a bubble behind your clock at the top left corner status bar if you own an iPhone X or later, or across the entire status bar if you have an iPhone 8 or earlier. 

Knowing what these different colors mean can improve how you use your phone and enhance your privacy and security. Learn more about what these different colors behind the clock mean for iPhones (X or later) below.

CLICK TO GET KURT’S FREE CYBERGUY NEWSLETTER WITH SECURITY ALERTS, QUICK VIDEO TIPS, TECH REVIEWS AND EASY HOW-TO’S TO MAKE YOU SMARTER

Four colors of bubbles in upper left corner of an iPhone screen  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

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What does it mean if you see the blue bubble on the top-left of your iPhone?

iPhone clock color 2

A blue bubble in the top-left corner of an iPhone  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

When a blue bubble appears in the top-left corner of your screen — right behind your time or clock — this means an app is actively using your iPhone’s location or you are using Screen Mirroring.

CHANGE THIS APPLE MUSIC SETTING ASAP TO PROTECT YOUR PRIVACY

What does it mean if you see the green bubble on the top-left of your iPhone?

iPhone clock color 3

The green bubble in the top-left corner of an iPhone  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

When a green bubble appears in the top-left corner of your screen — right behind your time or clock — this means you’re on a call or your iPhone is being used as a personal hot spot. If you’re not using it and you see the green bubble, another device may be connected to your hot spot and potentially using your data without your knowledge.

How to prevent unauthorized use

To prevent unauthorized access to your personal hot spot, ensure you have a strong password set up.

  • Go to Settings
  • Click Personal hot spot 
  • Tap on Wi-Fi Password to create a secure password. It’s also a good practice to regularly check and change this password.

Identifying who is using your hot spot

You can see how many devices are connected to your hot spot by opening the Control Center. For iPhones with Face ID, swipe down from the top-right corner; for iPhones with a home button, swipe up from the bottom. Press and hold the wireless section to see the number of connected devices.

Kicking off unauthorized users who are using your hot spot 

If you find an unknown device connected to your hot spot, you can disconnect it by changing the hot spot password or turning off the personal hot spot feature.

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  • Go to Settings
  • Click Personal hot spot
  • Toggle off Allow Others to Join.
  • Then, turn it back on and share the new password only with trusted devices. Also, consider using a password manager to generate and store complex passwords.

Remember, monitoring your hot spot connections regularly is important to ensure no unauthorized usage, which can lead to data loss and potential security risks.

MORE: AVOID PUBLIC WIFI BY USING YOUR IPHONE AS A HOT SPOT

What does it mean if you see the red bubble on the top-left of your iPhone?

iPhone clock color 4

A red bubble in the top-left corner of an iPhone  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

When a red bubble appears in the top-left corner of your screen — right behind your time or clock — this means your iPhone’s recording sound or your screen.

MORE: THE NEW IPHONE SECURITY THREAT THAT ALLOWS HACKERS TO SPY ON YOUR PHONE 

What does it mean if you see the purple bubble on the top-left of your iPhone?

iPhone clock color 5

A purple bubble in the top-left corner of an iPhone  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

When a purple bubble appears in the top-left corner of your screen — right behind your time or clock — this means your iPhone is using SharePlay, which can be used to share content such as games across iPhones.

Navigating apps, calls and hot spots with a tap

Now that you know what these different colors mean, you can be more aware if your iPhone is doing something you don’t want it to do. 

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Curious to see exactly what app or iPhone function is being used with these different color bubbles? If you tap on the clock when there is a color behind it, it will take you to the app or the control settings for the function that is being utilized.

For example, if you tap the clock when the bubble is green, and you are on a call, it will return you to the main window where you can see who you are speaking with. 

If your iPhone is being used as a personal hot spot, tapping the green bubble will send you to the personal hot spot section of settings, where you can see who is using it and turn it off if you never intended it to be used as a hot spot in the first place.

iPhone hot spot

An iPhone personal hot spot being used  (Kurt “CyberGuy” Knutsson)

This is where knowing what these color bubbles are comes in handy. On one hand, you can use them to maneuver apps or settings on your iPhone easily. From the security and privacy perspective, you can now be alerted when any apps or other people are utilizing information or functions from your iPhone you don’t want them to.

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Uncover and block unwanted access to your iPhone’s camera and microphone

If you see that your iPhone’s microphone and/or camera are in use even though you don’t have an app opened, it likely means that an app has permission to use those features on your phone even when it isn’t being used or your phone may have been hacked. In our article, “Is your device spying on you?” you will find step-by-step instructions to see which apps have permission to access your microphone or camera and how to turn those features off.

If you’ve gone through your permission settings and your microphone and camera are being accessed without your consent, there is a chance that some malicious spyware may be using your device to spy.  If you’re not sure your phone has been compromised, you can check for these additional signs outlined in our article, “How to tell if your phone has been hacked.”

To avoid this, consider adding good antivirus software to your phone to prevent malware. Also, the best way to protect yourself from clicking malicious links that install malware that may get access to your private information is to have antivirus protection installed on all your devices. This can also alert you of any phishing emails or ransomware scams. Get my picks for the best 2024 antivirus protection winners for your Windows, Mac, Android & iOS devices.

MORE: ‘IN CASE OF EMERGENCY’ IPHONE SHORTCUT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE

Kurt’s key takeaways

The colorful indicators on your iPhone serve as a visual guide to what’s happening behind the scenes. Whether it’s the blue bubble alerting you to location services or screen mirroring, the green bubble indicating an active call or hot spot usage, the red bubble warning of recording in progress or the purple bubble signifying SharePlay activity, each color plays a crucial role in enhancing your awareness and control over your device’s functions.

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By understanding what these colors represent, you can take proactive steps to protect your privacy, manage your connections and optimize your iPhone experience. This subtle yet powerful feature underscores the importance of being informed and vigilant about the digital footprints we leave. So, the next time you notice a colored bubble behind the clock, remember it’s more than just a design choice — it’s a gateway to understanding and managing your iPhone’s diverse capabilities.

How do you think Apple could further improve the color notification feature to assist iPhone users in managing their devices’ functions? Let us know by writing us at Cyberguy.com/Contact

For more of my tech tips and security alerts, subscribe to my free CyberGuy Report Newsletter by heading to Cyberguy.com/Newsletter

Ask Kurt a question or let us know what stories you’d like us to cover

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Answers to the most asked CyberGuy questions:

Copyright 2024 CyberGuy.com.  All rights reserved.

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