The Problem With Reinstalling an 8 Year Old Windows XP
My computer is old. Maybe not as old as a TSR-80, but in terms of today's technology, it is old and out of date. It is a mid 00's desktop PC, the Dell Dimension 2400. The model was manufactured around 2003, the top of the affordable line when I purchased it. It may not be ancient, but in today's world everything becomes obsolete after a couple of years, sometimes even as fast as a few months after it's launch. Dell discontinued its Dimensions series back in 2007. A few months back my Dell combo DVD/CD disk drive, the one that came with the computer, stopped working. I called the Dell support center, and after an online diagnostic which revealed the device was broken beyond repair, was told by their own salesman that neither he nor Dell would sell me a drive. They no longer made internal drives for the Dimension series and the new drives they made were not compatible. Dell did not want to be responsible if I attempted to install a drive designed for a more advanced computer and it somehow damaged the old one. He suggested I would need to buy a new Dell computer.
But I don't do that. Others have no problem paying a small fortune for the latest technology. They will spend big bucks buying the iPad 2 in June, and then standing on line in December to get the iPad 3. I am the opposite. When I buy something I hold onto it until the day it burns out beyond repair. I have a 34 year old radio in my room, the knobs long since broken off, the built in cassette recorder no longer functioning, only capable of playing mono and only capable of receiving analog signals. But it still works, so why get rid of it? I only use it to listen to the news while I get dressed anyway. I grew up poor. My family had so little money that we were lucky our portable 6 inch screen TV was color. We could not even afford an Atari game system, let alone a VCR. Ever since then my attitude towards money is to spend as little as possible, and to save as much as you can. As long as my computer still functions then I have forestalled the expense of a new one. I just cant see spending that much money on something I will only use for a couple of years. If I was Donald Trump, maybe. But, damn it, I spent about $700 on this computer, so I want the thing to last a good two decades before it goes into the trash. Dell would not sell me an internal drive, so I bought an external drive.
It is not just my computer that is old. So is the operating system, Windows XP. It was the operating system Dell installed in the computer when they sold me it, and at the time state of the art. There have been other Windows since then. Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8. Microsoft has been threatening to end all support for Windows XP, but are still offering updates almost on a daily basis. The updates are mostly security patches and newer versions of the browser. Millions of Americans have refused to give up using XP. Millions of others were not happy with the newer operating systems and ended up reinstalling their XP. At the moment there are too many XP users for Microsoft to completely ignore. But having an old operating system does have it's problem, as does having an old computer Dell has little interest in supporting.
I had not realized how bad the problem was until a couple of weeks ago. My computer also had McAfee installed. It was a limited account only good for a few months of free virus protection, complements of Dell. If I wanted to continue with McAfee after the trial period ended then I would have to pay for a subscription to the service. I had two problems with McAfee. One was it did not remove spyware or adware. The virus scan would find them, but then do nothing about them except suggest I buy a different program. Back then websites had no problem allowing their sponsors from embedding adware distributing programs in their pop up advertisements. One pop up ad installed a mini golf game that popped up every time I first turned on my computer. All attempts to remove it were futile because somewhere hidden in my registry was the other end of the program which reinstalled any other part of the program I deleted. McAfee also failed to prevent a nasty virus from invading my computer and freezing it. Dell's support center talked me through starting the computer in safe mode and running the system restore. The drawback to all virus protection systems is that unless they know a virus exists then there is no way they can add it to their scans. So basically the first few days the virus has been released there is no protection. Someone with an infected computer would need to give McAfee access to their hard drive for them to find and identify the new virus before it could be uploaded to their updated scanner. The final straw was that start up on my Computer took a couple of extra minutes while McAfee scanned my system, not for viruses but to see if I had the latest edition of their software. The scan would end with a pop up advertisement for the latest pro version of McAfee which I did not have. So when the trial period ended I elected not to continue with McAfee.
Going without virus protection was a huge risk. I managed to avoid viruses for almost a year before something happened. It hit my computer and crashed it, using up every bit of my 30+ memory and even erasing my restore directory. But McAfee would have never prevented this. It was not a virus that hit my computer. It was adware with a bug. One of the more annoying adware programs of the early 00s ran a program that would access my windows media player and web browser. Here is how it worked. Throughout the day the screen would suddenly disappear and become filled up with a short video advertisement. Usually the advertisement was a trailer for something on home video. The trailer ended, the media player shut off, and the website for the product being advertised would appear. This even happened when I was not online. The adware had some sort of timer that launched the advertisements on the hour no matter what I was doing. A lot of times I was in the middle of a conversation on a message board and the redirect to the advertisers website erased whatever I was writing in the dialog box and logged me off the message board's site.
I could understand if this was a program from a rogue porn site. Some of the porn sites of the early 00's were so desperate for traffic they would do a lot of stupid stuff that could have gotten them prosecuted, such as false redirect pages. A programmer for the site would do searches on Google for popular celebrities or subjects, then copy down the entire paragraph of the first few links that popped up in the browser. A web page was created consisting of nothing else but hundreds of those paragraphs. This put that web page close to the top of the Google search page, and the unsuspecting would click the link. But the web page also came with a redirect that immediately took you to a porn site. They also did this trick with Google's Image Search. Some of the images you looked up were on a redirect page. A really unscrupulous porn site even had a picture of Barney the Dinosaur, which once clicked redirected to their porn site. The idea was to draw as much traffic as possible, and then hope that among the millions tricked onto the website a small percentage would like what they saw and continue to the subscription page.
And once on an unscrupulous porn website, whether through choice or by accident, your computer was usually infected with extremely malicious adware. One trick these websites had was to prevent the browse from navigating away from the site. A prompt pops up asking if you really wanted to leave the site. Sometimes even selecting "yes" did not work, keeping you stuck on the site until you closed the browser. Hitting the prompt was a mistake which allowed the site to upload it's adware. Sometimes the adware changed your home page to the porn site. Other times it embedded pop up ads into your computer for the site which blocked and replaced the real pop up ads from other websites. Perhaps the worst side effect was the cascade. Unintentional by the porn sites, but inevitable. Like any other website, porn sites sold advertisement space. But the only ones willing to advertise on porn sites were other porn sites desperate for their own traffic. Often that other website would take advantage of the advert and embed in it a redirect to their own website. The browser would handle this by opening up a new window to the other site. That new web site would have it's own advertisers on it's home page, some of those ads which had their own redirect to their websites embedded. This often lead to the unfortunate result of having one browser after another opening to the home page of a porn site, often happening in rapid succession, far faster than you could X each closed.
I am not trying to bash the porn industry for this. Most of the websites in the sex industry did not do this. They wanted clientele that would return again and again and believed that tricking someone onto their site or embedding aggressive adware would drive off prospective subscribers, and in general give the industry a bad name. Only a fraction of the porn sites were responsible. But even a fraction was enough to do a lot of damage. While I admit I have looked up plenty of fetish, glamor and erotic sites over the years, I have only deliberately navigated to a porn site once, and then only to research a story. The other hundred times I found myself on a porn site was through trickery. Here is another example. In the early days of peer to peer trading on sites like Napster and Kazaa, many files were really programs designed to open up your browser to someones porn site. Before there was a Youtube, I used the peer-to-peer services to download music videos that were otherwise not being shown on MTV. Lets say I wanted to see the new Rammstein video. I would put the name of the video in search on a P2P and in no time would find several other computers claiming to have it. Perhaps I should have paid attention to the file size. After downloading the 5 megabyte file I attempted to play it, only to discover the file had adware that caused my browser to open to a porn site. Somewhere a computer or server was filled with hundreds of these identical video files, some labeled Rammstein Amerika, some labeled Beatles Help, some labeled Madonna Material Girl, and many others labeled as popular songs. Some were AVI files, some MP3. All with the file name of a popular song. Eventually these porn sites discovered a way to save a step. A program was devised that would claim the computer had the file you were looking for, no matter what you asked for. If you searched for hsfhfhfhgdhgdhgd you would get several hits from computers claiming they had hsfhfhfhgdhgdhgd.
Getting back to the video pop up advertisements. None of the ones I got were from the porn sites. These were legitimate companies that should have known better. Warner Brothers Home Video, 20th Century Fox Home Video and even The United States Army which popped up their recruitment ads. The first of these ads started when I still had a McAfee scanner, and with it I found the files stored in my program files. Each had a video file less than a megabyte for the ten second ad, a program to play it on my media player, and the program to redirect to their website. Since McAfee was not in the adware removal business there was no way to get rid of them. I could delete each individual file, but the main program ran on start up and was protected. It would immediately re-download any movie file I deleted. I put up with these video pop up ads for almost a year when one of the ads from the U.S. Army picked up a bug. The recruitment ad popped up, followed seconds later by another pop up ad, then another and another and another. The video kept starting over and over again. But worse, about 20 browsers opened for the U.S. Army recruitment website which slowed down my computer to a crawl. I rebooted my computer and after a few minutes the ads resumed. Another reboot and I went directly to the program files to get rid of the individual Army file, and found hundreds of them. The program designed to load these files into my computer, and replace them each time I erased them, was malfunctioning. It kept downloading the same file over and over again. Each with a number which on last check reached 732. And once again the memory was eaten up to the point where the restore points were erased. Eventually so many ads were on the computer that it locked seconds after restart. I had no choice but to do a clean reinstall of Windows XP to get rid of the programs. This resulted in the loss of every movie, picture and music file I had stored and had failed to back up, as well as a years worth of text files and everything in my Outlook Express. A years worth of everything gone.
I do not recall any problems reinstalling Windows XP. There was some trouble connecting to the Internet which was solved by a phone call to my provider Time Warner. The tech there talked me through a few simple steps that allowed my computer to recognize the modem. Once back on the Internet I had a revelation. When I went to any web page it would load up immediately. Over the year my computer had been infected with so much adware and spyware that it gradually slowed down bit by bit until it took about 10 seconds or more for any website to load. It happened so gradually that I never noticed.
After about a few days of high speed bliss my computer began to slow down again. I bought a program that was suppose to delete spyware, but all it did was run a scan scan and then tell me I needed to buy a second program for the removal. The scan program had cost me $30, and would cost another $50 for the removal program. I immediately took the useless spyware program back to the store I bought it at. After the refund I decided I wanted a free program. I did a little searching on the tech message boards and found that many were endorsing a freeware called AdAware. And with good reason. It discovered and removed hundreds of adware and spyware programs and their cookies the first time I ran it. I began using free online virus scans, just as effective as McAfee, but I did not have to pay a cent. I decided I was not going to buy another malware program again. Maybe I did not have any real time protection, but I felt if I continued to do regular scans and stay away from suspect email then I would not need them. I did get plenty of infections, but managed to remove them all for free and before they did any damage.
A couple of years ago a virus, the name which I can not remember, had infected millions of computers. It was something with a timer, and no one seemed to know what it would do the date it was stet to go off. It took steps to prevent any anti virus program from removing it. It prevented computers from updating the files needed to identify the new threat, and therefore McAfee, Norton and all the others were rendered useless for any new threat. My computer was acting funny, but no matter what site scanned it no threats were found. I was convinced I had this virus. Microsoft had a new removal tool, but I could not get it to upload onto my computer. The virus had also disabled the Windows update software. I was given the option of ordering a disc from Windows with the removal tool, but did not like the idea of having to wait for it to show up in the mail. Once again I asked around the tech sites and was advised to download something called Combofix and run it. Combofix does not install itself but rather runs from your desktop, basically sidestepping the regular update process. It found something immediately and asked me permission to shut down the computer so it could remove the Trojan on start up. After cleaning the computer with Combofix I downloaded another program called Malwarebytes and further scanned my computer. It found a few low level threats that Combofix did not deal with.
Until recently my computer was protected by these three programs. But the viruses were beginning to their toll. And possibly some legit programs I had downloaded were causing problems as well. I am pretty sure that some programs were erased. Something got into my computer that made the Combofix program run very slow, so slow it eventually took an entire 24 hours for it to complete, and even then the Combofix could not find anything. Malwarebytes and Adaware were also stumped. A new rootkit remover program from Windows found and deleted something, but Combofix still ran slow.
A few weeks ago I finally met my Waterloo. While working on an article my computer shut down and I was redirected to a page warning me that the FBI had discovered illegally downloaded files on my computer. Per their policy they were locking my computer until I paid a fine, and if I did not pay the fine then further steps would be taken, including sizing my computer as evidence and eventually sending me to jail. This was a virus of course, the Olympics Moneypak Virus, designed to blackmail the gullible and unsuspecting into paying $200 in ransom. The full story on this incident can be found in this article:
The Olympics Moneypak Virus did a lot of damage. A lot of settings were changed. A lot of important programs or components were erased. Many programs were unable to run. And the system restore program was completely wrecked with no way of fixing it. I would now need to do something I had not done since the video pop up melt down of 2004 I would need to reinstall Windows XP. This time I backed up everything, all my media, text an picture files, my Outlook Express, even my SOL files. This time nothing would be lost except for a few free programs that I would need to download and install again.
Well, I thought it would be easy and it wasn't. What worked 8 years ago was not going to work the same way this year with an unsupported operating system and an unsupported computer.
My first attempt to reinstall Windows resulted in a surprise. All my files and programs were still there. The Olympic Moneypak Virus seemed to be gone, or at least was no longer locking my computer after start up. But components were still missing. I was still getting messages telling me the computer could not run certain programs because something was missing. I new I would need to reinstall all the Windows updates from the past 10 years, but had another shock when I attempted to log onto the Windows update page. I was told that my browser was not supported. Since I had reinstalled Windows XP I was now using a ten year old web browsing program. I needed to upload Windows Internet Explorer 7 just to access the update page. I found a site that still supported the old Internet explorer and had a download for the Internet Explorer 7 installation program. But the installation program would not run because I needed Service Pack 3 installed first. And the only site that had Service Pack 3 was Windows. To access their installation page I needed Internet Explorer 7. Attempts to upload other advanced Internet browsers like Google Chrome ran into the same problem, they only ran on computers with Service Pack 3 or higher.
Since I was still getting error messages from components the virus had removed, I decided to do a clean reinstall. It would erase everything, but I was prepared for that. Once the full reinstall was completed I ran into two more problems that had not happened the last time. My computer could not recognize the USB port and the wire leading to the modem. And the images on the screen were exaggerated, blown up to cartoon size. I attempted to change the screen resolution, but discovered it was locked. I knew this had something to do with reinstalling Dell drivers, but could not get the Dell installation disc to work. The dumb thing needed to go online to work, something I could not do because the drivers for the USB were missing. I did not recall having to reinstall the drivers when I reinstalled Windows XP back in 2004. I am guessing the reinstalling back then did not erase the drivers needed to access the USB port. Dell was no help. The drivers installation discs were out of date, and the person on the support line said he was only familiar with the latest installation discs. "How do I get new installation discs?" I asked. "You have to buy a new Dell computer." he said moments before I rudely hung up on him.
It took me a day but I finally figured a way around my conundrum. I am not the only one in the house with a computer. The other person had an Internet account with the phone company, but wanted to save money by linking to my cable modem. So we bought a Linksys system. The Linksys was a box that hooked up to the modem and then put out wi-fi signals. We then added a Linksys wireless network adapter to the other computer. The system was a failure. For some reason the other computer was unable to hook up to the Linksys which kept rejecting the password. When this happened the adapter searched for other wifi to link up to, finding this weak signal that was not protected by a password. Realizing the Linksys was a dud we then bought a NETGEAR system, the same thing as a Linksys, only this time it did not reject the second computer. We could not get a refund on the Linksys, so it went into the closet.
I still had that Linksys adapter and it's installation disk. I remembered how it gave you the option of hooking up to other wi-fi signals. So I installed it and linked up to the NETGEAR. Success. I was now online. The next step was to finally reinstall the Dell drivers. The installation disc is complicated enough. It took a couple of days to figure out how to access and download drivers, and then after the components for the driver was downloaded of the disc you needed to access the Dell website for the installation program. Why didn't Dell include the installation program on the disc? My guess it was an extra step to prevent the discs from being sold on EBay and used by unauthorized PCs.
Reinstalling the drivers resolved the bloated images as well as got me back on the Internet without using the wireless port. But I now faced the Catch 22 problem of how to install both Service Pack 3 and Windows Explorer 7. I finally came up with a solution. The other computer, the one that still had the latest programs and service packs installed. I went on the Microsoft site and downloaded the installation programs to both Service Pack 3 and Explorer 8, along with a suggested installation of a security fix. But instead of running the programs I saved them. I then burned the programs onto a disc, then brought that disc to my computer and downloaded the programs to my desk top. First, install the Service Pack 3, then install Internet Explorer 8. Now I had access to the Windows update page and installed no less than 54 updates, with several other updates Windows found throughout the week. Finally I downloaded Malwarebytes and ran it, discovering that I still had bits of the Olympic Moneypak Virus that needed to be removed. Finally things are back to normal, hopefully. But note to self and anyone else holding on to obsolete hardware and software. If you are going to have a ten year old operating system then you better save the installation programs for the latest service pack and Internet explorer on a separate disc, just in case.
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