Windows XP/xp support expiring
My computer runs on windows xp. Somebody spooked me by saying that when support expires this week, xp computers will be vulnerable to hackers. I am nervous that credit card information stored on my computer for online shopping will be hacked. My questions:
a. is this a real possibility?
b. I have cleared my browsing history from internet explorer and google chrome. Is there a way to access and clear the inner guts of the computer - you know, the place the FBI looks when they confiscate your computer and you think you've deleted stuff but really you haven't? (Is that real or just a TV plot device?) Please don't use the word "registry" in your answer - I'm not computer savvy enough to deal with that.
thanks for your time,
I would be happy to explain those concepts and answer your queries.
Support direct from Microsoft does in fact expire on Tuesday for WindowsXP. They will no longer be offering Technical Support (answering questions, helping fix problems, etc.) nor will they be updating the Operating System and its’ applications with Security Updates. This does in fact, mean that after that date, any vulnerabilities that hackers/crackers/etc can find with the current state of WindowsXP and its’ programs, can be exploited - and they will not be fixed or patched or updated or ‘the holes sealed up’, ever again, past that day.
While this sounds scary, many of the applications you use may still be updated by their creators. Programs such as image editors, audio and media players, and the like, may still be offered by their respective companies and programmers; but for the most part, many of those will soon move on as well, as the market for XP will be pushed aside slowly. The main applications and services that WindowsXP itself runs: Internet Explorer/ Windows Explorer, Windows Media Player, Windows Movie Maker, even the Windows Backup utility, will all be frozen in their current state however - and over time the chances of those who wish to find vulnerabilities with those core system functions and programs will increase.
This is an unfortunate occurrence in the fast-moving technological industry [things changing quickly and the need for ‘upgrading’]; but Microsoft has given a good run of over a decade of service, upgrades and support [in light of the pace of the industry]. While all of the above vulnerabilities are possible, it does have a simple solution: to upgrade Windows. Again this is unfortunate and I feel sad for my XP system I have on the side, still chugging along, feeling like it is going through being pushed from a too-soon breakup into another person’s arms… [Sorry, I sometimes get emotional where technology is concerned…] But such a solution will in fact solve the problem of WindowsXP no longer being updated. For the average home user, a one-time purchase (as long as no hardware need be upgraded within their desktop system as well), and everything will be up and running and constantly updated once again, without most security worries.
As for the other part of your question:
I have to be completely honest (I always try to be) and say that yes, it is possible, even with ‘cleared files’ and ‘temporary files erased’ and so on, for someone to get to your valuable, private information. Despite deleting, formatting and many other functions, if someone was really determined, they can indeed access your past/deleted information. Yes, those FBI shows are true. I have been in the IT industry for over two decades now and can safely say that the field of Computer Forensic Science has utilities that can ‘scrub’ and ‘mine’ and ‘recover’ lost/deleted/etc data that you felt was gone for good. However, I must stress that these utilities are rarely in the hands of many ‘hackers’ and the steps required are rarely taken by them to infiltrate a home user’s system for their credit card information (which usually has some sort of fund limitation, even if ‘high’). The more worthwhile targets are companies and businesses (as evident by news reports of them being hacked/compromised) which have a much higher limitation on their funds, and more often than not, these are the main targets of any high-level utilities/steps that hackers will take.
For the most part, if someone wanted to access your personal/home system information, they will more likely use Social Engineering, which can take the form of, for example, calling your house and saying they are “from Microsoft” and that “you have a virus on your computer, it was detected by them and you can pay via your Credit Card over the phone to have it cleaned/taken care of”. DO NOT fall for these and similar scams, if you can notice them.
Overall, don’t worry excessively, it is rare that someone will ‘hack away’ at your home modem (which connects you to your Internet Service Provider), then attempt to penetrate your Router (which usually is a commonly-purchased safeguard/protector and acts as a ‘splitter’ for multiple systems to be connected to the modem), and then  try to bypass your Firewall (Windows Firewall or other installed connection protection programs) in order to access your home system and information within. It is possible, but rarely does it happen and even rarer is the ‘payoff’ for any criminal taking the time to take these  steps. This is why banks, businesses and many Help/Support sites and personnel will simply advise to “clear your temporary files” and “clear your internet cache” and so on, as doing this usually will be enough to ‘hide’ that information and make it almost inaccessible to most hacking attempts. Purchasing a Router helps, backing up any important information (family pictures and information, etc) and deleting it helps (Empty the Recycle Bin), and other steps (installing an Anti-Virus protection program) help as well, and in my opinion, should be done by most home users (no matter what version of Windows they are running).
There are a few more things you can contemplate I would like to offer, as you decide whether or not to purchase a new version of Windows:
Your computer won’t be ‘totally vulnerable’ on day one. It will take time for someone to exploit any vulnerabilities that are going to be left open and not ‘patched’ anymore - and if you have a router, and if you use programs that will still be updated (such as Google’s Chrome Web browser which updates automatically, add-ons/plugins/extensions for Firefox that are updates by their creators, Adobe’s Flash utility (which is used to view videos and animations on the web) which is updated by Adobe constantly) and some other steps, you can still use your machine for a time, while you decide whether you want to upgrade or not.
There is another route as well, machine wise, if you want to continue using XP and your system the way it is and keep it relatively secure (as long as you don’t install anything you don’t ‘know’ on it) and that is to disconnect it from ‘the outside world’. Unplug the Network Connection/cable of the system. If you want to stick with XP and don’t want to worry very much at all, you can still use your computer for games, camera/picture usage and editing, movie usage and more – you just won’t be able to use electronic mail and other internet-based services, as it is no longer connected to the internet – but then you also will not have to worry about there not being any updates for your version of Windows.
If you want internet access and related benefits, but still want to use your XP system the way it is without upgrading or changing anything, you can do something similar: unplug the network connection and keep it unplugged and use it for your camera pictures/videos and play the games that are on it for as long as it will keep running – you will just have to access the internet another way, if you want any internet conveniences. Google’s Chromebooks are cheap solutions (about $200 or less if on sale) to access the internet, check your email and other things you might do. You could purchase one of those to access the internet and do your banking, etc (Chromebooks are very secure) and on the side, still enjoy your system, using it for family pictures/video or whatever you may wish to keep it for.
Overall, the decision to purchase/’upgrade’ to Windows7 (you cannot buy the “Upgrade” version to go from WindowsXP to Windows7 unfortunately, you must purchase the ‘full’ version of Windows7 or Windows8.1 now) must be weighed against the price of either a new system, or possibly upgrading your current system to the compatibility of Windows7 (Microsoft has a utility that you can download directly from them and run on your system, to see if it is compatible ‘right now’ with Windows7, so you do not have to purchase any upgrades of parts, possibly. That utility can be found here): http://www.microsoft.com/en-ca/download/details.aspx?id=20
In the end, don’t worry too much about your valuable information, as home users aren’t a target for ‘hacking’ as much as large businesses are – and as long as a few steps are taken, some of them listed above (Router, Firewall, Install a protection program such as an Anti-Virus program or two) – you shouldn’t have to worry about hackers and your information very much these days, as Banks and e-commerce transactions are usually highly encrypted and secured (as the businesses’ insurance companies stipulate, no doubt). To worry even less however, the ‘big’ step would be (unfortunately for The Wallet/Bank Account) to upgrade Windows to a more recent version – but in the end, this decision is up to you and as you can see, can be ‘worked around’ or delayed somewhat as well.
I hope the ideas above at least begin to answer your questions and start you off on a path that you will enjoy, Jonathan. Try to have fun with it (it may be a great excuse for a new computer system!) and take care,