All posts by Tracey Dowdy

Free Video Chat Options While Social Distancing

If you’re like me, your family and friends are spread out over several states and even internationally. But, one of the good things that have come out of our shelter in place or self-quarantining orders is that many of us have a little more time on our hands to reach out and catch up. The descriptions of the options below refer to the free version of each of these platforms. The paid versions offer more features. 

Depending on the purpose of your chat, some platforms are better suited than others. Zoom surged in popularity once everyone started teleworking, but has been plagued with security concerns in recent weeks. Don’t worry – there are plenty of other options for you to choose from. 

My office has been using Jitsi for our team meetings but is a solid option for non-work related chats too. Compatible with Android, Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux systems, you can join a meeting through the Jitsi app or directly from your browser without creating an account – the meeting organizer simply sends a link to the “room” you’ll be meeting in. Users can customize the meeting URL and exchange messages and emojis during the video conference through an integrated chat.

Google Hangouts allows you to video chat with up to 25 people, with up to ten of you visible onscreen at once. It’s arguably the most user-friendly. seamlessly integrates with Google Calendar and Gmail, and doesn’t cap the amount of time you can chat where others set a time limit. Zoom, for example, limits you to 40 minutes if there are three or more people on the call. Google Hangouts has an app on iOS and Android but works just as well on your desktop or laptop. It also  

Your family and friends are likely familiar with Facebook’s Messenger app which we primarily used for sending messages. But it also offers a video chat option, making it a solid choice for those who are on the social media platform all the time anyway and may not be comfortable with creating another account or figuring out a different platform. To start a chat, simply go to Messenger, type the names of your Friends you’d like to chat within the “To:” field, then click on the video camera icon in the top right corner. Facebook will call them, all they have to do is answer the call. 

If you’re an Apple device user, FaceTime that wants to chat with other Apple users, FaceTime is the way to go. If you have an iPhone, iPad or Mac, it operates seamlessly, letting you start a video chat with up to 32 of your contacts (remember, iOS users only) just as you would a phone call or text message. If your Wi-Fi or data connection is weak or you have a poor phone signal, you have the option to do an audio-only call. 

Skype, the granddaddy of them all, is available for iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac, offers video and audio calling, and a messaging feature. Its user-friendly interface supports up to 50 people on the same audio call but the number of video callers depends on what device you’re using.  You can also record, save and share your video calls, and even incorporate live captions and subtitles. 

Houseparty is currently the third most downloaded app on the iOS app store in the United States — behind Zoom and TikTok — and comes top in the United Kingdom. Available on Android, iPadOS (for iPad users) and macOS (for Mac users), the app allows “partygoers” to chat, take quizzes, and play games like “Heads Up,” and “Quick Draw.” Once you’ve downloaded the app, you can add your “friends” via your contacts or by pairing with Facebook or Snapchat. Users can invite up to eight friends to join their a “party” and there is the option to “lock” the party so that only invited guests can join.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Fun Indoor Activities for Kids During the COVID-19 Quarantine

By Tracey Dowdy

How upside-down is your world right now? Is that the dumbest question you’ve been asked in a long time? If it’s only the latest in a string of ridiculous questions, you’re probably quarantined with kids. 

Regular quarantine updates with quotes from my niece, “If you were a dog, what kind of dog would you be?” or my friends, “One of my kids is crying because the other one flushed the toilet before they got to ‘see,'”or “SOS! My kids caught me eating their Easter candy I bought early and now they’re asking questions I don’t want to answer,” make me giggle and remind me to find the funny in a very un-funny situation. 

If you’re looking for ways to inject a little happy into your day, these activities can break up the boredom, redirect those Easter candy questions, and help you shift gears faster than the TP is disappearing off shelves. 

  • Take the Meet Your Neighbors Challenge created by Rachel Rock:  At a time when so many are feeling disconnected and a little lost, reaching out – while social distancing – is a great idea. Rock suggests “Write a note to the people who live beside you, in your apartment building, or up the road. Introduce yourself and give them something to write back about by asking about their favorite books, movie, food, or the most beautiful view they have ever seen. If you’re able, let them know how they can help – maybe you pray a lot. Maybe you can go to the grocery store. Maybe you can walk dogs. Maybe you have a hobby you can teach or things you can lend to help pass the time. Deliver those notes and see what happens!”
  • Create an Art Crawl. If your home has a driveway, help your kiddos create chalk art with encouraging messages. No driveway? No problem – use your windows as gallery space and post your children’s art, pictures of your pet, or more of those encouraging messages. Encourage your neighbors to do the same so even though you may not be able to leave the shelter of your home, you can still be encouraged by art. 
  • Have a virtual family dinner. Miles away from friends and family? Use any of the myriad of streaming services – Facebook Messenger, Google Hangouts, Zoom, Jitsi, FaceTime, Skype – to have dinner together. Plop that normally forbidden device in the middle of the dinner table, and catch up with each other’s day. 
  • Host a movie party. Netflix has created an app that enables people to chat via text through a separate window on their computer while streaming content via Netflix Party. Once you’ve downloaded the app, open a video within Netflix, click the NP icon, then click start the party.  You’ll be given a custom URL that you can share that URL with friends and others and then can chat about whatever your group is watching in real-time.
  • Set up an online playdate. Your kids don’t have to play a video game, though of course there’s plenty of options out there. Sites like Pogo have a myriad of games kids can play together, including Monopoly – perhaps not the best choice in these stressful times. You can play old school favorites like Yahtzee Party and Scrabble. Hop over to Tabletopia to play Chess or one of the other 800+ game they offer, or head to PlayingCards for a family-friendly version of Cards Against Humanity, GoFish, Crazy Eights, or CheckersFamily favorite Uno even has its own site. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Secure Your Data with a Password Manager

By Tracey Dowdy

Still using your birthday as your password? Your child’s birthday? Your anniversary? That’s what a friend of mine that works in online security refers to as “One, two, three, four, come on hackers, open the door” kind of protection. 

During this season when so many of us are working from home, secure passwords are more important than ever. If you’ve been online for years, the prospect of securing all those accounts may seem daunting. But, the risk of leaving your personal information vulnerable to hackers far outweighs any potential cost or inconvenience. That’s why you need to start using a Password Manager which serves as an encrypted database of all your passwords. Instead of writing them on post-it notes you’ll lose or saving hem in a note or memo on your phone which could be lost, stolen, or hacked, do yourself a favor and remember one – the one that unlocks the vault – your password manager. 

Here are three of the best options out there. 

LastPass remembers all your passwords across devices for free. It’s particularly useful for online shopping as once you’re logged in, LastPass auto-populates all the necessary fields, and allows you to store more than just passwords to your online accounts – you can store insurance cards, memberships, and Wi-Fi passwords and safely share passwords and notes with sensitive information with anyone via encrypted text. There are paid versions, but the free version offers everything the average user will need. 

Zoho Vault is great if you have to share access within a workgroup. Passwords are encrypted with the strongest encryption standard (AES-256); enables you to provide passwords to users and groups in bulk while instantly denying access to any user who is removed; enables direct connection to websites and apps without having to manually enter login credentials; allows you to grant different access privileges to select individuals; and generates reports to keep track of which users have access to various passwords. There are free and paid versions with a 15-day free trial on paid editions.

Dashlane syncs across all your Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS devices, provides all the essential and advanced password management features of many pricier versions, includes VPN protection, and will even scan the Dark Web for compromised accounts and capture your online shopping receipts. The biggest downside is the cost. Though there is a free version, some of the features users really want are only included in the paid versions, and there is limited support for Internet Explorer users. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Avoid COVID-19 Scams

By Tracey Dowdy

Seasons like the one we’re currently living in bring out the best in some and the worst in others. 

It’s nothing new for scammers to get creative during a national emergency – we’ve seen it happen time and again – and a global pandemic like COVID-19 is no exception. 

A recent release from the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency offers great advice on how to avoid being scammed. 

Phishing. 

Any time an unsolicited email prompting you to click on an attachment hits your inbox it should raise a red flag. CISA recommends disabling automatic downloads for attachments. The problem is that not all email clients offer this, and each is different from another. Scammers know that in times like these, by pulling on your heartstrings or using language that increases your anxiety, you’re more likely to share sensitive or personal information, so they recommended taking the time to read Avoiding Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks. Most importantly, never ever reveal personal or financial information in an email or respond to requests for it via email or text. It’s also smart to ensure any charity or cause you choose to donate to is legitimate. Sites like Charity Navigator, guidestar.org, and give.org can help you vet the charity before handing over and money 

Mobile Malware.

If you’re tracking COVID-19 news and information through an app, be aware that there are malware traps out there. Recently, a malicious Android app called CovidLock that purported to help users chart the spread of the virus instead locked and held many Android phones for ransom by hackers. DomainTools researcher Tarik Saleh states, “This Android ransomware application, previously unseen in the wild, has been titled ‘CovidLock’ because of the malware’s capabilities and its background story. CovidLock uses techniques to deny the victim access to their phone by forcing a change in the password used to unlock the phone. This is also known as a screen-lock attack and has been seen before on Android ransomware.”

Hackers have been using coronavirus-tracking map sites to inject malware into browsers and Market Watch reported that coronavirus-related website name registrations are 50% more likely to be from malicious actors. The best way to avoid this is by setting a password that can help protect you from a lock-out attack. And when it comes to choosing an app, shop the Google Play store so you’re less likely to download a malware-laced app. 

Beware Facebook Charity Groups 

It goes without saying, but there’s volumes of misinformation, fake cures, pseudo-science, and conspiracy theories being shared on social media, doing far more harm than good. Trust what the CDC says, not a theory posted by a guy you knew in high school who heard it from a friend of a friend who knows someone that talked to a guy working behind the scenes who can’t reveal his source.   By clicking the “about” section of a Facebook group, you can see whether that group has changed its name multiple times to reflect new national crises — a sure sign that the group is trawling for an audience rather than promoting reliable news. 

Here’s how to sift through the trash to find the treasure: 

  •  Trust only official sources on Twitter and Facebook including the accounts of trusted news sites and their reporters.  Avoid talking heads or people presenting opinion and theory as opposed to facts. 
  •  Before you click on a website that purports to be an official government site, check the URL to see if it ends in .gov. 

CISA’s has an official tip sheet to help you avoid being scammed during this challenging season.  

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Tips for Working From Home

Did getting to work from home seem like a dream come true but now that you’re a week in, with or without children at home with you, it feels more like a social experiment gone wrong? 

Take heart because you’re not alone. Well, technically you should be alone, but we’re all with you in spirit. Freelancers like myself, consultants, and entrepreneurs have worked from home and learned the do’s and don’t’s that can not only help you make it through the Coronavirus quarantine in the days and weeks ahead, ensuring that you get your work done in a timely manner and your return to the office is as seamless as possible. 

Get up and get dressed. As someone who has worked from home for years, trust me when I say you need to get out of your pajamas if you’re going to be successful long term. It may work for a day or two, but if you’re in pj’s, you are subconsciously telling your brain this is a day off and you’ll have a hard time flipping the switch into work mode. You don’t have to put on a power suit or a pair of heels but at the very least, get up, wash up and change into day wear. 

Set boundaries. One of the biggest temptations will be to get sidetracked by something around the house. There’s laundry to fold, dishes in the sink, or a floor that needs to be vacuumed. Set work hours just as you would have in the office, and try to stick to them. Take a lunch break just as you do at work – pack your lunch in the morning if that helps –  and then get back to work. Maintaining a routine helps you stay on task and makes you more efficient. 

Create an organized workspace. Not everyone has the luxury of a home office, but wherever you choose to set up shop, treat it like your desk at work, even if you’re sitting on the sofa. Get whatever supplies you need – laptop, power cord, phone, pens, paper, your water bottle or coffee cup – and get busy. Every time you have to get up to get something you’ve forgotten, your productivity drops a little and you’re going to be tempted to stop and quickly fold that laundry or hang up those jackets, rinse those dishes, pull the chicken out of the freezer for dinner…

Be social. That may seem counter to what I said under setting boundaries, but if you’re accustomed to working in a communal space, the isolation of working from home may itself be a distraction. Use a time manager like Strict Workflow, an extension that enforces a 25min/5min workflow: 25 minutes of distraction-free work, followed by 5 minutes of break, and use social media as a substitute for a conversation in the breakroom with a coworker.

Take breaks. If you’re working from home with children in the house, particularly young children, you may not have a choice about when those breaks happen. But, being organized and putting their needs first by making sure they’re fed, changed, or working on an activity before you sit down to work means fewer interruptions and distractions. Something as simple as setting a timer can help your children remember to stay on task because a break is coming up soon. Remember, their school days are structured into blocks of time, so re-creating that model at home is helpful.

Rely on siblings. Use this season as a teachable moment. Talk to your older children about being part of your family’s leadership team and ask them to mentor their younger siblings. Of course, there are some things they’ll need a parent’s attention for, but little things like a refill of a water bottle, potty break, or sharpening a pencil can easily be managed by a sibling. Ask them to step up in small yet significant ways like making lunch for the family or starting dinner while you finish up your work.

Be flexible. Your greatest challenge but also your greatest asset in this situation is the ability to be flexible. You have to be flexible at your job, and it’s a given that you have to be flexible and able to roll with interruptions and surprises as a parent. The whole day doesn’t have to be filled with academics. Children can often knock out their school work more quickly in a one on one situation than in a classroom. Work when they sleep. Play in the backyard together over your lunch break, or send them outside for “recess” if you need to make or take an important phone call. 

Finally, set reasonable expectations for yourself and your children, be quick to forgive, and make sure you set aside time to enjoy each other. These are uncertain days that have left everyone anxious. Model the behavior and attitude you want to see in your children, and remember, you will get through this. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

How to Talk to Your Children About COVID-19

By Tracey Dowdy

The World Health Organization has announced that the Coronavirus (COVID-19)  has been diagnosed in 114 countries, killed more than 4,000 people, and is now officially a pandemic. Even though WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged people not to be fearful because of its status as a pandemic, many parents and children have anxiety about their own health as well as the health of loved ones. 

As parents, it’s important to remember that our children look to us and other adult authority figures such as teachers, coaches, and Scout leaders for guidance on how to respond to such news. These guidelines from The National Association of School Psychologists and National Association of School Nurses can help you navigate those difficult conversations, allay unnecessary fears and keep your children safe through preventive measures. 

Children are constant observers, so remember that your children will react to and follow your reactions – both what you say and what you do. Allow them to share their feelings, show compassion, and remind them that you and their teachers, coaches, and other adults at their school are working to keep them safe and healthy. Unless they have compromised immune systems, even though children may still catch the virus, they’re far less likely to experience symptoms

Be careful in your conversations not to lay blame on specific people, groups, or organizations and as always, avoid stereotyping or bullying language. It’s also a good idea to be mindful of watching or listening to the news when your children are around as the frequent reports on the virus may increase their anxiety. Remind your children that not everything they see online is real, and to always consider the source to determine whether what they read or saw is fact or fiction. 

Try to maintain as much normalcy as safe and possible by sticking to your routines and keeping up with schoolwork, even if there are temporary school closures and distance learning. 

Finally, remember how quickly rumors spread around the school when you were a child and how gullible you often were. Having these conversations is important because often what we imagine is far more frightening than reality. Remind them of basic precautions like washing their hands for at least 20 seconds – the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice – or use hand sanitizer if there’s no sink nearby. The virus can live on some surfaces for up to nine days, so remind them to wipe down their tablets and phones or have you do it, and avoid sharing food or drinks with their friends. 

The most important thing for them to hear is that there’s no need to panic, and as always, you’re actively working to keep them safe and healthy.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Phone Sanitizers to Help Avoid COVID-19

By Tracey Dowdy

You already know your phone is nasty dirty. We shouldn’t be surprised – it comes into the bathroom with us getting covered in the spray from “toilet plume,” rests on the seat next to us on the bus, on fast-food counters, on the sidewalk while we tie our shoes, and even our dirty office desks.   

Recent studies have found that the coronavirus, (COVID-19), can survive on some surfaces – including your phone – for up to nine days. We touch our phones frequently with our hands, but we also touch our face with it during a call or listening to media or messages, so naturally, any bacteria, including COVID -19 can be easily transferred to your skin.

But, cheer up Buttercup. You don’t have to fear your handheld bio-hazard, which should be reassuring in our Coronavirus-pandemic filled news cycle. 

Check out this article for phone-cleaning do’s and don’t’s, and if you’re in the market for the simplest way – blasting germs with UV light but don’t want to spend a ton of money, read on. 

There are several products designed to sanitize your phone including PhoneSoap, probably the best known of the lot. The drawback for many is that even its least expensive model, the PhoneSoap 3, sells for $79.95 and won’t ship until April 1.

Lecone UV Cell Phone Sanitizer fits phones up to 6.2 inches and doubles as a charger since ut has a Qi charging pad embedded in its lid. It’s also an essential oil diffuser for no apparent reason related to charging or sanitizing, but if you want your phone to smell lemon-fresh, this is the sanitizer for you. Priced at $39.99, it’s one of the lowest-priced options available. 

HoMedics UV-Clean Phone Sanitizer is $79.99 but you get 10% off if you sign up for emails. It kills up to 99.9% of bacteria and viruses without chemicals, maximizes light coverage for thorough sanitization, fits virtually any smartphone, guarantees up to 70 uses per charge, and comes in three colors. It promises to completely sanitizes your phone in 60 seconds, making it perfect for the germaphobe on the go.  

Phone UV Clean Machine promises to sanitize your phone in six minutes. It’s lightweight, compact, and like the others on this list, uses a USB cable to charge, and can be used to sanitize other small items like makeup brushes, bank cards, glasses, manicure tools, electric toothbrush tops, and jewelry. It’s currently $42.49, but eligible Amazon Prime Members get a $10 bonus if they reload $100 to their Amazon.com Gift Card Balance. 

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

Create and Store Strong Passwords

By Tracey Dowdy

By now we all understand the absolute importance of strong passwords to protect our personal data. Post-it notes get lost, hard copies kept in diaries and planners can be compromised, and smartphone memos and notes are also at risk. 

The trick is to create and remember unique passwords for all your accounts. According to LogMeIn, which makes the LastPass password manager, it’s not uncommon for users to have 85 passwords for all your accounts, from banking to streaming to social media, making it impossible for the average individual to remember them all without help. 

And although password security isn’t an iron-clad guarantee that your data will never be compromised or hacked, it certainly minimizes your risk.  These tips will help you create, manage, and store secure passwords. 

Write them down. That may seem counterintuitive, but if you have a safe, firebox, or file cabinet that can be locked, you can go old-school and write it down. Just be sure you limit the number of people who know you’ve written them down and where you store them.

Use a Password Manager. The best passwords are longer than eight characters, are hard to guess and comprised of a variety of characters, numbers and special symbols. The problem is those same features that make them hard to guess also make them hard to remember especially if you’re smart enough to use unique passwords for each account. Password managers like Dashlane, 1Password, and LastPass create secure, complex passwords and store them in an encrypted database. 

Monitor whether your passwords have been compromised. Mozilla’s Firefox MonitorHave I Been Pwned, and Google’s Password Checkup can show you which – if any – of your email addresses and passwords have been compromised in a data breach. 

Avoid using birthdays, anniversaries, and other common passwords. Passwords like password, 123456, qwerty, or your birthday, anniversary, child, spouse or pet’s name are among the most common and easily guessed. If you’re using one or any of these, stop reading and go change it now!

The bigger the better. Eight characters are generally the suggested length for secure passwords but don’t be afraid to use more. The challenge, of course, becomes trying to remember those long, complicated characters, but that’s why password managers come in handy. 

Don’t repeat your passwords. One of the biggest and most common mistakes we make, even with complex passwords, is repeating them across accounts. Don’t do it. Once they’ve guessed it for one, hackers will attempt to access other accounts leaving your data vulnerable. 

Use two-factor authentication (2FA) Along with a complex, secure password, you should also use two-step verification (2FA) for an additional layer of protection so even if hackers guess your password, there’s an additional layer of protection. When you use 2FA, once the password is entered, you’ll be sent a one-time code – usually via text – so that only you can access the account. Without entering that code, the account remains locked. 

Use an authentication app like Authy, Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator instead of text messaging in 2FA. Once you’re set-up, you can choose to register your device or browser so you don’t need to keep verifying it each time you sign in.

By the way, a survey by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), analyzed passwords belonging to accounts worldwide that had been breached. They also discovered that codes using names, sports teams and swear words are more popular than you might think. 

The top 10 most common passwords were:

  1. 123456
  2. 123456789
  3. qwerty
  4. password
  5. 111111
  6. 12345678
  7. abc123
  8. 1234567
  9. Password1 
  10. 12345

So, if you’re “protecting” yourself with any of those, it’s not a matter of “if” you’ll be hacked but “when.”

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.