Behind the scenes of a free PC troubleshooting helpsite: Interview with BleepingComputer
BleepingComputer is a well-known go-to site that offers the so often needed basic introduction to anything computer related, tutorials and software reviews. We sat together with Lawrence, the founder and godfather of BleepingComputer, to take a look behind the scenes and his motivation to spend endless hours in helping malware victims.
What made you found BleepingComputer back in 2004?
When I started BleepingComputer there were no computer help sites that explained content in an easy to understand manner. All existing sites had the expectation that you had some general understanding of computers. This made the existing sites difficult and embarrassing to use for those who had little or no computer experience.
I also wanted to create a site for friends and family who wanted learn computer basic on their own without nagging me
Since then both user base and staff have grown. How do you recruit volunteers?
I do not recruit anyone for the site. The site has two groups of people who volunteer to help at BleepingComputer.com. The first group is those who came here looking for help with a problem, loved the experience, and stayed to help others.The second group is those who love computers and are technology enthusiasts and enjoy discussing these subjects with their peers.
From what I’ve seen, you don’t charge the users either. So how are you maintaining all of this? Ad placement?
Yes, everything on the site is 100% free and we do not charge anything for support. The site does generate revenue from advertising and affiliate sales. Advertisements, though, are only shown to unregistered guests.
Bleeping Computer is a go-to-place, a source that people trust. How do you actually pick the software you recommend?
We get requests almost every day to review or recommend a particular program. I first determine if this is something the community would be interested in. If so, I ask for a test license, make sure it does what it states, check to see if it uses scare tactics, and then check its history. If it seems like a quality product, I will put it on the site and let the community weigh in.
Do you get approached by companies, to advertise and recommend their products a lot?
The site receives many requests to work with companies that have a dubious reputation. I flat-out tell them that we cannot work with them, and in some cases suggest ways to fix concerns. I never hear back from most of these companies, but there have been some who made an effort to resolve known issues.
This also goes with our download section. I get requests to bundle adware, installers, toolbars, etc in our hosted downloads. We refuse. Our downloads will always be installer free and we remove any downloads that add them.
What if a user were to post his opinion and you or a moderator feel differently. What happens?
Everyone is entitled to their opinion about our site or any product. In the past we have had unflattering comments posted in our forums about issues people have had with our site, products we are affiliates of, and other unaffiliated products and we never censored or removed them. It is our visitor’s right to post their opinion on anything without fear of it being censored.
So he wouldn’t be banned or the review censored in any way?
No. In fact, there have been a few occasions when a negative product review was posted in the forums and the developer came to discuss the feedback. These developers interacted with the community to learn what the issues were and how to resolve them. They left with greater respect from our members who also had a better feeling about their product.
With that said, we do delete spam.
Did you ever get into trouble for the opinions posted on your forum?
The only time we have ever been sued for negative comments was by a software developer named Enigma Software. They have a product called SpyHunter and didn’t like the opinion posted in response to another visitor’s question. This lawsuit is actually ongoing right now as they filed it this past January.
You find a lot of professional yet easy to grasp malware removal guides on Bleeping Computer. How long does it take to write such a piece?
Writing virus removal guides are a lot of work. Unlike some other virus removal sites, we actually analyze the infection and make sure we can install it and see malicious characteristics. If we can, we devise a free solution to remove it before we create a guide. This can be a long process as sometimes the malware doesn’t install properly and if we can’t get a sample to display symptoms, we do not write about it.
When I write a virus removal guide, I install each sample in a machine devoted to analyzing malware. Once installed, we use various tools to come up with a free removal method that works as it is our mission to not use any tools that require you to pay for them. During this process, I may also need to create a small utility or specialized batch file to assist in the final removal. This process could take anywhere from 1 to 4 hours depending on the infection.
Where do you get the samples? Do you need to actually infect your machine?
Since we are such a large computer support site, many times our visitors will report a new infection and provide a sample. This is typically how we find our Crypto Ransomware samples, but if it is not possible to decrypt the files for free we only write informational guides about them.
Other sources of malware samples are from relationships I have built with various antivirus/antimalware companies, infosec researchers , by downloading and installing adware, and from malware repositories such as VirusTotal or Malwr.
You probably have seen a lot. What was the worst malware infection on a user’s system that you ever encountered?
I would say the most frustrating class of infection that I have dealt with is Crypto Ransomware. There have been many infections that are difficult to remove, mess up the computer, or just display annoying alerts to the user, but there is nothing worse than losing all of your data.
Could you be of any help?
With the help of various security researchers such as Emsisoft’s Fabian Wosar, Malwarebyte’s Nathan Scott, and one of our members BloodDolly, weaknesses have been found that would allow free decryption of files encrypted by certain ransomware.
It becomes really frustrating, though, when we cannot help them as I know how much of a violation it must be to lose all of their data, pictures, and work.
How much time do you and your colleagues actually spend helping others, on average, per day?
I know I spend a ton of time working on the site, but that is to be expected of the owner. What is really amazing is how much time our volunteers spend helping others on the site. Many of our volunteers have over 20,000 posts, with some as high as 130,000! The amazing thing is they do it purely for the enjoyment of helping others as they are not employed by the site.
BleepingComputer is not only a support site, but also a community where like minded people come to enjoy the camaraderie. We have some members who do not even help others, but talk about technology, politics, or play forum games. To many of them it is a place to come and unwind with friends after a long day.
Did you ever get a particularly nice feedback from a user?
Over the years we have gotten a lot of great feedback, but I have to say the support we have received because of this lawsuit has been incredible. We have had so many members, new and old, come to support the defense of this lawsuit that is has really shown me how much good we have done for people over the years.
That is really nice, indeed. By the way, what does the name Bleeping Computer stand for?
I have to give my wife all the credit for the domain name. We were trying to figure out a good name that shows the frustration people have with their computer to the point that they want to curse at them. Thus BleepingComputer was born!
Well then, keep on bleeping and fighting for a malware-free world!
Thanks, will do!
Emsisoft Emergency Kit against a badly infected system