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The five most common tech support questions in America answered

Jennifer Jolly, Special to USA TODAY

When our gadgets work, they’re nothing short of miraculous. They keep us informed, connected and entertained and have become so integral to our lives we often break into a cold sweat at the mere thought of going a day without them. 

When our personal electronics don’t work, our reactions can range from panic and frustration to true anger. Eight out of 10 Americans experience some type of tech frustration every single day, according to a study by global technology support company Asurion. It’s even worse now that our devices provide such a critical lifeline with work, school, family and friends during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve seen a giant surge of IT-related questions,” says Gina King, senior tech category moderator at consumer question-and-answer site JustAnswer.com. “As states start to reopen or even reclose, people are getting desperate for simple, affordable, on-demand IT support at home.”

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When the technology we depend on doesn't work the way we expect, the reactions range from panic and frustration to the more extreme.
When the technology we depend on doesn't work the way we expect, the reactions range from panic and frustration to the more extreme.

We asked several consumer tech support services to list the biggest daily hassles  people have with their personal gadgets and gear, then asked them to help us all fix them once and for all. Here’s what they said. 

Forgotten passwords

Forgotten passwords top the list of most-asked consumer tech questions. Keeping track of them is the organizational stuff of nightmares.

“We get around 800 to a thousand questions a week from people who can’t remember their password to get into a gadget,” King says.

The fix: If you lose access to an account at an online shopping site, it’s not a crisis. Hit the reset button, and most sites send you a link to create a new one in seconds. The sites with the best security measures send a code to your phone to make sure it’s really you. This is a hassle. Nothing more.

If you forget your Apple ID or email account you used to set up all other accounts, you can find yourself locked out of your own life.
If you forget your Apple ID or email account you used to set up all other accounts, you can find yourself locked out of your own life.

If you forget your Apple ID or email account you used to set up all other accounts, you can find yourself locked out of your own life. “A lot of times, these are your identifications for other gadgets or services such as your iPad, iCloud, Facebook, Twitter, your cellphone, your online bank and much more,” says JustAnswer top technical expert Richard Cucinotta.

The good news for the Apple ID issue is that Apple's support pages do a great job walking you through the fix. If you follow the steps and still can’t get into your own account, click the link at the bottom of the page to contact Apple Support directly. Yes, it’s a pain and it takes time, but it really does work. Pro tip: the chat features usually offer the fastest fix.

The big fix: Don't use commonly hacked passwords, such as “password” or “123456.” 

“Create unique passwords that use a combination of words, numbers, symbols and both upper- and lowercase letters,” security expert Brian Krebs advises on his cybersecurity website. “Don’t choose passwords based upon details that may not be as confidential as you’d expect, such as your birth date, your Social Security or phone number or names of family members or pets.” These are so easy to crack that hackers won’t even break a sweat to get in.

Use a password manager. “A password manager should be your secret weapon, especially if you’re kind of lazy about passwords,” Adam Levin, cybersecurity expert and founder of CyberScout, said in an interview with Yahoo. Top-rated password managers include 1Password, LastPass, Dashlane and KeePassXC. 

“I definitely recommend people use a password manager,” Cucinotta says. “Allow it to generate passwords for you.” The passwords generated by code will be much more complex and harder to break than anything you could think up or remember. “Then write down the master password and store it somewhere safe and secure at home.”

Zoom microphone problems

This time last year, most people had never even heard of the video call service. Now, everyone from your third grader to your boss to your book club wants to do a Zoom meeting.

“Zoom is huge for questions,” King says. “Most of them are about how to get the microphone working.” 

The fix: Most of the time, this is easier than it seems. “Just close the Zoom meeting and reopen it.  When you do, simply choose to enable the microphone option,” says JustAnswer tech expert Jason Jones.

You probably shot right past that option in your hurry to join a meeting. 

Having trouble getting your audio going in that Zoom call? Don't forget to click the right option before joining the conference call.
Having trouble getting your audio going in that Zoom call? Don't forget to click the right option before joining the conference call.

The option might seem silly but it’s there because you can also use a phone to dial into meetings. If that doesn’t do the trick, you probably have a small security issue. “All you have to do is give Zoom permission to use your device’s microphone,” Cucinotta says.

This step is for your own safety. You don’t want Zoom to listen to you without you knowing.

“On an IOS device, go to Settings > Privacy > Microphone and switch on the toggle for Zoom,” Cucinotta says. “For Android, go to Settings > Apps and notifications > App permissions > Microphone and switch on the toggle for Zoom."

If you are Zooming from a computer, “you will see the option to join with Audio,” he says. “Make sure to choose this, so Zoom is allowed to use the microphone. Most functionalities fail due to security these days, not hardware issues.”

Still can’t hear anyone? Check your sound settings. There’s a tiny arrow in the bottom left of the Zoom app for computers. Click it and it brings up some settings. Click the “Audio Settings” option.

That brings you to a menu of options. Next to “Microphone,” click the drop-down menu.

That shows you all the working microphones in your setup. Choose the one you want to use to talk.

How to slow avalanche of email

One of my friends posted a screen grab of his 67,000 unread emails. Within a few seconds, people were misery-bragging (the close cousin to the humblebrag) with their own unwieldy inboxes filled with unwanted subscriptions, spam and a bunch of other junk. 

The fix: When my Unroll.me service stopped working on my admittedly convoluted email setup late last year, I hit an email overload impasse. Early on in the pandemic, I searched “Unsubscribe” to find all of the subscriptions clogging up my inbox, then one by one started clicking unsubscribe, confirming that – Yes! – I want to unsubscribe, then deleting the confirmation email each place sent me that I had finally unsubscribed. I got through about six of more than 6,000 in one hour.

Yahoo Mail added a subscriptions management feature to its email menu to help you ditch unwanted email subscriptions in one tap.
Yahoo Mail added a subscriptions management feature to its email menu to help you ditch unwanted email subscriptions in one tap.

Then I noticed – when the heck did they add this feature? – a little icon called Subscriptions in my email menu, and sure enough, it lets me quickly ditch unwanted email subscriptions in one tap. (That Yahoo mail unsubscribe feature came out late last year.) 

“We all receive more mail then we want,” Cucinotta says. “It is the nature of a free email system.” Sometimes, your email system’s spam filter catches the worst of it, but the best solution "is to unsubscribe,” he says. 

Most email providers have some sort of unsubscribing option, but you might need an additional service to help out, such as Unroll.me, Cleanfox or Clean Email. The caveat with free services such as Unroll.me is that you give them access to your inbox, and they collect information on what they find there. This probably won’t cause you any problems, but it did land the company in hot water a few years ago. 

My TV is not smart enough

We can’t eat out, go to the theater or go to the movies!? In these entertainment dark times, streaming video providers have come to the rescue of many a bored homebody. Roku saw streaming hours rise by 80% in the first quarter of 2020. That brought in people with questions about how to get Netflix to work on their TV.

The fix: Buy a streaming device such as the Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast or another set-top box with this feature. Netflix keeps a list of devices that deliver the service. They aren’t expensive. A Roku Express is priced at $29.99 on its site.

The Roku remote uses voice control, so you can speak your requests.
The Roku remote uses voice control, so you can speak your requests.

“Roku is a great way to turn a nonsmart TV into a smart one or a smart TV into an even smarter one by adding hundreds of channels you can stream directly on your TV,”  Cucinotta says.

“Setup is very easy,” he says. “Plug it into one of the HDMI ports on the TV – these are the ports used to connect your Blu-ray player, cable box, etc. – then use the source or input box on your TV to switch to the HDMI port you connected it to. (Example: HDMI 2.) Then it is just a case of carefully reading what it says on the TV and doing it. This basically consists of selecting your wireless network and connecting to it and creating a Roku account. The process is virtually the same for the Amazon Fire TV Stick, which provides the same functionality as the Roku.”

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Wait, where are my Kindle books?

Reading, too, is trending. Even if your local bookstore is open, you might not want to risk the interaction with humans to go inside. Putting books on an Amazon Kindle is fast and easy – and often less expensive. Plus you can do it from bed. Many people are frustrated when the books they bought don’t show up on their Kindle.

The fix: “Sometimes you may find a book you purchased never arrived on your Kindle,” Cucinotta says. “There are three common causes for this. The first is that you purchased the book from your computer on an Amazon account that’s different from the one that’s connected to your Kindle.”

Amazon's Kindle has a Blue Shade feature that filters blue light, but experts say there's no research that the filters really work.
Amazon's Kindle has a Blue Shade feature that filters blue light, but experts say there's no research that the filters really work.

This is easy to fix but don’t delay, he says. “Quickly request a refund – there is a time limit on this – and buy the book again with the correct account.”

If that’s not the problem, check whether your Kindle is connected to the internet. If it’s set to airplane mode or doesn’t have the credentials for the internet connection you’re using, it can’t download the book. 

“This is just a case of going to the settings on the Kindle, then tapping Wi-Fi and entering the credentials and connecting back up, so it can sync and download the book,” Cucinotta says.

Problem still not solved? How many Kindles do you have? Did your book go to the wrong one? 

“From a computer, go to www.amazon.com/mycd,” Cucinotta says. “Select the title, click the Actions ... button, and then select the option to deliver the content to the correct Kindle. You can deliver your book to as many devices as are registered to your account.”

It’s nice to know that you aren’t the only one struggling with a technical problem, right? If you didn’t find your issue here, hit us up on Twitter or Facebook. Think of us as your own personal tech support or, at the very least, someone here to make sure you don’t pull hair out. 

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Email, Zoom and password troubles are among top tech support issues