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There are ways to gain administrator access to a used machine, but fully cleaning that computer is still your best bet.

I obtained an older Dell 2400 with XP Home that boots and runs except I cannot view system information and other items one would normally have access to in a computer. I ran Avast and Malwarebytes without changing anything. Was something deleted when this computer was in a network? Any potential remedies? I'd appreciate any help or pointers.

In this excerpt from Answercast #46, I look at a used machine that is not giving the owner an administrator account. There are several important steps to take.

Used computer

I have to start out with something you're not going to like and that is:

  • Whenever you get a second-hand computer, you should never, ever rely on what's installed on it.

  • You have no idea what you've received.

Clearly, this particular installation has some problems. We'll get that to that in a minute. But the point is that the only correct thing to do when you receive a computer used, from someone else (and I honestly don't care who it is that gave it to you) is you should:

  • Reformat it;

  • Reinstall Windows from scratch;

  • And then install the applications that you plan to use on that system.

No telling what's on the computer

There's simply no way to know that you aren't inheriting a big pile of malware. You just don't know what kind of information is on that machine.

And to be honest, there may be personal information from the prior user that you don't want to know. If you stumble across it, you could be blamed for things that you had no idea were possible. So that's my bottom line for this particular system. What you really should be doing is:

  • Not worrying about why this operating system doesn't work properly;

  • You should be thinking about erasing it completely;

  • And then reinstalling from scratch.

Which, almost by definition, makes the problem you're currently experiencing go away.

Repair instead of reformat

Of course, nobody wants to do that! It's a bit of work and sometimes you don't have a copy of the operating system. So, at this point, you really are proceeding at your own risk – and in my opinion, it's a relatively high risk given how little we know about what may or may not be on that machine.

Gain administrator rights

What I suggest you do in a case like this are two things:

  • My guess is you're probably not the administrator.

  • You're probably logging in with a user account that does not have administrative privileges.

  • Given that as an assumption the thing to do is – find an article out on Ask Leo! called, "I've lost my administrative password. How do I get it back?"

That details downloading a utility that you can boot from on CD that will allow you to set the administrator password on any machine that you happen to have physical access to. So, what you'll do is:

  • Download this CD image,

  • Burn it to a CD,

  • And then boot this particular machine from that CD and set yourself an administrator password.

Then you could log in as administrator and hopefully that will then allow you to do all of these things that you currently can't do.

Thorough malware check

The other thing, once you've done that, is to go the extra mile with some anti-malware tools. It's very possible that there is malware on this machine that's preventing it from doing the things you want it to do. Run up-to-date scans (with a variety of tools, to be honest.)

Once again, that's an anti-malware package that you would download, burn to a CD, and then boot from that CD. What that allows you to do (or what that allows the tool to do) is access portions of Windows that it was not otherwise able to access when Windows is running.

When you're booting from a CD, you're actually not running Windows from your hard disk. What that means then is that the tools can go in and clean up things that it may not otherwise have access to.

So, those are the approaches that I would take if you can't reformat and reinstall. But my bottom line recommendation is to reformat and reinstall, for this and a variety of other security and safety reasons.

Next from Answercast 46 – How do I get Favorites to work in IE9?

Article C5729 - August 23, 2012 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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1 Comment
August 23, 2012 12:23 PM

If you don't have a copy of windows, this would be a great time to install ubuntu linux. It has very good hardware support, and is free.

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