If you use a computer on the Internet, which you must if you are reading this, then you must protect yourself from evildoers. You do not need to be a computer geek to protect yourself; just a few simple precautions will protect you from most attempts to harm your computer system or to take money from you.
Microsoft Windows is the predominate operating system used on home computers, so it is a choice target for evildoers. To protect your Windows computer, install all security updates issued by Microsoft. Viruses continue to exploit old vulnerabilities because many users do not update regularly, which leaves your system at risk and puts your friends and family at greater risk since you may pass a virus to them in your email.
Windows vulnerabilities are constantly being discovered, so visit the Windows Update Center at least weekly to ensure you have all critical patches. Better yet, while you are at the update site, turn on the ‘Automatic Update’ option.
When your computer is connected to the Internet, other computers may connect with your computer and download or upload data from it. A firewall prevents attackers from connecting to your computer and doing harm, or, if attackers have already infected your computer with a virus or spyware, it prevents your computer from sending information to the Internet without your permission.
- Install and use a firewall; no Internet connection is safe without one, not even a dial-up connection.
- You may use the firewall included in Windows XP (it must be enabled), download a free firewall, purchase a firewall, or use a firewall furnished by your Internet service provider.
- Use a firewall that protects outgoing as well as incoming connections.
A computer virus is a small program that, unbeknownst to you, is installed on your computer by an evildoer. A virus may be used to change or destroy files on your computer, slow it down, send spam, send critical data from you computer to an evildoer, etc. Similar to a human virus, once your computer is infected, it may spread the virus to other computers through your email and attachments. Other types of infections include worms that crawl through your system doing damage such as deleting files, and Trojans, which are destructive files hidden inside seemingly innocuous items, such as music files, video clips, or graphic files.
- Install and use anti-virus software. You may download free anti-virus software, purchase anti-virus software, or use anti-virus software furnished by your Internet service provider.
- New viruses are released daily and anti-virus protection updates are released practically daily, so update your virus protection software once a week, or even daily. Better yet, set your anti-virus software to update itself automatically every day.
- Depending on your computer usage, set your anti-virus software to perform quick scans daily and full scans weekly.
Periodically check for updates to all the software used on your system. If available, set all your software to check for updates automatically.
Passwords help protect your personal data.
- Use passwords that include numbers, upper and lower case letters, and characters. The longer the password is, the harder it is to figure out. For example, a two-character alphanumeric password that uses letters a-z (and is case-sensitive meaning an "a" is different from "A") and numbers 0-9 has 3844 possible combinations; changing that to three characters increases the number of possible combinations to 238,328. An eight characters long password has about 218 trillion possible combinations. A 15 characters long password has about 770 heptillion (24 zeroes) possible combinations. While passwords of this length are difficult to figure out, given the time, inclination, and a decipher program to do the work for you, it can be done, so change your passwords on a regular basis.
- Use different passwords for each application and keep the passwords in a secure location that is easily accessible to only you.
- If you use many passwords, use password management software to make password protection and usage much simpler. A good choice is the free KeePass.
- All browsers store and automatically enter personal data required by Web forms. Use you browsers features to modify, retrieve, or delete that data.
If your computer is accessible to others, use a screensaver that requires a password to cancel, and shut it down when it is not in use or secure it with a system password.
Backup all your personal files daily. Important data should be backed up every time it is saved. If you have backups, a system failure is a nuisance; if you do not have backups, it will be a catastrophe.
- Install and use backup software. You may download free backup software, purchase backup software, or use backup protection offered by your Internet service provider.
- External hard drives are relatively inexpensive; use one to easily store backups.
- To protect against fire, flood, etc. damage at your home that may damage your system and your backups, also use an off-site backup service.
- Destroy unused backup information.
When you delete a file on a drive, the file is not actually deleted. The operating system merely makes the space where the file is located available so other data may be saved there. Until the space is overwritten, the file may be recovered using some readily available programs. To permanently delete an important file, use a file shredding program that overwrites the file with 1’s and 0’s many times, thus making the file unrecoverable. If you are getting rid of a computer, you may also use a file shredder to completely erase all data from the drives so evildoers cannot recover the data.
Spam is unsolicited, junk email.
- Delete spam without opening or reading it.
- Never open attachments from unknown senders. Be careful of attachments from known senders, they may be unwittingly forwarding you infected files or their computers may be infected with a virus that is automatically sending infected messages to people in their address books. If you are not expecting a certain attachment, check with the sender before opening it. While any attachment may potentially contain a virus but you should be especially cautious of attachments that end with ".exe," ".pif," or ".scr" file extensions.
- Install and use spam blocking software. You may download free spam blocking software, purchase spam blocking software, or use spam blocking protection offered by your Internet service provider.
- Use anti-virus software that scans your email and attachments. On your web pages, use encrypting when you post your email address. It is very easy to do, jut go to http://w2.syronex.com/jmr/safemailto/
Spyware is a program designed to track all of your computer activities, from which applications you use to which websites you visit. It often works in conjunction with viruses to record your keystrokes (such as account numbers, usernames, and passwords) and then transmit them back to an evildoer who may then use or sell the information. Adware is a program that pop-up various advertisements and offers, even when you are not connected to the Internet. These ads are independent from pop-up windows that appear when visiting specific websites.
- Install and use spyware/adware protection software. You may download free spyware/adware protection software, purchase spyware/adware protection software, or use spyware/adware protection offered by your Internet service provider.
- Many Internet service providers furnish popup protection. If it is provided, enable the protection.
Phishing is malicious spam designed to lure people into providing confidential personal and financial information (credit card numbers, bank account numbers, PINs, Social Security Numbers, etc.). This information is then used to empty accounts and for identity theft. Some of these messages are appear legitimate, appearing as though they are coming from banks or credit card issuers. They may ask you to "verify" account information or may ask for help in transferring large sums of money, some of which, they claim, you may keep just for helping them.
Email from your financial institution will usually use your account name not a generic salutation. NEVER use an email link to connect to your financial institution, even if it is on a legitimate email. Always enter the address directly into your browser.
- Regularly empty your computer cache, cookies, and history.
- The cache stores copies of web pages you visit, and all files associated with them, such as images, so the pages will load much faster the next time you visit. The cache also lets you view pages (minus some of their dynamic features, such as near-real-time stock quotes) while offline. However, the cache serves as a record of your Internet travels, so it should periodically be emptied. If a virus is embedded into the coding of a web page you visited, that virus will be downloaded into your cache. If you have high-speed Internet access, you may want to configure your browser not to store these files, or to empty the cache whenever you exit the browser.
- Many websites place very small files called cookies on your computer to keep track of your activities on the site. Other types of cookies may be used to track your overall web activities or to store your username and password information for a site so you do not have to enter it each time you visit the site. Most cookies are harmless but the mere presence of cookies on your PC could cause problems. Anyone who has access to your system when you're away can see not only which sites are storing cookies on your PC, but also the contents of unencrypted cookies.
- Third-party cookies present a slightly greater privacy threat. These files usually come from banner ad services, which may use them to track your browsing at sites served by the ad network and subsequently present ads that target your interests. Spyware programs often flag and remove third-party cookies, but you can set your browser to bar them completely.
- Although most cookies are harmless but some may furnish web sites with more information than you wish to reveal. Set your system to allow only cookies that you approve, and then only approve cookies from trusted sites that you revisit often. It may be nuisance to have to approve or disapprove cookies all the time, but it helps keep you protected.
- To delete cookies individually, click Manage cookies under the Advanced tab in the Preferences dialog box, and either use the search field at the top of the window to find a specific cookie or browse the folders by Web site. As in Firefox, you must click each site's folder icon to display its cookies, which you can edit or delete by clicking the appropriate button.
- You can block all cookies for a specific site, too (the default is to accept them): Select the site's folder (rather than the cookies under it), click Edit, and uncheck Use defaults for normal cookies, Accept cookies for server/domain, and/or Accept third party cookies for server/domain (see Figure 2). When you're done, click OK, Close, OK.
- Your internet browser keeps track of all the websites you visit and stores them in the history file. That is how it is able to auto-complete sites when you type them in. Adware will often use your history file in determining which ads to display, so clear the history regularly.
- To erase all entries from the History list, choose Tools, Preferences, Advanced, History, and click Clear next to 'Visited addresses'. To wipe out the browser's download history, press <Ctrl><Alt> T, right-click a downloaded file, and click either Remove transfer or Remove all finished (to clear all completed downloads from the list.