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KarlM 06-25-2009 04:17 AM

Ten Tips to Secure Your Computer
 
Years ago, hackers used to penetrate computer systems for the sheer thrill of it, as well as to show off their technical skills. Today, illegally breaking into systems can amount to a lot of money. The amateur hackers of before have now become or been replaced by professional criminals aiming to victimize gullible or uninformed computer users. Everyday, hackers come up with new ways to obtain your sensitive personal data and financial information. Everyday, your email inbox can get flooded with dozens of new spam messages. Malicious software and/or spyware developers constantly launch new viruses onto the internet. It is an unavoidable fact that going online exposes your computer system to risk, each time you do so.

Fortunately, there are several ways you can protect yourself. Even better, most of them can be done at no cost at all. Here are ten tips for keeping your computer secure:

1. Use original operating system software and keep it updated with the latest patches. Unauthorized or bootleg copies of Windows cannot benefit from the regular software updates that Microsoft sends over the Internet, making your computer much more vulnerable to hacker attacks. An authentic version lets you keep your system up-to-date with essential patches. The Windows Security Center in the Control Panel lets you set it so that updates are automatically downloaded and installed into your computer.

2. Use a personal firewall. A firewall is a program that protects your computer from unauthorized access by filtering all information that comes through it. Windows comes with its own firewall, although some anti-virus programs may also have their own versions. You may adjust the setting from highly restrictive to highly permissive, but the default setting is recommended for optimal browsing. Whatever your choice, having a firewall running at all times is a must for safe system operation.

3. Use an effective anti-virus program and update it regularly. These programs actively search for malware in your system and eliminate it. They are an absolutely essential component of your computer’s defenses. Several reputable anti-virus programs are available commercially, which include Kaspersky and NOD32. If you don’t have the money to buy these, AVG Anti-Virus and Avira offer excellent freeware versions of their software that do the job almost as well as purchased programs. Make sure that you let the software update itself regularly with the latest virus signature databases.

4. Use an anti-spyware program. Programs like these lessen the chances of your applications failing, your data getting corrupted, and your browser getting hijacked by malware. There are several free programs available online – good choices include Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware SE and Spybot S&D. A competent firewall, anti-virus software, and anti-spyware program, all working in conjunction, are the essentials for a healthy and safe computer system.

5. Never open suspicious-looking emails. The email inbox is a notorious avenue for malware. If you don’t recognize an email’s sender, or if it doesn’t look legitimate in any way, don’t open it. Simply viewing an infected item can let viruses and other malware into your system. Be especially wary of emails with attachments. Although many free email servers such as Gmail and Yahoo offer their own anti-virus scanning, your office servers and private local area networks may not, so take extra care when using the latter.

6. Make strong passwords. Never use anything obvious as a password – birthdays, pet’s names, nicknames and so on – since these can be cracked very easily. Instead, use a combination of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols (if possible) to make your password tougher to figure out. Keep your passwords secure and change them regularly; memorize them. Finally, be especially careful not to leave any evidence of your passwords or user names available for casual reading, particularly on social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace.

7. Use a secure web browser. Although it is the most popular browsing application by a vast margin (around 85% of PC owners use it), Windows Internet Explorer is also (arguably) consistently the worst as far as computer security is concerned. Even its latest version, IE7, still contains several vulnerabilities that are easily exploitable by hackers. Plus, its lack of add-on capability means that you cannot customize it with security enhancements. For these reasons, you should consider using browsers with better security performance ratings, such as Opera or Mozilla Firefox. Firefox in particular has hundreds of free add-ons, including an essential one that is discussed in the next number.

8. Use a script-blocker while browsing. Your computer can get infected by various forms of malware simply by visiting an infected webpage. Script-blockers can counter this problem. These applications scan the scripts on web pages (for example, context menus, clickable buttons, or videos) and block those that you do not explicitly permit to run. The best program for Firefox users is the popular NoScript add-on; its excellent interface allows you to quickly customize how each webpage is viewed and which scripts to run.

9. Exercise caution when downloading. There is a lot of content available on the Internet, but not all of it is safe to download. Make sure you aren’t downloading from disreputable sites or those that have been identified as compromised by Internet security firms such as Norton or McAfee. Peer-to-peer sharing programs, such as BitTorrent and Limewire, provide yet another potential opening for malware to enter your system. Viruses can masquerade as MP3 music files, video files, and even picture files.

10. Regularly create back-ups of your data. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, your computer might still become compromised or damaged beyond repair by malware. Just in case this happens, make sure you have back-up copies of the files you cannot afford to lose. Burn them onto CDs or store them on portable hard drives. This way, if you ever have to reformat your computer to rid it of a virus, your files will still be safe.

These are just some of the things you can do to secure your computer and your data. Remember – even if you aren’t in control of the hackers and their attempts to get into your system, you are in control of your own actions.
  • Update your system and anti-malware programs regularly.
  • Be responsible in choosing the sites you visit and what you say to people with whom you interact online.
  • Be especially careful when you are asked to provide personal information and when handling online financial transactions.
When it comes to preventing major computer problems, a little diligence goes a long, long way.


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