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Viruses and spyware and worms … oh my!
The very concept of “internet safety” is almost an oxymoron these days.
It seems not a day goes by that we don’t hear some new kind of threat aimed at wreaking havoc across machines connected to the internet.
Here are some things you can (and should) do to stay safe.
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1. Use a firewall
A firewall is a piece of software or hardware that sits between your computer and the internet and only allows certain types of data to cross. For example, a firewall may allow checking email and browsing the web, but disallow things like Windows file sharing.
If you’re connected to the internet through a router, you already have a type of hardware firewall that prevents random networking-based external threats from reaching your computers. Most recent versions of Windows include a software firewall that is on by default.
- Do I need a firewall, and if so, what kind?
- So do I need the Windows Firewall or not?
- Is an outbound firewall needed?
2. Scan for malware
Sometimes, most commonly via email attachments, malware is able to cross the firewall and end up on your computer anyway.
A malware scanner will locate and remove them from your hard disk. A real-time scanner will notice them as they arrive, even before they hit the disk, but at the cost of slowing down your machine a little, and occasionally even interfering with other operations.
Important: Because new malware is being created every day, it is critical to keep your anti-malware definitions up-to-date. Be sure to enable the scanning software’s automatic-update feature and have it do so every day.
- What Security Software do you recommend?
- Why wouldn’t an exploit be caught by my anti-malware tools?
- When do I actually need to run a virus scan?
- How do I remove a virus if it prevents me from download or installing anything?
- Will using an on screen keyboard stop keyboard loggers and hackers?
3. Stay up-to-date
I’d wager that over half of all virus infections don’t have to happen. Software vulnerabilities that malware exploits usually already have fixes available by the time the virus reaches a computer.
The problem? The user simply failed to install the latest updates that would have prevented the infection in the first place.
The solution is simple: enable automatic updates in both Windows and applications.
- How do I make sure that Windows is up-to-date?
- I got burned by Windows Update, should I just avoid it?
- From where should I get driver updates?
4. Educate yourself
To be blunt, all of the protection in the world won’t save you from yourself.
- Don’t open attachments you aren’t positive are OK; attachments are one of the most common ways that malware spreads.
- Don’t fall for phishing scams. Be skeptical. Phishing is a common way that online accounts are hacked into and can lead to more serious issues like identity theft.
- Don’t click on links in email you aren’t positive are safe.
- Don’t install “free” software without checking it out first. Many “free” packages are so because they come loaded with spyware, adware, and worse.
When visiting a website, did you get a pop-up asking if it’s OK to install some software that you’re not sure of because you’ve never heard of it? Don’t say OK.
Not sure about some security warning you’ve been given? Don’t ignore it. Research it before doing anything.
And of course, choose secure passwords and don’t share them with anyone.
- How do I choose a good password?
- How long should a password be?
- Is a periodic password change a good thing?
- Are Password Managers safe?
- I got a call from Microsoft and allowed them access to my computer. What do I do now?
5. Secure your home network and your mobile connection
If you’re traveling and using internet hotspots, free WiFi, hotel-provided internet, or internet cafes, you must take extra precautions.
Make sure your web email access – or, for that matter, any sensitive website access – is only via secure (https) connections, or that your regular mail program is configured to use only encrypted connections. Don’t let people “shoulder surf” and steal your password by watching you type it in a public place.
Make sure your home WiFi has WPA2-security enabled if anyone can walk within range, and you’ve changed your router’s administrative password.
- How do I use an open WiFi hotspot safely?
- 7 Steps to a Secure Router
- Does sharing a router make me vulnerable to those I share with?
6. Don’t forget the physical
An old computer adage is that “if it’s not physically secure, it’s not secure.”
All of the precautions I’ve listed above are pointless if other people can get at your computer. A thief can easily get at all the unencrypted data on your computer if they can physically get to it. Even log-in passwords can be easily bypassed if someone has access to your computer.
The most common scenario is a laptop being lost or stolen during travel, but I’ve also received many reports from people who’ve been burned because a family member, friend, significant other, or roommate accessed their computer without their knowledge.
- How can I keep data on my laptop secure?
- My computer was stolen. It’s password protected, what files can the thieves see?
- I’ve lost the password to my Windows Administrator account, how do I get it back?
7. Back up
I know that backing up doesn’t feel like a “security” measure, but ultimately, it can be one of the most powerful ways to recover if you ever encounter a security-related issue.
The damage done by almost any kind of malware can be quickly reversed if you have a recent backup to restore to.
Having a back-up copy of your data (all your data) can help you recover after computer is lost or stolen (not to mention when a hard disk dies).
Backing up your email and contacts can be a critical way to restore your world should your online account ever be compromised.
Backups truly are the silver bullet of the computing world: a proper and recent backup can help save you from just about any disaster, including security issues.
- What backup program should I use?
- How do I backup my computer?
- Can’t I just copy everything instead of using a backup program?
- How do I backup my GMail?
Overwhelming? It might seem so, but…
This might all seem overwhelming, but please believe me when I say it’s not nearly as overwhelming as an actual security problem if and when it happens to you.
The good news is that the majority of the things you need to do to stay safe on the internet are things you set up once and let happen automatically thereafter, or new habits you form based on the important things that you learn about keeping things secure.
While we might want it to be otherwise, the practical reality of the internet and computing today is that we each must take responsibility for our own security online.