You should know how to protect your computer before you buy it, but few people worry about computer safety until after they’ve been burned and their bank accounts are empty. If that’s the case, or if you just want to learn about computer safety without spending a lot of money, give the following tips a try.
Enable The Windows Firewall
All versions of Windows since Windows XP have come with a built-in firewall which is just as effective as any other firewall product on the market, so using this free tool won’t cost you later.
A firewall blocks hackers and viruses when they try to connect to your computer over the Internet or over your local network. It works by refusing to accept any connection which isn’t a response to a connection it previously started. It’s like using your phone to make outgoing calls but blocking any incoming calls so you don’t have to listen to telemarketers.
Firewalls are so simple that they’re all equally effective. The only real difference in firewalls are how easy they are to configure. The Windows firewall is easy to enable, but it doesn’t include any easy way to configure some of the advanced features. People who need those advanced features may want to buy another firewall product, but most users of Windows will be fine with the free Windows firewall.
Firewalls block active threats to your computer and they do their job so well that hackers today focus most of their attention on getting you to run viruses directly, called passive threats because they don’t do anything until you run them.
There are two ways to protect your computer from passive threats. The first is to never make a mistake: never open any files you download from email or the Internet, never install any program which you don’t entirely trust, never run macros in a document, and never do several other things which may allow a virus to install itself on your computer.
For most people, avoiding the above risks is impractical. You bought your computer to use it, not just to play Windows Solitaire. So the other solution is to use an anti-virus program which checks the files and programs you use before you use them to see if they’re infected with a virus. It’s sort of like a school nurse who sends home sick kids before they can infect everyone else at the school.
There are tons of anti-virus programs on the Web and almost all of them cost money. If you’re going to spend money on anti-virus, I highly recommend you get it from the biggest company you can—the big companies sponsor security researchers who find viruses quicker than the overworked staff at smaller companies.
But you can also get free anti-virus software from AVG. The free version doesn’t include as many features as the paid version, but it’s usually just as good as the big names in security and its cost can’t be beat.
Secure Your Connection
If you connect to the Internet over a wireless connection at home or on the go, you can be putting yourself at increased risk of identity theft.
Many wireless connections don’t include any built-in security, so most of the information you transmit over the Internet can be intercepted by anyone else in range of your wireless network. (Some hackers use directional antennas to snoop on people who are up to a few miles away.)
What kind of information do you send over the Internet? If you use unsecured webmail, POP, IMAP, or SMTP, every email you send or receive can be intercepted—that includes emails with a password reset. Every unsecured webpage you download can be read, including your Facebook and other social media sites. Any business application you use which does not encrypt its connection can also have its data intercepted, and your boss could hold you responsible for the loss of data.
How do you protect your computer from this threat? At home it’s easy: configure your router to use a secure connection. For current-generation routers this is really easy. Tell your router to use WPS encryption and set a password. Then tell your laptop to connect to the secured connection and press the WPS button on top of your router—the router will tell your laptop the password and your laptop will automatically configure itself.
For public wireless at coffee shops, there isn’t much you can do to secure your connection if passwords aren’t enabled by default. My advice: be careful what you do and use the secure versions of GMail, Facebook, and other important sites you visit.
As I mentioned earlier, one way viruses get onto your system is by convincing you to install them. But it’s not just viruses which get onto your computer this way: it’s also spyware and other bad programs (malware).
Hackers and unscrupulous types build websites for their programs promising great features if you just install their programs and—as a bonus—their programs are free.
Remember the old saying—if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. After you install these programs, you’ll probably discover that they don’t do what they promised. They’re also probably buggy and not really useful at all.
The problem is that you can’t uninstall these programs. Oh, sure, there’s an entry in Add/Remove Programs that claims to uninstall the program—but it doesn’t actually work. (The programmer who writes the installation script also writes the uninstallation script, and if he doesn’t want you to remove the program, as in the case of malware, he just creates a dummy uninstallation program.)
If you do get malware installed on your computer this way, there’s no easy way to remove it. Several companies maintain databases of computer files and whether or not they belong to known malware. You can use their database to identify the files installed by the malware and remove them, but this is a time-consuming and dangerous process—dangerous because removing the wrong file from your computer can break it.
The best solution of which I’m aware is to only download programs which are recommended by a trustworthy tech site—sites which tell you how to protect your computer.