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Protecting Your PC From the Bad Stuff

By Rob Pirozzi

Guarding Access to Your PC - Get a Firewall

Beginning in the Zhou Dynasty, which was in the 11th century BC, construction was begun on what was to become the Great Wall of China. For 2,700 years, culminating in the mid-1600s, construction continued on the wall until it stretched 4,163 miles from east to west China. The wall was constructed to prevent invasion by other states of China and outer tribes.

When you connect your PC to the Internet either through cable, dial-up, or DSL, it is like China prior to the Great Wall. Anyone can invade your PC, and plunder, pillage, and destroy content on your PC. A firewall acts just like the Great Wall of China. When installed, it acts as a barrier between your PC and the outside world. It prevents unwanted and unauthorized access to your PC over your Internet connection.

Firewalls come in two basic forms:

  • Hardware firewalls - hardware firewalls are a piece of hardware, like a PC, that gets installed between your PC and your Internet connection. Literally, a cable from your cable or DSL modem gets connected to the hardware firewall. Another cable is connected from the hardware firewall to your PC. When done, the hardware firewall acts as a barrier between your PC and the Internet. It lets you get out to the Internet, but it does not allow unauthorized access from the Internet to your PC. Many cable, DSL, and wireless routers/switches have firewalls built into them.
  • Software firewalls - A software firewall serves the same purpose as a hardware firewall. It, however, is software that gets installed directly onto your PC. The software monitors all inbound and outbound Internet traffic, and creates a software barrier between the Internet port into your PC and everything else on your PC. Once installed, it lets you get out to the Internet, but it does not allow unauthorized access from the Internet to your PC. Software firewalls have an advantage in that they can implement rigid controls over what software installed on your PC will be allowed to gain access to the Internet.

Many people use both a hardware firewall and a software firewall. It is similar to having a fence to protect access to your yard, and then a front door to protect access to your house. Everyone should use at least one firewall, hardware or software. If you have a laptop, you should use a software firewall. That way the firewall goes with you, wherever you go, protecting your PC.

  • Find more information on software firewalls here.
  • Find more information on free software firewalls here.

Plug the Holes - Make Sure to Download Operating System Updates and Patches

By now, the security holes and flaws in Windows have become legendary. To their credit, Microsoft publishes a steady stream of fixes, patches, and update releases to plug all known security holes, flaws, and problems. In order for your PC to benefit from these patches and updates, you must, at a minimum, download and install the critical security updates that Microsoft makes available. You can do this one of two ways:

  • You may download and install them manually by visiting the "Microsoft Update" link on the Microsoft web site.
  • For newer versions of Windows, such as Windows XP, you can turn on the "Automatic Updates" feature of the operating system and allow the updates to be downloaded and installed automatically.

Either method works well. The "Automatic Updates" route takes the thought and work out of the process. Regardless of which method you choose, the important thing is to keep Windows up to date. Out of date versions of Windows can leave your PC open to hackers and viruses.

If you are using Mac OS or LINUX, then none of this applies. You are already using inherently more secure operating systems. It is still, however, important to install updates and patches to these operating systems as well to be up to date and to provide the best protection against unwanted intrusion.

Take Your Medicine - Install Antivirus Software

A computer virus is an unwanted software program that:

  • Gets loaded onto your PC
  • Replicates itself, meaning that it copies itself and distributes itself to other computers

A virus can get onto your computer from any of several sources, including:

  • From a removable disk
  • From an attachment to an e-mail message
  • From a download while surfing the web
  • From a worm through a known hole or flaw in your operating system.

Once on your PC, the impact of a virus can range from relatively benign to rendering your PC unusable.

Antivirus software is software that you use to protect yourself from computer viruses. It can detect and remove known computer viruses. There are many excellent antivirus packages available that are relatively inexpensive. There are also several excellent antivirus packages available for free for home, non-commercial use.

  • Find more information on antivirus packages here
  • Find more information on free antivirus packages here

To prevent viruses from being able to harm your PC, you need to select one of the antivirus packages and install it on your PC.

TIPS: Make sure that your antivirus software is setup to:

  • Automatically check for updates so that its' virus definitions database is up to date and you are protected from the latest threats. Most updates are provided on an annual subscription basis. Make sure that you renew your subscription when it expires. Free products, such as AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, provide the updates at no cost.
  • Automatically perform a virus scan at least once a week. If the PC is used to surf the web extensively then you may wish to perform virus scans more frequently, even once a day.

Stop the Spies - Install Anti-Spyware Software

Adware is any software that displays advertisements on your computer screen, either through banner advertisements within an application, or through pop-up windows. Spyware, which may also be known as a spybot, or tracking software, is computer technology installed on an individual's PC that gathers information about them and their computer use. Adware and spyware removal software, or anti-spyware software, is software that is installed on your computer to combat the threats of adware and spyware. It will search your computer's memory, file system, system registry, and browser caches for the existence of adware and spyware. It will then remove or quarantine any items that it finds. Adware and spyware removal software may also monitor for, and actively block, the downloading of spyware applications.

There are two excellent anti-spyware programs available for free, Ad-Aware SE Personal from Lavasoft, and Spybot Search & Destroy from Safer Networking Ltd. There are also many excellent anti-spyware packages that range in price from $19.95 to $39.95. Select and install one of these packages and run it on a regular basis.

  • Find more information on anti-spyware packages here
  • Find more information on free anti-spyware packages here

To prevent adware and spyware form being able to gather information about you, you need to select one of the anti-spyware packages and install it on your PC.

TIPS: Similar to antivirus software, make sure that your anti-spyware software is setup to:

  • Automatically check for updates so that its' adware/spyware definitions database is up to date and you are protected from the latest threats. The two free packages, Ad-Aware and Spybot do not have automatic update features, so you will need to perform this task manually. Ad-Aware at least tells you that your definitions database is getting old and asks you if you want to update it.
  • Automatically perform an adware/spyware scan at least once a week. If the PC is used to surf the web extensively then you may wish to perform scans more frequently, even once a day. Ad-Aware SE Personal will only run automatically at system startup time. If you leave your computer on all of the time then you will have to remember to manually run the scans. Spybot can be scheduled to run automatically as one of its "Advanced Mode" features.

Spring Cleaning - Think About Privacy Software

As you use your computer, and surf the web, traces of your activity get left behind, stored on your computer in lists, temporary files, and caches. The best case is that these "leftovers" can clutter up your PC, and, with time, degrade its performance. The worst case is that someone who gains unauthorized access to your PC can read these files and learn a fair amount about you, potentially helping them to steal your identity.

Privacy software removes all traces of your PC and Internet activity, helping to protect your privacy.

As with antivirus software and anti-spyware software, privacy software should be run on a regular basis. It, too, can be setup to run automatically on a regular basis so that an end-user does not have to do anything to protect their privacy. The first time the privacy software is run it is not at all uncommon for it to recover in excess of 500MB of disk space by deleting the "leftover stuff" on your PC.

To prevent unauthorized intruders from being able to gather information about you, select one of the privacy packages and install it on your PC.

  • Find more information on privacy software packages here

Think Before You Click - Use Some Common Sense

A little common sense can go a long way when trying to protect your PC. Most of what can compromise your security will come through e-mail, or when you are surfing the web. Because of this, you definitely need to think before you click. If you have not realized it already, most unsolicited e-mail is garbage. No matter how good the offer may sound, the common sense rule of "if it sounds too good to be true, it is..." applies. Most of what you receive unsolicited is designed to scam you out of money, to trick you into divulging private information, to install spyware and adware on your computer, or to install viruses on your computer.

Identifying Suspect E-Mails

So how to you identify the bad "stuff"? It actually is fairly easy to identify "suspect" e-mails. Common bad or suspect e-mails include:

  • E-mails from people or companies with whom you have never corresponded or conducted business. You may receive e-mails that you need to verify your account information from a company that you do not do business with. You may receive a message that looks like it is from eBay that says they are going to shut off your account and you have never done business with eBay. Individuals and groups trying to perpetrate fraud will go to great lengths to try to look like a legitimate business. You need to use common sense. If it does not "feel" right, it probably is not.
  • E-mails with gibberish in the title or in the body of the message.
  • E-mails from friends, relatives, or business associates that do not make any sense.
  • E-mails from yourself that you never sent or e-mails that are "returned" to you from someone that you have never corresponded with.

This list can go on forever with the many subtle variations. The bottom line is that if it does not feel right then consider it to be a bad e-mail.

Suspect e-mails should be deleted. Never click on links in suspect e-mails. Never open file attachments to suspect e-mails. Never reply or forward suspect e-mails. Simply delete them and move on.

Safe Surfing

Installing firewall software and antivirus software, and running anti-spyware software and privacy software should go a long way to protecting you when your are surfing. Here, again, some common sense applies. Avoid sites that do not "feel" right. Sites that are constantly trying to get you to fill out forms before you have much of a chance to learn anything about the site and the organization who owns the site are highly suspect. Pornography sites are famous for downloading spyware and viruses onto people's computers. Stick to sites you know, the sites of reputable companies, and sites that come recommended by people you trust and you should be okay.

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