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How to Protect Your Home Network From Hackers

written by: •edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 3/30/2010

This article will walk you through the high level steps you need to take to protect your computer (and home network) from hackers.

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    With the age of the Internet, it’s easier than ever to get your computer online. A good percentage of the population has cheap, easy access to high-speed internet and the drastic drop in PCs over the past several years make them more affordable for everyone. With easy access to the internet, you are potentially exposing your PC to millions of people that would love the opportunity to turn your computer into a SPAM generating zombie.

    Enough with the scare tactics – this article will focus on a few easy (and cheap) steps you can take to protect your computer from hackers.

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    Components that need protection

    When trying to protect your home network, I like to start at the wall and work towards your PC. In a typical small home network, you’ll have several components:

    • A DSL or Cable modem – this is how you make your connection to the internet.
    • Wireless router or network switch – if you have multiple devices that connect out to the internet, you’d have a router or switch to allow multiple devices to share your single broadband connection.
    • PC or Laptop
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    Protecting your Broadband Modem

    Cable and DSL modems are typically locked down and managed by your service provider so there isn’t much you can typically do to further secure these devices. If you ended up purchasing your own DSL or Cable modem, you were probably asked to set up a password for your device. Be sure to use a strong password (8+ characters, numbers, symbols) to ensure the device is well protected. If your service provider installed the device or it came pre-configured with a password, it may be a good idea to see if you are allowed to change the password. For more information on strong passwords, check out this article.

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    Protecting your Wireless Router or Switch

    If you are just using a simple hub or switch to allow multiple devices to connect out to the internet, there isn’t much you can typically do. Most consumer based switches don’t have any kind of inherent security features.

    If you have a wireless router, you do have a lot of responsibility to ensure your connection is safe. If someone is able to hop on your network, not only can they steal your bandwidth for free, they can also “sniff” traffic on your network and access files on your PCs. Follow the guidelines I lay out on my article “The Top 7 Ways NOT to Secure Your Wireless Network”.

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    Protecting your Computer

    Since the most critical component in your network is your computer, you’ll want to have a multi-pronged defense against any intruders. You’ll want to have a few components in place:

    • Firewall – this is a piece of software that monitors incoming and outgoing traffic on your computer and blocks inappropriate communications. Think of it like a border guard – if you’ve got the right credentials, you get in (or out), if not, you’re stopped at the wall. If you are using windows, you can use Windows Firewall – included in Windows XP SP2\SP3, Vista and Windows 7, or a commercial product like ZoneAlarm or Comodo – which both offer free basic firewalls.
    • Anti-malware protection – you could have a super-secure network with lots of strong passwords, but if you get a Trojan virus on your PC, it’s not going to do much to protect your data. Be sure to look for both Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware – many commercial products combine the two into a single piece of software, but many free products will do one or the other. Products from Trend Micro, Bit-Defender and Symantec (Norton) are good commercial products. A popular free anti-virus scanner is AVG.
    • Passwords – be sure to set up an account – even if your family decides to share the account, you’ll have another layer of protection against possible attackers.
    • Operating System Updates – much like getting a Trojan virus, there may already be holes in the operating system you are using. Be sure to keep your OS up to date at all time by using Microsoft Update for Windows systems. Linux distributions typically have automatic OS updaters installed as well.

    With these tips, you should be able to keep your network and computers safe from attackers.