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The Basics of Protecting your Computer
We all hear the stories: Massive identity theft, botnets, phishing -- whatever it is, someone's out to get you if you're not careful online. Unfortunately, one of the ways these nightmares can take over your life is through virtual booby-traps such as tainted e-mail attachments, look-alike websites that pop up at even the slightest typo, and even the dreaded security hole in your software installations -- all of which are enough to merit a few choice words that are not worth printing here (for obvious reasons, of course).
The good news is that you don't have to risk your system (or your sanity, identity or whatever) if you follow a few basic procedures for keeping your computer as safe as possible from these outside threats. If followed exactly to the point as described, these procedures can minimize the risk of a personal computing nightmare... or worse.
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Keeping a Lid on Spyware and Viruses
Perhaps the oldest trick in the book is for a piece of code to slip through undetected that ultimately bakes itself into your system, sends out copies of itself and begins to wreak havoc on your data -- and maybe even your daily life. While computer virus attacks, as they are traditionally known, are not the most commonly-referenced means of attack they once were, these duds can still pack a punch, so you need to be ready for anything. Same goes for spyware. If something gets into your computer that logs your keystrokes and tracks you online it can be a real pain in the backside -- especially if it leads to identity theft (or worse).
The best way to avoid these traps is to stay away from questionable sources, some of which I will mention as we proceed through this discussion. But if that's not enough (and the baddies take a more conspicuous way in) you'll need a good backup plan to account for that (read: a good security maintenance package). Tools from sources like McAfee and Webroot can provide a good stopgap to help protect your computer if due diligence isn't enough and should always be updated as frequently as possible. Installing their software firewall products (or using the built-in Windows firewall) is also a must. Of course, if budget is an issue then consider a number of free security products, like our free anti-virus shootout winner Avira AntiVir Personal.
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Updating Your System Files
Speaking of updates, it should be a priority to keep your operating system and application files as recent as possible to lessen the chance of an intruder sneaking in from behind. Updated system and application files will have the most currently-known repairs to the proverbial holes-in-the-wall so that known exploitable weaknesses in the structure are plugged up with electronic superglue that will keep even the most dedicated crooks from breaking in and pulling the rug under your feet with these issues. It is also recommended that you enable the most important of these updates to download and install automatically so that you're not stuck in the mud if you're away from the computer. I detail the process of using Windows Update to search for and apply updates across common Microsoft applications; for other programs and operating systems, follow the procedures described by their vendors (but don't worry too much, as the procedure is quite similar no matter where your software is from).
Next Page: Stuff to Watch For
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System Security Tips for Protecting Your PC: What to Watch For While a few preventative measures can help keep your system security protected at the local level, it's also important to know what to watch for in regard to websites and e-mail messages. Herein are a few red-flag gotchas to avoid, and the best methods to skip past these booby-traps.
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Know your Websites
Also important is the need to avoid certain types of websites that could be detrimental to the security of your computer, as well as to the sensitive information you least want to get out to the bad guys. Many porn sites ask you to download software to view images and videos; these are notorious for packing security-breaching code, beside the implications of acessing material that may be of moral question for some types of people, or for legal reasons.
Avoidance should also be practiced in regard to sites that have legitimate appearances, but which are actually dummies set up to steal information regarding the real websites such as accounts and passwords. In the case of bank websites, this can do considerable damage to your finances and identity that can take years to clean up while inhibiting your credit status or worse. And some website links for reading legitimate material of personal interest may actually lead to a drive-by download that executes regardless of the option you choose in denying the installation upon catching the problem or that leads to other types of problems.
The best way to avoid these types of problems is to limit the websites that you (or your children) are allowed to visit. This also includes double-checking to see if you typed in the right URL for your intended destination, as even the slightest difference or typo can send you to a malicious dud. If you're uncertain about the destination, simply leave it alone.
As a further safeguard, try opening links for which you are unsure of in a browser different from the one you normally use (such as Firefox rather than Internet Explorer). You can also download tools that offer symbolic representations of the intent of a website listed in search results from a qualified security company (such as McAfee Site Advisor).
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Threats can easily find themselves in your mailbox as well, and they usually come from the most notorious sources. Yet they often are disguised as coming from reputable sources and should be approached with caution.
For example, there may be a message that appears to come from the support team for a website or service that you subscribe to that asks for confirmation of account details in order to prevent the loss of services, but which is actually a phishing scam. This is why legitimate businesses don't settle account issues via e-mail, and is therefore an obvious sign of danger.
It may also occur that a friend or colleague appears to have sent you a video or joke to view or pass along (when in reality they did no such thing), or that you received an offer for a gift card or contest win (that you never actually signed up for), but which actually conceals a malicious attack-inducing booby trap that plays around with you, or which pops malicious junk into your system that's difficult to remove.
It only takes a quick glance to catch these traps, and a minute to have your spam trap analyze the message (and to report the results to your mailbox provider). And be sure to check if your friends actually intended to send you the messages you received before opening them. Think of it like this: If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is.