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Internet Safety is difficult, yet critical. Here are eight key steps to keep your computer safe on the internet.

Viruses and spyware and worms … oh my!

The very concept of “internet safety” is almost an oxymoron these days.

It seems like not a day goes by that we don’t hear about some new kind of threat aimed at wreaking havoc across machines connected to the internet.

Anti-Microsoft sentiment coupled with the massive installed base make Microsoft products, and particularly Microsoft Windows, an irresistible target for hackers and “script kiddies.” In recent years, products like Adobe Reader, Java, Flash, Firefox, and more have come under attack as their popularity has increased. Even Macs are no longer invulnerable.

Here are some things you can (and should) do to stay safe.

1. Use a firewall

Firewall

A firewall is a barrier between something that is potentially dangerous and something that you want to keep safe. The term comes from … continue reading »

A firewall is a piece of software or hardware that sits between your computer and the network 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, then you already have a type of hardware firewall that prevents random networking-based external threats from reaching your computers.

If you’re using a dial-up internet connection, a firewall may not be as important, although it doesn’t hurt to have one. A software firewall may be your only option.

2. Scan for viruses

virus

A virus is a computer program written by someone presumably with the intent of spreading and causing grief. Like a human virus … continue reading »

Sometimes, typically via email or other means, viruses are able to cross the firewall and end up on your computer anyway.

A virus scanner will locate and remove them from your hard disk. A real-time virus 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 viruses are arriving every day, it is critical to keep your virus definitions up-to-date. Be sure to enable the scanning software’s automatic-update feature and have it do so every day.

3. Scan for spyware

spyware

Spyware is a class of malware that is typically designed to spy on you or your computer, silently collecting information that is subsequently … continue reading »

Spyware is similar to viruses in that they arrive unexpected and unannounced and proceed to do something undesired. Spyware can be relatively benign from a pure safety perspective, as it might “only” spy on you. But that’s enough. It can violate your privacy by tracking the websites that you visit, add “features” to your system that you didn’t ask for, or record your keystrokes and steal your account login information for any online services that you might use.

Some of the worst offenders are spyware that hijack normal functions for themselves. For example, some like to redirect your web searches to other sites to try and sell you something. Of course, some spyware is so poorly written that it might as well be a virus, given how unstable it can make your system. The good news is that, like virus scanners, there are spyware scanners that will locate and remove the offending software.

4. Stay up-to-date

vulnerability

A vulnerability is a bug or design flaw in software that allows that software to be used in some malicious and unintended way. All software has bugs, which are nothing more than … continue reading »

I’d wager that over 90% of 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 and visit Windows Update periodically.

5. Educate yourself

phishing

Phishing is the attempt to represent one’s self – typically via email – as someone or some organization that you are not for the purposes of maliciously acquiring sensitive information. The most common examples are … continue reading »

To be blunt, all of the protection in the world won’t save you from yourself.

  • Don’t open attachments that you aren’t positive are OK; attachments are one of the most common ways that malware sprads.
  • 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 that 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 that 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.

6. Secure your home network and your mobile connection

wifi – open

Open WiFi is any WiFi connection that has not been configured with a password. Anyone with a WiFi-capable device can connect to an open WiFi hotspot. If a password is used on a WiFi connection, then … continue reading »

If you’re traveling and using internet hot spots, free WiFi, hotel-provided internet, or internet cafes, you must take extra precautions.

Make sure that 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 encrypted connections as well. Don’t let people “shoulder surf” and steal your password by watching you type it in a public place.

Make sure that your home WiFi has WPA-security enabled if anyone can walk within range and that you’ve changed your router’s administrative password.

7. Don’t forget the physical

encryption

Encryption is the process of mathematically processing data using an encryption “key” – such as a password or passphrase – in such a way that the result of the combination is … continue reading »

An old computer adage is that “if it’s not physically secure, it’s not secure.”

All of the precautions that I’ve listed above are pointless if other people can get at your computer. A thief can easily get at all of the unencrypted data on your computer if they can physically get to it. Even login passwords can be trivially bypassed if someone has access to your computer.

The common scenario is a laptop being lost or stolen during travel, but I’ve also received many reports of people who’ve been burned because a family member, friend, significant-other, or roommate accessed their computer without their knowledge.

8. Back up

image backup

An image backup is a complete copy of a hard disk or other media being backed up. The copy is complete in that it can be restored to a completely empty hard drive – as in a replacement hard drive after a failure – and the result is …continue reading »

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 even encounter a security related issue.

Having a recent backup to restore to can quickly undo the damage done by almost any form of malware.

Having a back 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.

Overwhelming? It might seem so, but…

Tools

This all might seem overwhelming, but please believe me when I say that 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 that you set up once and let happen automatically thereafter or new habits you form yourself 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.

Reprint Rights: I feel that the information contained in this article is so important that I encourage you to share it with your friends, family, and co-workers. To that end, permission is hereby granted to republish this article in its entirety, with the following conditions: the text may not be modified, the links must remain active/clickable if published in a form or format that supports linking, and the article must of course be attributed to Ask Leo! – also clickable, please.

I’ve also made available a free downloadable PDF of this article that you are encouraged to share with whomever you like. You can download it here.