PC Safety and Security Tips

Photo courtesy of Flickr: exposedplanet

Computers are an essential tool that can be found in many modern households. People use them for entertainment, to do homework, communicate with others, and even to work and make money. A home computer is also often used to store personal information such as Social Security numbers, confidential conversations with other people, bank statements, and of course passwords. Because of this information, computers are an attractive target for intruders known as hackers. Hackers are stealthy and can steal information that is more valuable than money or jewelry, without physically coming anywhere near their victim. While there is no guaranteed way to stop the most determined hackers, the following basic computer security tips will make it harder for these criminals to prey on computer users.

Install Anti-Virus Protection

One common way that hackers get into computers is by using computer viruses. Viruses can delete files, or worse, transmit personal information and open up the computer for control by malicious users. As soon as a new computer arrives in the house, it will be necessary to install an anti-virus protection system. This should be done before any other software aside is installed, aside from perhaps a firewall. An ideal anti-virus program will also include software that scans incoming emails. Once installed, however, anti-virus protection requires constant maintenance. This maintenance involves keeping the software up to date with patches as well as virus definitions. Virus definitions updates should be downloaded daily due to the rapid speed at which computer viruses evolve. Anti-virus software usually auto-updates, but it helps to also check the website of the software vender for more information.

Avoid Emails From Unknown Sources

Emails that come from unknown senders are likely to be unsolicited commercial email. In some cases they also carry viruses. The best way to fight these emails is simply not to open those that come from unfamiliar sources. Even when they come from friends or family, it is important to consider factors such as when they are sent, and what the subject line is. If friends or loved ones send what appears to be a chain letter or a forwarded message, also beware, as these may contain viruses. Emails that sound official but request personal information such as Social Security numbers or passwords, should simply be deleted, as they are most likely phishing emails designed to trick people into volunteering information to a cybercriminal. Additionally, it is never safe to click on a link in an email, as it may direct the user to a criminal's website instead of a legitimate business.

Install a Firewall

As soon as a computer is hooked up to the Internet, it is vulnerable to stealthy attacks from hackers lurking elsewhere around the world. Software firewalls help to stop these intruders from entering the network and potentially hijacking the computer. In addition they prevent programs running on the computer from sending information out onto the Internet without the user's permission. A firewall should be installed at the same time as an anti-virus program. Also, when selecting a router for one's network, a router with its own hardware-based firewall provides an extra layer of defense against hackers.

Install Patches

Patches are updates to a computer's operating system or the software that runs on it. Because hackers are always finding new ways to break into computers, patches are necessary to keep them out. Some software packages will patch themselves automatically by looking online on their own, for new updates. In other cases the user will need to be proactive and visit the software vendor's website for patches.

Enact a Strong Password Security Policy

Hackers can use powerful computers to crack simple passwords in a short time. Longer passwords, however, can take practically forever to break. A password that is strong enough to deter hackers is one that is at least eight characters long and has a combination of numbers, upper and lower case letters, and other symbols on the keyboard as well. Other password security strategies include not using the same password in two different sites or computers, changing them every 3 months, and never sharing them with anyone else.

Protect Computer Data

Despite the best security measures one can take, it is still possible for an intruder or virus to break into a computer and erase data. In addition, hard drives use moving parts and are thus prone to dying without any warning. When a hard drive dies, the data that it stores is irretrievably lost. It is important to backup essential data onto more permanent and reliable media, such as CDs or DVDs. Critically essential information should be backed up at least twice. It is also advisable to schedule periodic backups, such as once a week or once a month.

Take the Computer Offline

A computer that is connected to the Internet all day long is like a window that is open all the time. This means that it is constantly exposed to hackers who may be testing the system for weaknesses. When the computer is idle it should not stay online. Furthermore, shutting off the computer when not in use will also save electricity.

Manually Inspect the Computer for Security Problems

When a computer user relies exclusively on an automated security system, hackers adapt and learn how to find ways in. The best way to prevent that is to manually check the computer for potential problems. The user will occasionally want to check security websites for newly discovered weaknesses in the operating system and fix them accordingly. Also check existing but obscure or rarely used applications for new security problems that might have appeared. Remove applications that are no longer necessary.

Educate Others

Knowing how to secure a computer or respond to a security problem is the first step toward securing a computer. The next step involves showing other users within one's circle of trust how to protect their system from threats as well. This includes anyone who uses the computers on the premises, including friends, roommates, family members, or coworkers. They need to know everything about computer security, from managing updates to disconnecting the computer from the network when it's not being used.

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