Internet Security: A few Rules to help you from being a victim of Viruses, hackers, scams & other headaches

The Internet may be the greatest wonder of the modern world, but it does come with certain downsides. Increased access to information is great, but not if the information that is being accessed is yours – and private. Of course, there are threats to privacy and security in the real world, but on the Internet things are rather different, not least because the wrongdoer may take the form of a piece of software, entirely invisible to the victim: a virus that damages your files, say, or a keylogger that keeps a record of the usernames and passwords you type into webpages and then sends them to someone on the other side of the world. Don’t despair though – there are various measures you can take to ensure that your data and privacy remain intact.

Rule #1: Keep your system up to date

Many security breaches involve a programmer taking advantage of a security flaw in Windows or a Web browser. So it’s critically important to keep your system up-to-speed with the latest security updates. If you don’t, simply connecting to the Internet or viewing a webpage could be enough to let in some kind of malware. Keeping up to date also means you’ll get new features and fixes for software “bugs” that cause crashes and other annoyances. Recent versions of Windows and Mac OS, and Web browsers such as Firefox, will automatically prompt you to download periodic updates. If you have a slow Internet connection, you might want to be selective about which updates you accept, but at a minimum always accept anything that mentions security. And tend towards accepting all updates. On older PCs, you may need to kick start the updates process manually by selecting Windows Update from the start menu and clicking “Product Updates”.

Rule #2: Don’t run dodgy software

This includes steering clear of free downloads from websites which seem in any way untrustworthy, or which you reached via a pop-up or banner ad. It also means thinking carefully before opening suspicious email attachments, even from people you know – the message may have been sent by a piece of software without them ever knowing about it. An up-to-date virus scanner should check attachments as you receive them, but this is not entirely foolproof, so it’s worth also learning to spot a potentiallydodgy file. This can be done by looking at the file extension at the end of the file name. Most file types could theoretically be adapted to include some kind of threat. However, for many of the most commonly emailed file types, the risk is basically nonexistent. You needn’t worry about:

Plain text .txt
Images .jpg, .gif, .bmp, .tif, .wmf
Movies .avi, .mpg, .mov, .wmv
Portable documents .pdf
Audio .mp3, .mp4, .wav, .wmf
Internet Shortcuts .url

Webpages (.htm, .html) and attached emails (.eml) are also normally safe, though they can potentially include scripts so tread carefully. The following file types are highly suspect and should never be opened unless you’re certain they’re safe: .bat, .com, .exe, .inf, .js, .jse, .pif, .reg, .scr, .shs, .vbe, .vbs, .wsf and .wsh

Rule #3: Hide behind a firewall

A firewall serves to prevent anyone from even being able to detect your computer on the Internet, let alone invade it. Recent versions of Windows come with a basic firewall built in, which will be activated by default. You can check by opening Security Center from the Control Panel. If you have Windows XP from 2004 or before, however, and for some reason you haven’t installed Service Pack 2, you’ll need to activate the Firewall manually. In the Control Panel select Network and Internet Connections, followed by Network Connections. Right-click the icon for your Internet connection and select Properties from the menu. Under the Advanced tab you’ll see a box that can be checked to activate your firewall protection. While the Windows firewall is much better than nothing, it’s a long way from being totally impenetrable. For more protection, try the free version of ZoneAlarm – especially if you use Windows XP. There are other options, such as Norton’s Personal Firewall, but they’re not free and they don’t offer much extra for the typical home user: ZoneAlarm Norton Firewall Both the above come as stand alone programs or as part of comprehensive security suites complete with virus and spyware scanners. For more on choosing and installing a firewall, see: Home PC Firewall Guide

Rule #4: Scan

Virus scanning software keeps track of your computer activity to protect you from viruses, Trojans, worms and other such evils. No scanning software is 100 percent effective, but they do add an extra layer of security to your PC. (There are also scanners available for Macs, but for now risks seem too low to make them worth paying for.) In order to be effective, virus scanners need to keep themselves up to date by downloading information about the most recent threats from the Internet. As such, they are often sold as a subscription service.

Rule #5: Enable wireless security

If you have a wireless router at home, be sure to implement a few basic security measures. First, add a WPA password, to make sure your connection is only used by the people you want to use it. If you currently use a WEP password, switch to WPA if your router offers it – it’s much more secure. Next, make sure you set your own username and password or accessing your router settings (a separate setting from the password needed to connect to the router and use the Internet). Otherwise, anyone within range could log-in, mess-up your settings and even turn off your password. All these settings are most commonly configured via a Web browser, but the exact details vary from router to router, so refer to your manual for more information.

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