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Protect yourself from viruses, hackers, online menaces

Elizabeth Malloy
Special to the Post Independent

Do you surf the Internet and send e-mail? If you do, you may want to investigate the level of security you have on your personal computer in order to protect your privacy, and the computer you spent good money on.

The Internet always has had its share of uncertain neighborhoods and dark alleys. But with increasingly sophisticated threats from hackers, viruses, spam e-mails and spyware, trouble is finding computer users no matter how cautiously they roam online.

Many computer users don’t realize that without adequate protection, whenever you are connected to the Internet, you are doing the electronic equivalent of leaving your house or car unlocked and open to the public.



A study by the National Cyber Security Alliance found that 77 percent of 326 adults in 12 states assured researchers in a telephone poll they were safe from online threats. When experts visited those people to examine computers, they found two-thirds of adults using antivirus software that hadn’t been updated in at least seven days. Two-thirds of the computer users also were not using any type of protective firewall program, and spyware was found on the computers of 80 percent of those in the study.

While this is a serious issue, taking a few simple measures can give you a reasonable level of protection. The aim of this article is to pull together and summarize a range of suggestions to protect yourself and your computer. Here are my top suggestions:



Backup: Unfortunately, it’s impossible to stop a hacker if they are determined enough. If a thief wants to break into your car, no amount of alarms will stop him if he uses a sledge hammer. Your computer is no different. The most important advice is to regularly backup the data on your computer. In the worst case scenario, where your computer is unusable, the disk can be formatted and you can reinstall everything, starting with your operating system (Windows for most people). It is not necessary to have a backup copy of everything, because you should have the original installation disks from which you can reinstall your programs. For example, you need to have regular backups of important files such as letters and spreadsheets; these are often saved in a “My Documents” folder. Scanned or saved pictures or images usually are saved in a “My Pictures” folder.

You could invest in a CD writer or a zip drive to store the backups. If you don’t have one of these devices, you can create compressed zip files with free programs such as WinZip. These zip files can be stored on a floppy disk or e-mailed to a friend for safe keeping.

Anti-virus: Get anti-virus software. This type of software has increased in sophistication dramatically over the last few years to keep up with new strains of viruses being found. F-Secure Anti-Virus, Norton Antivirus, McAfee Virus Scan, AVG Anti-Virus (free version available) are all quality anti-virus programs.

Anti-virus software is only as effective as its most recent update because it can only treat “known” threats. When you install anti-virus software, go to the vendor’s Web site and update the virus definitions immediately, and then turn on the auto update feature. Most anti-virus software works on viruses and worms. but not as well on Trojan horses or spyware.

Spyware and Trojan horses: This is a growing menace, and the most dangerous threat to one’s private information, including credit card numbers, passwords, and bank account information. In a nutshell, spyware is software installed on a computer without the user’s knowledge. It gathers information about that user for later retrieval by whoever controls the spyware. Trojan horses are commonly attached to innocent looking e-mails you receive, read and execute. Once installed, the software will contact its maker the next time you’re connected to the Internet and instruct it to carry out certain actions, like stealing your personal information. Microsoft Anti-Spyware and Ad-Aware are two good examples of free software you can download and install to protect your computer.

Firewall: While you are connected to the Internet, your computer opens thousands of “ports” which are used for transferring data. For example, port 80 is used for Web pages and port 25 is used for e-mail. You don’t have to understand how this works; what’s important is that you realize these ports are open doors for people to communicate with your computer, usually without you realizing it. This sort of open port attack could be used as a direct attempt to access data on your PC. The best protection for home users is to obtain a “personal firewall.” These programs check information being sent into and out of your computer via the Internet, and block anything bad. Check out one of the three firewalls: Norton Internet Security, Zone Alarm (free), or McAfee Personal Firewall.

E-mails and phishing: Not fishing! Phishing e-mails are those fraudulent e-mails claiming to be from the likes of Citizen Bank, eBay, and PayPal that ask for sensitive information. If you haven’t heard this already, please know that these companies would never ask for this information through e-mail. Don’t fall for the phishing scams ” delete the e-mails that contain them.

You can install all of the programs recommended above, but your efforts would be wasted if you open an infected e-mail attachment and effectively install a virus on your computer. While these e-mails usually appear harmless, and may even be sent or appear to be sent by someone you know, the file could be infected by a virus. Do not open any attachments that you do not know are being sent to you.

For me, without a doubt, the most appealing part of computing is accessing the World Wide Web. The above information can make surfing safer and more enjoyable for you.

Elizabeth Malloy is the business development manager at Blizzard Internet Marketing Inc., based in Glenwood Springs. For more information on Blizzard Internet Marketing Inc., see http://www.blizzardinternet.com.


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