While it's a great tool, using the Internet carries a certain amount of risk. We read about virus and worms destroying information, we're annoyed by those pesky ads that keep popping up on our display, and we see TV shows about identity theft. It's easy to become worried. Heck, I'm guilty of scaring people, too; my first novel, PeaceMaker, is about an intelligent virus that shuts down the Internet.
While the risks are real, there are a number of steps to mitigate the problems. And you don't have to be a techie, either. This article contains common-sense suggestions that the average home computer user can employ.
Identity theft, a growing problem, usually results in the loss of social security numbers, bank or investment account information, or passwords. A typical scam is an email that states that there is a problem with your account and asks you to log into a fake website that looks just like the official one. You are asked to update your information, and the scammer captures all the data as you enter it. The common sense solution is to never click on an email into a sensitive account. Always go directly (or through your favorites list) to the real website.
As we all know, the Internet is riddled with viruses and worms. A virus is a program that attaches itself to another program, usually riding email from one computer to another. The virus is activated when the email is opened, and it may consume your computer resources, destroy important information, attach a copy of itself to every email you send, or carry on any number of unpleasant activities. A worm might be as dangerous as a virus, and it can spread all by itself.
The best defense is a comprehensive anti-virus software product provided by firms such as Norton or McAfee. These AV products check every email message entering or leaving your computer and search for every known virus or worm. When it finds software that matches the signature of a known virus or worm, it isolates the virus or worm and warns the user. The usual course of action is to erase the offending software.
Although you should keep your virus definitions up to date(automatic updates should be utilized), a brand new virus could sneak past the AV product and infect your computer. Although the AV product received the virus definition too late to prevent the infection, it might catch it later. The AV product checks every file as it's accessed, so there is a good chance it will detect the virus that infected your system. A weekly scan of your entire file system is a good idea, just to be extra careful.
Spyware is another pesky problem. Ever wonder where those annoying popup ads come from? It's adware, a form of spyware, which is tracking software installed on your computer with little or no notification, consent or control. Spyware monitors your activities and may display ads based upon the websites you've visited. Furthermore, it may keep track of all your activities and then report the results to some other party across the net.
Spyware is designed to be difficult to remove. Often, these programs are impossible to delete through the Windows Add/Remove function. Many AV products now incorporate anti-spyware functionality. In addition, it's not a bad idea to install a dedicated anti-spyware program to back up the AV software. Anti-spyware products may prevent spyware from installing, and they warn the user of installed spyware. As before, a weekly scan of your files is a good practice.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer is by far the most frequently used browser. As a result, most virus and spyware writers focus the bulk of their efforts on IE. As a result, third party browsers, such as Firefox, are not vulnerable to all the viruses that infect IE. If you are having a bad time with infections, consider moving to another browser.
Finally, set up a firewall on your computer. A firewall regulates the inbound and outbound connections between your PC and the Internet. It prevents unknown outside computers from connecting to your PC. Hackers and automated software are constantly searching for unprotected computers, but a firewall should prevent them from breaking in. Windows includes a firewall, as do many of the comprehensive AV products. Firewalls are not foolproof, but they add another line of defense. This article is not a comprehensive description of ways to protect your PC, but it's a good starting point. A good AV package, including anti-spyware and a firewall, properly used is a great tool. Combined with common sense, you will dramatically reduce the risk to your PC.
Dan Ronco is a writer of technology thrillers and near future science fiction. PeaceMaker, his first novel, was published in 2004 and his second, Unholy Domain, will be released March, 2008. Dan mixes visionary ideas with a touch of romance and humor. Learn more about Dan at http://www.danronco.com
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