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The Common Sense approach to securing a PC against attacks over the Internet


There are many ways that a PC can become a victim of an attack over the Internet, where many traps lie in wait for the unwary. Over the last few years, the Internet has changed from an open, relatively safe environment to an extremely hostile, dangerous place. However, all is not lost as, with some basic common sense rules and some help from preventative software, using the Internet can be relatively risk-free.

Securing your PC in this way ensures that your data is as safe as possible and, after all, it's your data which is of real value to you and it's probably irreplaceable in its entirety. You'll also be safe from the very real threat of Identity Theft, which is soaring in incidence both online and offline (or "real life" as we used to call it).

Remember, 9 out of 10 computers are reputedly infected with spyware and adware, without their owners being aware of it. Don't let this be you!

1. Install Anti-Virus software and keep it up to date.

There really is no reason to get a virus infection these days, yet many people do. If you have a reputable anti-virus program installed and you have it correctly configured and updated regularly, you will never get an infection unless you're extremely unlucky - or extremely careless. For home and non-profit use there are some excellent anti-virus products which are completely free to use, so there really is no excuse for a lack of virus protection.

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2. Install Firewall software and keep it configured and up to date.

Even if your PC is on a network behind a hardware firewall, it still makes sense to have a software firewall installed as well. It may seem like a "belt-and-braces" approach, which it is, but bearing in mind that the safest way to secure a PC against the perils of the Internet is to remove the modem or network cable, the next safest approach is to connect back as little of that cable as possible. The smaller a target is, the less likely it is to be hit. Watch for any updates to your firewall software, which are important to keep you secure when security holes are found in the software. A computer without a firewall connected to the internet will typically be attacked by some kind of worm, hacker or other evil, within a few seconds (click here to see a short video showing this sort of attack in action), so even people connecting via dial-up with a modem are no longer safe.

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3. Keep all software (particularly Windows) up to date.

Windows is an extremely complex collection of programs and security vulnerabilities are uncovered almost daily. Keeping Windows up-to-date is easy and often requires almost no user intervention, yet many PCs lack critical security patches which would prevent them being vulnerable to all kinds of nasties in the first place. Keeping Windows and all other software updated is usually simple, free and most of all, just Common Sense.

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4. Use Common Sense with emails.

Try to avoid using Outlook and Outlook Express for your email. Although these two programs are much more secure than they were previously, many virus writers exploit them, so using an alternative program makes it more difficult for a virus to attack your PC and spread to others. If you have to use one of these, follow some basic common sense rules. Never open attachments directly from the email - save them first. Don't use the preview pane as images can get loaded from the Internet which will confirm your email address to spammers and worse. Never click on hotlinks in emails unless you're certain where they're taking you. Never respond to spam mails in any way - simply delete them on receipt. Use a good spam filtering system if your ISP doesn't already filter out the junk. Send all emails as plain text - although HTML lets you use fancy formatting, such formatting adds nothing to the useful content of your emails and exposes you to the danger of malicious content where none existed with plain text. It's just plain Common Sense.

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5. Use Common Sense when browsing the web.

Don't use Internet Explorer unless you really have to. Internet Explorer is so widely used that many undesirable types have been known to exploit specific weaknesses in that browser, whereas many other browsers resist such attacks. Better to use Mozilla Firefox or Opera, which are alternative free web browsers that work very well indeed. Use a pop-up blocker if your browser doesn't have one built in, and never click on pop-up adverts. Be very careful about accepting offers of software that claims it's required for viewing certain web pages - most (but not all) is malicious. If your home page or search page settings become changed without your involvement, adware is most likely to blame. There is software you can install that will prevent your settings getting hijacked - and prevention is better than cure. It's Common Sense.

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6. Be vigilant. Audit everything. Trust nothing.

Be sensible about the software you install on your PC. If it came from an illegal source, ask yourself what people are trying to gain by supplying it. Many applications come with unexpected additions which are installed unannounced with scant reference in the terms and conditions. Always carefully read the licence agreement with new software and reject any which you're unsure of. Rogue applications will silently install themselves on your PC and then run unseen in the background every time you use your computer. If you are besieged with pop-up windows, run-time error dialogs and a PC which seems to run very sluggishly, connecting to the Internet unexpectedly, suspect that there are rogue programs running which are using up valuable computing power and often doing more sinister things without your knowledge. If this sounds like your PC, seek expert help immediately before your usernames and passwords are sent to people who want to empty your bank account, and more... And beware of companies that offer free online spyware scans, as many of those goad you into buying their "anti-spyware" software by giving false positive results. Many of these paid-for programs are less effective than their freeware equivalents and many are even worse than the spyware they're meant to be preventing. Again, ask an expert for sensible advice rather than risk being duped, to your cost.

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7. Install other security software and keep it updated.

There are many useful applications which can be downloaded free of charge and which will protect your PC from many types of malicious activity that would not be trapped by anti-virus software alone. You can protect yourself against spam, spyware, adware, pop-up adverts, trojans, browser hijackers, key-loggers, phishing and most other types of malicious software (malware for short). Programs which can't be scheduled to automatically run on a regular basis, either to update themselves or to scan for potential problems, should be manually run as a matter of common sense. Set aside some time each week to spend on updating and scanning to ensure that protection that you took the trouble to install several months ago is still doing its job effectively. A false sense of security is worse than no security at all.

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8. Backup, backup, backup.

You must have heard it before, but we'll say it again. If you're serious about your data, you'll back it up on a regular basis. How many times have you heard someone say "That was five years' work, all gone thanks to a virus!"? If they valued their work, they wouldn't have worried because they'd have a backup copy somewhere safe. Having a backup solution in place costs very little, yet many people don't think about backups until they lose all their data, when it is of course too late. Again, a little discipline is all that's required to create a regular backup and give you that nice warm feeling that even if your PC exploded, your data is safely backed up. It's simply Common Sense.

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9. Configure with care.

Although it's great to be able to share data with others, it's dangerous to share your entire hard disk over a small network and madness to share it over the Internet. By all means enable sharing on a specific folder or folders over your network, but be careful with who you allow access to and be very strict with the level of access that you grant to anyone. Carte-blanche access with no passwords will also enable many virus and worm infections to jump from PC to PC over a network regardless of any email security you may have in place. Remember that if you allow other people on the network to have full access to your files, they can accidentally delete the lot without having the safety-net of the recycle bin to fall back on. Of course, you will have backups, just in case, won't you? This is just one of many examples where lack of attention to detail with your PC configuration can cost you data loss which would otherwise have been completely avoidable. If in any doubt, consult an expert without delay. It's just plain Common Sense.

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10. Disconnect that modem!

If you're on broadband, having a modem available is a useful fall-back in case that nice fast connection breaks down for any reason, but never leave it plugged in to your phone line unless you're actually using it. Without your knowledge, dialler software can be installed onto your computer which will quietly connect to a premium-rate number and run up a bill of hundreds of pounds in a very short time. If you have an external modem, simply switch it off when not in use.

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