Internet Security 101
Here’s a quick overview of things you can do to make your computer safer. No computer on the Internet can be 100% safe, but following these basic guidelines will protect you from the majority of threats.
1. Buy a Mac — I’ll start with this one to avoid obvious jokes in the comments. Macs aren’t immune to security threats but most viruses are written for the PC, so Mac users are still safer, on average, than Windows users.
2. Get the latest Windows updates — Most Windows machines have these enabled by default, but it’s still worth a check. Check your Start Menu for an icon called “Windows Update” and make sure they’re set to automatically download and install updates as they come in. For example, I set my machine to check for updates and install them every morning at 3 a.m. Don’t worry about Optional updates, just let your system install everything that’s recommended.
If you haven’t done this before, you may have a long wait, as your system downloads all the big security updates and Service Packs. Don’t worry about it. Just let it run. It’s not hurting your system and it’s not uploading your email to Microsoft.
The bad guys are out there every day scanning for people who still have unpatched operating systems. Enabling Windows Updates is the first thing you should do to protect yourself, and surfing the web with an unpatched OS is the quickest way to get in trouble.
Those “Zombie computer” victims you hear about on the news? Most of those are people who didn’t update their operating systems.
If you haven’t let your computer get updates from Microsoft since you took it out of the box, you’re asking for trouble.
3. Get an antivirus program — Again, Windows is a lot better at this than it used to be. Windows Firewall is enabled by default and Windows Defender will protect users against the most common threats. But there are a dozen free and easy ways to upgrade your protection. Norton and McAfee still make good products but they tend to be expensive, invasive and complicated. There are some great free alternatives available now, and one of the best actually comes from Microsoft.
After 20 years of dubious efforts, Microsoft has finally aquired an antivirus solution that’s ready for prime time. Microsoft Security Essentials is simple, free and surprisingly effective. It runs quickly and doesn’t “take over your system” like Norton and McAfee.
Don’t get hung up on which antivirus program is the “best.” Each company has its own strengths and weaknesses and the title of “best” changes every few months. Just remember that something is better than nothing, and don’t try to run with more than one antivirus solution active at a time. If you try to install a new antivirus program before you uninstall the old one they’ll go to war with each other and screw up your system worse than an actual attack.
4. Stay out of bad neighborhoods — Internet security is a lot like real life security. If you want to stay out of trouble, don’t hang out with criminals and don’t walk around in bad neighborhoods after dark. Most Internet security measures are common sense. If you’re worried about keeping your computer safe, don’t go to porn sites and don’t download pirated software.
Illegal software has to be “cracked” to get past the copy protection and many of these cracks contain trojans and spyware. Media files are generally safer than executable programs, but some media files are “containers” that may try to install extra stuff or direct you to questionable web sites.
If you’re worried about security, play it safe. Buy your games and movies from reputable sites and don’t be seduced by the lure of free stuff. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.
5. Stop forwarding junk emails — This is a touchy subject but it’s time for some tough love. You know that VIRUS WARNING you just got in the mail? It’s probably a hoax. Don’t forward it to your kids. Just make sure you’ve updated your antivirus software and trust it to do its job. If you’re worried about it, go to Snopes.com and type some keywords from the email into their Search box. Nine times out of 10 Snopes will have an update that will explain what’s really going on.
I encourage everyone on the Net to bookmark and read Snopes.com. Sadly, 9 out of 10 forwards you see are lies. Virus warnings, patriotic speeches, political rumors — most of it is misleading, misattributed or simply made up out of whole cloth.
And frankly, mass forwarding email is kind of rude. Your friends and your kids are too polite to tell you, but most of us are overwhelmed by email and don’t appreciate having our work interrupted by another quote from Chicken Soup for the Soul. Consider moving that stuff to your Facebook Wall, where your audience can control when and how they see it.
Most of us have our email forwarding to mobile devices these days and we can’t tell the difference between an urgent message and a frivilous one.
6. Change the way you share links — If you’re worried about security and email spam, count to 10 and think carefully before you give your email address to anyone. Any time you click “Email this” and use a form to send someone a link, you’re giving that site permission to send you (and the recipient) advertising.
Even if the site is reputable and promises not to give your address to a 3rd party, the site itself can still send you advertising and make deals with “partners” that may not be so careful with your address.
Best to avoid that risk entirely and learn to cut and paste web addresses into email. Just go to the web site you want to share and right click on the address. Select “Copy” from the right-click menu and paste the address on Facebook or onto a fresh email.
It takes a bit longer, but you’re not giving away your email address, or anybody else’s, to someone who may abuse it.
For people who like to forward news stories, Facebook has a new feature that can simplify the process. All the major news sites now have Recommend buttons. This provides a great compromise for people who want to share news with friends without spamming their inboxes.
Putting links on your Facebook page is a great way to share stuff without forcing it on people. And using the Recommend button keeps the interruption to a minimum. But make sure you only do this on reputable news sites. Bad guys are already finding ways to hijack the Facebook buttons.
7. Manage your junk mail — Clients have gotten a lot better about containing spam lately, but it’s still a problem. If you’re using Microsoft Outlook, consider setting your Junk Email protection to “High.” You can find “Junk Email Options” in the Actions menu.
Be sure to keep an eye on your Junk Email folder for a few weeks after that. You may have to fish some people out and add them to your Safe Senders list, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
If you’re using Yahoo or MSN consider switching to Gmail. Gmail’s spam filter is the best on the market right now and Yahoo just isn’t cutting it anymore. I’ve had a Yahoo account for years, but recently I’ve seen a lot of dangerous stuff get through.
8. Protect your banking information — Never go to your banking site by clicking on a link in an email. Ever. I have never had a Paypal or a Chase bank account but I get emails every day pretending to be from Paypal and Chase asking me to log in and “verify my account.”
No matter how official the email looks, don’t click on these links. Instead, type the address of your bank directly into the browser or make a bookmark to it. A good email client can help protect you from these “phishing” links but smart attacks can always slip through.
As I said, most Internet security is common sense. I’ve been all over the Net, on all kinds of sites in the presence of all kinds of threats and I haven’t had a virus in 20 years.
Just keep your PC updated, run some basic antivirus software and stay out of bad neighborhoods. That should protect you from the worst of it.
If you’ve got your own security tips, or if you thought of something I missed, please share it in the comments.
Update: And before I forget, let me make sure and plug Glass Houses with Bert Knabe, who blogs about security for the A-J. Bert keeps up with the latest trends and talks about current security threats. I particularly like this recent one, “Is social media safe for work?“