Internet Security

Tips to help you lock down your computer securely and keep your data safe

The Internet has opened up a whole new mechanism for the meeting of buyers and sellers. It has never been easier for a consumer to find the exact item they are looking for, and to comparison shop. Sellers have been able to quickly find new customers through Internet marketing.

Unfortunately, while the Internet has revolutionized the way consumers shop and merchants sell, so too has it opened up new ways for intruders to gather information that could put you and your family at risk.

Identity theft is so prevalent that you probably know someone it’s happened to and if you do you know what a challenge it is and how damaging it can be. Unfortunately, identity theft is just the tip of the iceberg. If ID theft was my only concern while surfing the internet I wouldn’t need my arsenal of internet protection software. Viruses, spyware, worms and computer hijackings that turn your computer into a node on a zombie network assisting in worldwide cybercrimes are but a few of the things you need to worry about. Or do you? Installing the right software and a little education might not eliminate these dangers but you can reduce your risk enough to sleep peacefully.

Picture of internet security

Here, we will show you what these risks are and, more importantly, will help you avoid them.

Lets start off with some simple definitions:

What is Malware?

Definition: Malware, short for “malicious software,” is any program or file that is harmful to a computer user. Malware includes computer viruses, worms, Trojan Horses, and Spyware.

What is Adware?

Definition: adware is a generic term that refers to any software application in which advertising banners are displayed while a program is running. The ads are typically viewed through pop-up windows or through a bar that appears on a computer screen. adware is a nuisance. The creators of adware rationalize its existence by arguing that if helps offset software development costs and is, thus, beneficial to consumers because it helps to reduce the costs of products that they use.

Adware has been criticized because it usually includes code that tracks a user’s personal information and passes it on to third parties, without the user’s authorization or knowledge. This high tech spying has resulted in this practice being referred to as Spyware. As you will see from the definition of Spyware below, adware and Spyware are very closely related. In fact, they are so closely related that the terms are often used interchangeably.

What is spyware?

Definition: Spyware is any technology that aids in gathering information about a person or an organization without their knowledge or consent. On the Internet (where it is sometimes called a spybot or tracking software), Spyware is programming that is put in someone’s computer to secretly gather information about the user and relay it to advertisers or other interested parties. Spyware can get in a computer as a software virus or as the result of installing a new program.

Data collecting programs that are installed with the user’s knowledge are not, technically, Spyware, as long as the user understands what data is being collected and with whom it is being shared. The problem is that Spyware is all too often installed without the user’s consent as a drive-by-download, or as the result of clicking some option in a deceptive pop-up window. adware, software designed to serve advertising, can usually be thought of as Spyware as well because it almost invariably includes components for tracking and reporting user information.

Cookies can even be considered a form of Spyware in that they store information about a computer user. The difference between cookies and Spyware, however, is that cookies are stored on your computer and you have the power to block access to them. Cookies are, thus, really only Spyware to the extent that a website stores information about you in a cookie that you are not aware of.

What is Scumware?

Definition: Scumware is any programming that gets on your computer from Internet sites without your consent and often without your knowledge. Scumware is a general term that encompasses spyware, adware, annoyware, malware, parasiteware, unwelcome cookies, and various forms of viruses. Scumware has become an increasing problem in recent years. Tactics employed by scumware purveyors range from deception to fraud to outright larceny. Scumware can arrive as part of some shareware and freeware packages. Scumware can also be used to facilitate identity theft. A number of programs are available to limit the vulnerability of computers to scumware. They include firewalls, anti-virus software, pop-up ad blockers, and programs designed to detect and delete cookies and spyware.

Be wary of any free program you download off of the internet. Sure, there are more than a few free programs that are nice to have and are comletely harmless. But many of those nifty little search programs that integrate into your browser do nothing useful and exist only to serve you annoying popups or track your activity or worse! If you see something you want to install from some company or individual you have never heard of do some quick research on the web before you install it. Even major companies will install spyware as part of a larger package. The Weather Bug was always one of my favorites that was bundled with the AOL Instant Messenger(AIM). As if that wasn’t enough they include Wild Tangent and a useless image viewer. One of these AIM updates had spyware so poorly crafted that their installation caused both internet connections to shut down or website logins to fail. My job at the time included company security and all I could do was shake my head as I went from computer to computer fixing the problem. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand how easy it is to install these since they are slipped in so innocently with the boxes helpfully pre-checked for your convenience. Hardly anyone notices. I call this job security for the security guy.

Computer Viruses

Viruses remain the biggest threat to your computer. If a virus or worm infects your computer, you could lose important data (or have it stolen), experience reduced machine function, have your computer’s control taken over by another computer, or all of the above. Unfortunately, computer viruses are created so fast, that it is difficult for anti-virus software developers to keep up. Fortunately, there are a number of good anti-virus programs to aid with the destruction of these viruses.

The most common way for viruses to get into your computer is through e-mail. The virus is hidden in an attachment that comes with the e-mail, and when you open the file, the virus begins its dastardly deeds. Once a virus has infected a computer in this manner, it will sometimes automatically send itself back out as an attachment to everybody in your address book. Fortunately, e-mail programs are getting much more effective at scanning e-mail attachments for viruses. You must still be careful, however, because viruses may still be sent to you by your friends or family without their even knowing it.

The easiest thing that you can do to protect yourself against viruses received through e-mail is to always be on the lookout for suspicious attachments. If you get an attachment that seems suspicious, don’t immediately open it. Instead, e-mail the person who sent the file and ask them what it is. If they don’t know what it is, or don’t remember sending it, delete the e-mail (or attached file) immediately. If a stranger sends you an e-mail with an attachment, you should delete it without opening it in most cases.

Viruses can also be picked up during the course of surfing the Internet. Some pages will ask you to download and install a file or program for the purpose of better viewing the site. If the pop up box shows the request to be from a reputable company – one you are very familiar with – the file may be installed safely. If, however, you have never heard of the file or company, do not install the file or program. Instead, cancel/close the box and leave the website. These types of downloads are simply not worth the risk of infecting your computer.

Don’t skip Critical Updates!

Software vendors aren’t sending you critical updates just for fun. These updates address specific vulnerabilities in your operating system or other software. Installing updates is imperative if the update addresses vulnerabilities to your internet security software such as your firewall or anti-virus. These vulnerabilities expose your banking accounts and identity or allow your computer to be used to attack other computers in giant DDOS attacks. So when you are sent notification of an update we reccomend that you install it immediately. It is my experience that many people don’t treat these updates nearly as seriously as they should. Either they don’t know what the update is for or they are afraid to do the install themselves. By the time the update is sent out to you many hackers are already well aware of how to exploit the vulnerability it addresses and gain control over your computer. So you need to act right away. Get into the habit of installing critical updates as part of your internet security strategy and you stand a much better chance of safeguarding your identity and banking accounts.

Are Public Computers Secure?

Probably not. Avoid online banking or other online activities that may expose your identity or internet accounts when using a public computer. It doesn’t matter if it’s the public library or an internet cafe or even the computer of a close friend. This is because someone else that’s used the computer may have deliberately or accidently installed allowed spyware onto it. Your friend may be completely trustworthy but if they haven’t kept their computer’s security up to date you could expose yourself to all kinds of problems.

The best thing to do is to wait until you get home before logging into your accounts.

Safe Password Practices

Creating and maintaining safe, strong passwords’s is one of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself against cyber-security threats.

First, the easy stuff: keep your passwords in a secure, hidden location. Don’t attach them to your monitor with sticky notes. Don’t tell anyone what your password is. Don’t post it on the internet, email it, or tell it to someone over the phone. Internet Service Providers and banks will never ask for your password. These safe passord practices protect you from physical threats but won’t help you thwart hackers.

Make it hard for hackers

Hackers are people that try to gain access to your computer. They do this by figuring out your password. Creating strong passwords and changing them on a regular basis will make this a difficult task. Remember these general rule the next time you create or change your password.

  • Passwords should have at least eight characters and include numerals and symbols and both capital and lower case letters.
  • Don’t use common words. Hacker tools include programs that try every word in the dictionary.
  • Don’t use birthdates, pet, children or spouse names, your login name, or adjacent keys on the keyboard as passwords.
  • Change your password regularly
  • Don’t use the same password from all of your accounts.
  • Don’t login to accounts on public computers. This includes internet cafes, libraries and schools to name but a few.
  • Sensitive information should be protected with very strong passwords. Banks and online trading accounts should be as difficult to crack as possible.

Following these safe password practices will make your passwords very hard to crack.

Easy Steps to Internet Security

Malicious Internet threats, or which there are many, are clearly a formidable enemy. Fortunately, there are many tools and an abundance of information readily available so that you can enjoy the Internet without putting your computer and confidential information at risk.

Follow these simple, effective, and inexpensive steps to make your computer and personal information the Cyber Space equivalent of Fort Knox:

  • Use a Firewall. Firewall’s are a very effective way to stop hackers from attacking your computer because they stop unwanted connection attempts. It’s hard for someone to hijack your computer when they can’t connect to it in the first place. Feeling safe isn’t the same as being safe so choose your firewall wisely.
  • Use a Spyware removal program and run a scan at least once a week. Remember that using more than one anti-spyware tool is recommended if you want to detect and remove all spyware from your computer.
  • Install a good anti-virus program.
  • Change to a more secure (than Microsoft Internet Explorer) web browser. Internet Explorer is famous for its security flaws. Try a more secure browser like Foxfire by Mozilla. In addition to being safer, it also has several great features lacking in IE, including; a built-in pop-up blocker, Google search tool, and browser tabs that enable you to have several web pages open at once without opening a new browser.
  • Never provide personal or financial information to a non-secure website. A secure website is indicated by HTTPS in the address bar, and a small padlock icon in the lower right-hand corner of your browser window.
  • Never provide confidential or financial information in response to an email request. Legitimate companies will never ask for personal or financial information over an insecure medium like e-mail. Any attempt to trick people into revealing personal and financial information through fake e-mail messages is known as Phishing. Be very careful, because some of these messages look very official. Scammers focus on very well known companies when running their Phishing scams. Don’t fall prey to these outlaws.
  • Read the fine print before typing in private personal information. Always read the privacy policy of a website to understand how they will use your information. Will they share or sell it? Be suspicious if no privacy policy is visible.
  • Never download or accept any file or program from an un-trusted source. adware and Spyware are frequently bundled with “free” programs. You may download one program and find that your computer becomes infected with a Spyware program.
  • Be wary and scan all e-mail attachments for viruses. Never open an unexpected e-mail attachment, even from known friends or business senders. Their computers may be infected. Self-spreading worms can infect a computer and then send an infected e-mail-attachment to everyone in the owner’s address book.
  • Maintain password integrity. If you like to surf the web as much as we do, you will invariably sign up at a number of your favorite sites. It is very easy to fall into the trap of using the same password over, and over again. The problem with this is that should your password be compromised at one site, it could be compromised at several sites. There is software that can crack password and user ID codes. If a hacker were to get your information from one site, they can then automatically attempt logins at thousands of site using that same information. If your passwords are the same, you are doomed. The easy solution is to use a variety of passwords that are not related to each other. Next, you will want to change these passwords frequently. Finally, you will want to keep track of these passwords in a secure place. It sounds like a lot, but it is worth it to not have your identity stolen from you.

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