Safeguard Your Computer

While con artists and fraudsters may use technology and the Web to find and fool their victims, their scams depend on human nature; our own fears and foibles make us vulnerable to their crimes. Hackers, vandals and even some deceptive advertisers, on the other hand, approach their victims from a different angle: they take advantage of weaknesses in technology itself. Here are some tips to help keep your computer safe from this brand of bad guys. After all, what's the point of having the street smarts to avoid getting conned if you're just going to leave your door unlocked for the next burglar who comes along?

Eight Tips for Safer Surfing

  • Keep your operating system and Internet browser updated. Weaknesses in your computer's operating system or your Web browser can be exploited by hackers and . When such flaws are uncovered, software providers (such as Microsoft, Apple and Mozilla) often release "patches" that can be downloaded free of charge from their Web site. Many operating systems and browsers can be (or are by default) set to automatically download these new updates. Without these regular updates you are vulnerable. In fact, even on new computers and fresh-out-of-the-box programs, you should check with the software provider online to see if any new updates are available.
  • Use up-to-date anti-virus, anti-adware, anti-spyware programs. Every computer needs a reputable anti-virus program. This type of utility performs virus scans, which means it attempts to inspect software on your computer before it runs, and if it finds malicious software, it either removes or disables it. Your computer should also have a good spyware scanner, which does the same thing as a virus scanner, but targets spyware and adware. Keep in mind that these programs are only effective if you keep them updated. New and spyware tricks are invented every day, and your anti-virus and anti-spyware software can't protect you if it doesn't know about them.
  • Use a firewall. Firewalls, which come in both hardware and software varieties, are designed to stop unauthorized people and from accessing your computer. Hardware firewalls are electronic devices that connect between your computer (or your network) and the Internet and block incoming communications from unauthorized sources. Using a hardware firewall allows you to protect an entire network of computers with one device. For this reason, they are often preferred by businesses and organizations.

    Software firewalls, on the other hand, use programs that direct the computer they are installed on to block unauthorized communications from unrecognized sources, so they're convenient for individual computer users. Most operating systems come with a built-in software firewall, but it's important to make sure it's enabled and properly configured, especially if you have a broadband connection (like DSL or cable). Broadband users need to be particularly vigilant because their computers are always connected to the Internet.

  • Don't open unexpected or suspicious email attachments. Even from friends and family, unexpected attachments can cause big problems. Remember, email attachments are the most common way spread. Make sure your virus scanning software is configured to scan your email and attachments. Most importantly, use common sense when downloading and opening attachments. If you don't recognize the source or are unsure what the attachment is, don't open it.
  • Use wireless connections cautiously. Wireless is convenient but it isn't always secure. In fact, you should assume that any information you send or receive via a public wireless network is available for anyone to see, especially if the network is not encrypted and does not require a password. Better safe than sorry, as they say.

    At home, if you're not careful, anyone with a wireless card of their own can use your wireless network and perhaps invade your computer. Take the following steps to safeguard your home's wireless network:

    Turn it off. When you're not using your wireless network, turn it off. Cyber crooks can't find it if it isn't on.

    Enable MAC address filtering. Every wireless device (your computer's wireless network card, for example) has a unique Media Access Control (MAC) address, also known as the physical address, coded into it by the manufacturer. Many wireless routers offer a function called MAC address filtering, which allows you to restrict access to a list of approved devices. While implementing such filtering is generally a good idea, keep in mind that hackers can fake MAC addresses in order to appear to be using an approved device.

    Scramble communications over your network using the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) encryption protocol. There is also an older, out-of-date protocol available, called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). Using either of these will keep neighbors or passing freeloaders off your network, but WEP won't protect you from a real cyber criminal.

    Turn off your router's identifier broadcasting function. Your wireless router broadcasts a signal, called an identifier, to let computers within range know that it's there. Turn off the broadcasting feature so that cyber criminals or neighbors will be less likely to find you.

    Change your identifier and administrator's password. Your router probably came with a factory-set default identifier and administrator's password. Hackers have lists of default identifiers and passwords that they can use to access your network. Be sure to create a new, personalized identifier and password. Using at least 10 characters including letters, numbers and symbols in any password will help keep your network more secure.

  • Keep your Web browser's security settings high. As the program that connects you to the Internet, your Web browser is an important line of defense against cyber crooks and invasive advertising.  Set its security settings to the highest level possible, then work backwards, enabling functions thoughtfully as you discover how the increased security setting affects the Web sites you tend to use. Approaching your security settings in this way will ensure that you are restricting , blocking pop up ads and stopping the download of plug-in programs until you are sure that you 1) trust the site they are coming from and 2) are sure you absolutely need them.
  • Use strong passwords. Passwords should be long (10 or more characters); they should use letters, numbers and symbols; and they should be easy to remember and hard to guess. They should also be changed regularly. Avoid using logical sequences (12345 or abcdefg), repeated characters (3333333#####), adjacent letters on the keyboard (zxcvb) or passwords using only words. Using your real name or screen name is also a bad idea, as is using the same password for multiple accounts.
  • Be careful about free downloads. Free software often comes "adware supported." Before downloading any new program you find on the Internet be sure to read the End User Licensing Agreement. If your new program comes "bundled" with pop-up inducing spyware programs, you may find out there.

    Files downloaded via peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing networks, which facilitate the sharing (both legal and illegal) of music, movies and software can also come with more than you bargained for.  Beyond the legal risk of sharing copyrighted materials, P2P networks can also put you at risk for and spyware. Malicious programs may be mislabeled as popular movies or software.  Remember, the hackers who spend their time "cracking" copy-protected computer games and programs may be the same people who know how to write new and other .