The Internet is inherently a very UNSAFE place. All manner of bad guys (mostly guys, but not all) lurk out there to damage and/or hijack your computer. There are untold numbers of IT professionals trying to keep ahead of them, but the process is never-ending. The culprits range from the juvenile and socially inept to professional criminals (and maybe even some governments).
If you connect to the internet, you are exposed to the bad guys. So, too, if you open files from external media (diskettes, CDs, and the like). The only really safe computer is the one that's unplugged. Of course, that's not a very useful device - except as an expensive paperweight. Catcha 22.
What's the average user to do? There are a few simple things that one can do to lessen (that's lessen - not eliminate) the dangers. If you follow these rules, you can rest more easily.
Most of us use one or another of the versions of Microsoft's Windows operating system. Use one that is still supported with security updates. Turn on automatic updates and let your computer get them as they become available. Visit one of the Microsoft sites for more information.Microsoft Update has all the latest security patches. For more comprehensive discussions about security topics, see, Microsoft Small Business Center, Microsoft Mid-Size Business Center, or Microsoft Security At Home.
The computer firewall functions much like your car's firewall hinders flames in the engine compartment from reaching the passenger compartment. It keeps certain types of so-called "malware" and hackers away from you. It can also restrict traffic from your computer to the internet. The firewall can be either hardware or software - or both. Later versions of Windows come with a built-in firewall that is quite easy to use, but not so flexible. Your broadband router acts as a firewall of sorts. Some software firewalls are free - others are relatively inexpensive, but much more functional.
If you don't have it, you're just asking for trouble. Even if your email provider scans your mail, you still need something installed locally to identify malware that could come on disks or through the internet. Install something, turn it on for real-time protection, keep its signatures updated, and schedule a full scan at least once a week. Some AV programs are free, others are not terribly expensive compared to the damage and hassles caused by malware on your machine. Many packages now protect multiple computers with a single purchase.
What is spyware? That's not clear-cut. Absolutists might think that all cookies or tracking software are "spy-ware". We're more inclined to define it as something installed on your computer either without your knowledge or a full understanding of its purpose. It also collects information about you and may report back to other computers. If you don't want the information reported, it's spyware. Like a weed, spyware is not wanted. It might have a legitimate purpose, but if you don't want it where it is - it's a weed...(I mean spyware).
Affilate cookies identify which affiliate you came from when visiting some vendors. They're necessary to ensure that the affiliate gets its commission. Some protection software considers them spyware. Most anti-spyware programs give you some control of whether to accept cookies, and from whom. A cookie is a small file that contains information useful to a website (and sometimes to you). They may save information about you from one session to another so you don't have to enter it every time you visit a site. Some are innocuous, some are not - but you should be able to decide for yourself.
Programs that are installed on your computer without your full knowledge could well be malicious. They may not be viruses or worms, but could compromise your security by reporting information about you or your computer.
How many junk-mail messages do you get? If you have a layer (or more) of anti-spam software, you have far fewer than those who have no protection. Most of that stuff is for fake or illegal products, so why care about it? Let it be filtered out. On the other hand, you may have relationships with vendors who sometimes send marketing messages and/or newsletters (what newsletter is NOT a marketing message?). You should have some control and should be able to "train" the software to identify those messages both acceptable and unacceptable to you.
What is "phishing"? It's is the practice of masquerading as a legitimate site to entice you to give up some personal information (usually financial). Most legitimate businesses do not send emails to ask you to update your financial or other information. Many of these ersatz phishing sites are well-crafted and may look like the real thing.
Maintain a subscription for updates to your security software. Dozens of new exploits appear daily. If you don't keep your software updated, it's almost as bad as no protection at all.
Many vendors now market one or more of the above security components in a suite of products. The packaging makes it convenient to install and operate the products. Each individual component may not be the best in class, but there is something to be said for interoperability and convenience. We say go for it. On the right of the page are links to several of the major security vendors' security suites. Many of them also sell individual components.
If you don't backup your data, it really doesn't matter how much protection you have. You must do regular backups to be effective. IDrive is an internet backup system that gives you 2GB of space free, or other amounts for a modest fee.
Just don't forward them. Not everything you read is true. If it sounds too good - or too outlandish - it's likely not true. We also suspect that most "attack ads" and political rumors also are untrue. Check them out before you repeat them. It's easy enough to do. Urban legends and other rumors can be damaging - or may just waste your time. If you really, really want to forward something, at least check it out first at Hoaxbusters, HoaxSlayer, orSnopes. And so it goes.
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