What threats should I look out for? Malware is short for malicious software. It is a very general term that is often applied to several different kinds of threats that don’t have a lot in common other than that they target your computer.
Viruses are programs that copy themselves to spread through a computer, deleting or corrupting files and programs. They can easily be transferred to other computers if an infected file is sent or copied. Many viruses attach themselves to executable files (.EXE), but they can also use boot records, autorun scripts, macros or even random files to spread. The main point of a virus is to break things. Trojans are programs that look innocent and useful, but secretly contain harmful code. They are commonly used to install a back door into your computer that their creator can later use to control the computer remotely. Unlike viruses, trojans do not copy themselves. They have to be installed.
Worms are a type of harmful program that uses a network to spread copies of itself from one computer to another. This is often done automatically with no need for a user.
Spyware is any program that steals your information, often things like passwords or credit card numbers, and sends it back to its creator. It’s often harder to detect then things like worms or viruses that directly affect how your computer runs and not all antivirus programs will catch it. Spyware’s main purpose is to make money, often at your expense.
Scareware/Ransomeware holds your computer for ransom. It’s a relatively new danger. The scareware will sometimes pretend to be a helpful piece of software like an antivirus program and may offer a ‘trial version’ or ‘free scan’. Once it has access to your computer, it will tell you your computer has tons of problems and the only way to fix them is to pay for the full version of the program. Other times it will be more direct and simply demand money in return for not doing something bad to your computer.
Scams are another serious online hazard. One of the most common types of these is the phishing scam. The scammer will send out an email that claims to be an official communication from a company like a bank. The email will often look fairly realistic. The victim will be asked to follow a link that leads to a fake version of the company’s site and provide sensitive information like login details that the scammer can then use to hijack the person’s account. Another common scam is the advanced fee scam or Nigerian scam. The scammer sends out an email claiming they need help to get access to some large sum of money and promise part of the cash if the victim will just help them. Usually they will ask that processing fees or some other cost be paid by the victim before the nonexistent money can be released.
What can I do to protect myself? Two programs that are vitally necessary to protecting your computer are a good antivirus and a two-way firewall. Antivirus software helps catch and eliminate viruses and often trojans and worms as well. A few kinds even help keep out spyware. A two-way Firewalls helps you control information both as it comes into your computer and as it goes out. So if a program you don’t recognize tries to connect to your computer or send something out of your computer you can simply tell it no. Firewalls also make it harder for hackers to detect your computer. They block the most common ways into your computer and those blocks can only be lifted with your permission.
If you want to add additional protection on top of these basics you can consider programs like ad blockers, which will help lessen your exposure to some internet risks by blocking ads and pop-ups. These are one of the ways that you can be directed to malicious websites or offered unsafe downloads. Or anti-tracking software that will make it harder to detect your online activities. There are also specialist programs made to deal with a particular type of threat like spyware, which your anti-virus may or may not cover.
Software isn’t the only type of protection you need to think about though. You should also keep a careful eye on your own online actions to avoid taking extra risks. Here are a few basic things you can do to keep yourself safer:
When you want to download something, do it from the official site associated with that product or service. Don’t download from just anywhere, you never know what changes the person offering the product might have made to it.
Check links before clicking on them. When you point to a link, the address it leads to shows in the lower left corner of the screen. Does the address match where the link says it will take you?
Use secure connections when possible. The protocol https is used for secure connections. When you access a site like a bank or store’s payment page you should see the https at the beginning of the site address. For many sites you can also turn this secure connection on manually by adding https:// in front of the site’s address.
If your computer pops up a dialogue box to ask you a question, take the time to read what it says before you answer. Don’t just click on a button without looking to get it out of the way as fast as possible.
When you are downloading or installing a program be aware of and beware of optional extras that may be included. These will often show up as checkboxes with smaller print below the regular installation options or sometimes on their own screen after the main installation is completed. They are usually checked or turned on by default, so you will have to remove the checks manually to avoid them.
Backup important files to an external hard drive or an online storage site. That way even if something does get into your computer you will still have the files you really need tucked away somewhere safe and you can restore them to your computer once it’s safe again.
Keep things up to date. While you don’t have to stay up to get that new patch right as it comes out, it is a good idea to update your computer and programs regularly to make sure they are running as well and safely as possible.
Use passwords that are hard to guess. Combinations of letters, numbers and symbols are best and if you can include capitalization too that’s even better. One way to come up with a hard to guess password you can still remember is to use a phrase as the base. For example, say I decide to base my password on the book title One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I could take the first letter of each word OFOtCN and right there I have a start that contains both capital and lowercase letters. Next, I can replace the first O that stands for one with a number one: 1FOtCN. Now for a symbol or two. I’ll replace the second O with parentheses in an () shape: 1F()tCN. I now have a seven character password that won’t be easy to guess, but that I still have a pretty good chance of remembering. And if you need a little bit extra, adding punctuation is another way you can help strengthen your passwords: 1F()tCN!.
Take the time to find out where your security settings are located. Both your browser and any programs you use to protect your computer will have their own security settings. It’s useful to know where they are and what they should be. Check them occasionally to make sure they have not been changed or turned off. Disabling security is often one of the first things malicious software will try to do if it does get into your computer.
Be skeptical. If an email, website, notice or other piece of information looks questionable check it out! Go directly to the website using a different browser, call the business, or do an online search on the subject. Once a scam, virus, or other hazard is discovered there will usually be posts about it online. Example: Try doing a google search on the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an address known to be used by a scammer.
Free Computer Protection Resources Antivirus
Some of the leading providers of free antivirus software today. For those seeking extra protection, most also offer more inclusive versions that you can buy.
Avast – http://www.avast.com/en-us/index
Help make your computer harder for hackers to detect and guard your connections against hostile access.
ZoneAlarm – http://www.zonealarm.com/
PrivateFirewall – http://www.privacyware.com/
Additional Protection Adblock Plus – https://adblockplus.org/en/internet-explorer
It blocks banners, pop-ups and video ads to help protect your online privacy and lessen your chances of exposure to certain types of harmful content.
Ghostery – http://www.ghostery.com/
It helps keep websites and programs from tracking where you go and what you do online so that your personal information and habits can stay private.