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Keeping Your Computer Safe and Secure

The need to be pro-active
If you've been paying attention at all of late, you are hearing more and more about various viruses, worms, trojans, hacks, and other sundry problems that are afflicting Internet users.  Unfortunately, these types of activities are just going to get worse and worse as time goes by, according to most of the experts in this area.  However, there is good news here -- protecting you computer from these various types of malicious activity is quite simple.  All it takes is installing a few simple programs and  keeping them up-to-date.  Combine that with a small dose of good old common sense, and you should have nothing to worry about!

Install a good anti-virus program
The first piece of protective software you want to install is a good anti-virus program.  You may already have one, as most computers these days come with some type of anti-virus software pre-installed.  If that's the case, though, it may be out-of-date, so you need to check the manufacturer's web site for updates, and install them if necessary.  If you don't have any anti-virus software, there are a lot of good ones available.  And oddly enough, most of the better ones are actually free for personal use.  If you have a commercial package such as Norton or McAfee and are happy with it, then by all means keep using it.  But if you are having any kinds of issues at all -- many people do -- then you really should look at one of the free alternatives.  AVG is one of the best anti-virus programs available, and it's free for personal use. That's the one we recommend.  avast! is another good one to look at.

Regardless of what program you choose to use, the most important aspect of using an anti-virus program is that you absolutely must keep it up-to-date.  This involves periodically updating the virus definition files that the program uses, as the protection you are afforded is only as good as how current that definitions file is.  The longer you go between updates, the more viruses are out there in the wild that your program doesn't know about, and so the more vulnerable you are.  Fortunately all anti-virus programs these days automatically configure themselves to update on a daily basis, so there's nothing for you to mess with in order to get these updates to happen automatically.  However, if anything should go wrong with the update process, it is up to you to figure out what is going wrong and fix it.  This is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT -- if for any reason the updates are not being done, you might as well not even bother installing or running the anti-virus software in the first place!  So never ignore any kinds of warnings you might see about your anti-virus program not updating properly -- that's a problem that you need to fix quickly!

Install a good personal firewall program
Besides viruses there are all kinds of other "bad programs" that can wreak havoc with your computer. Remember that the "net" in "internet" stands for "network". When you are connected to the internet, you are physically attached to a network that comprises literally millions and millions of different computers and users. And every single one of them has a physical connection to your computer! You have what amounts to one long wire running from your computer to every other computer on the internet. And that's why you need what is called a "firewall" program. It prevents other people from accessing your computer via this physical connection. With a firewall program, you essentially become invisible to them.  Using some type of firewall program is a good idea for everyone who uses the internet -- but if you are using an "always on" connection like DSL or cable, you should consider a firewall program mandatory.  Fortunately, there's an excellent personal firewall program that is free -- ZoneAlarm by ZoneLabs.  It's quite easy to set up, and once you have it configured it runs invisibly in the background without you having to do anything at all.

And please note that firewalls and anti-virus programs are two totally different animals.  Don't get them confused -- you need both!

Protection from malware
As if viruses and internet attacks weren't enough to worry about, we are now seeing huge amounts of "malware" floating around the internet.  This is somewhat of a generic category of software that somehow gets installed on your computer, and which proceeds to do stuff that inevitably is going to interfere with your use of the internet.  If you are seeing an inordinate amount of popup windows, more than likely you have some type of malware.  Or another sign is that you are continually getting re-directed to pages that you did not request.  Or perhaps even worse, there may be a program spying on your internet browsing patterns, and sending that information out to another computer without your knowledge.

There are a lot of programs available to protect you from malware, but quite frankly none of them do all that great a job.  And the reality is that if you follow a couple of very easy "safe browsing" rules you really don't have to worry about malware at all.  The first rule is just don't use Internet Explorer.  Use Firefox instead -- it's far more secure and far less vulnerable to these types of attacks.  And the second rule is simply never install any software unless you are 100% sure that it is not malware.  If you see an offer for a free download that will "speed up your internet connection" or "clean your computer" or some such -- odds are that's a pitch for a malware program.  It's easy enough to verify whether a given program is legitimate or not -- remember that Google is your friend.  Just do a quick search on the program name and if it is indeed malware, you'll get a number of search hits indicating such.

If you follow those two simple rules, the odds are you will never have to worry about malware.  However, if you still want more protection, there are some decent anti-malware programs available.  Microsoft's Windows Defender is actually a pretty good program and it's a free solution.  Or if you want a commercial program, one of the best available is Webroot's Spy Sweeper.

Open email attachments only when you know they are "safe"
Even with a good anti-virus program and a good personal firewall, you still need to be careful -- as the "bad guys" are always dreaming up new ways to get around the existing software protection. The number one way that viruses and worms can get in to your system is via email attachments. So any time you get an email attachment, before you open it be VERY SURE that the attachment did indeed come from the person that is indicated in the email. Remember that many of these viruses spread themselves by stealing names out of people's address books -- so just because you recognize the name of the person sending you the email does NOT NECESSARILY mean that they did send you the email! Anytime you get an attachment that you were not expecting, or the attachment looks funny in any way, either call the person who sent it or email them back and verify that the attachment is legitimate. Remember that the only way an attachment can do any damage is if you open it up to look at it. So if there's ever any doubt at all about the legitimacy of an attachment, just delete it and you will be safe.