Would you hand over your credit card to a stranger at the shopping mall? If you ignore basic online security precautions when using your computer, youre taking a similar risk.
One of the biggest mistakes that people make is assuming they dont have anything of value on their computer, says Tony Bradley, a computer-security authority and syndicated writer for PC World magazine. But anything on your computers hard driveincluding the credit card numbers you use to make online purchasesis accessible to savvy computer hackers, Bradley cautions.
Experts say novice computer users often make a critical mistake early: They buy a new computer, plug it in and start surfing the Internet without first ensuring that proper security is in place. A few minutes online are enough time for malicious software, known as malware, to invade your system.
While the prime security culprits once were viruses that attacked and destroyed a computers contents, todays threats are more insidious. Malware can infect your computer without your knowledge and secretly record your keystrokes and passwords. Thats one form of whats called phishing. Another phishing tactic is dissemination of an e-mail message that looks official, such as from a bank or credit card company, but it actually activates a form of malware when you open the e-mail or click on the link it contains.
Yet another invader is a bot, which enlists your computer as part of a giant online network to spread malware. Once its in, its no longer your computer. Its their computer sitting in your house, and it can be controlled remotely by the bad guys, explains Roger Thompson, chief research officer for AVG, a producer of computer-security software.
You can avoid these online dangers by taking security precautions. Here are some steps that will help protect your computer and you:
- Install security software. AVG (www.avg.com) offers a free version of its security suite. There are several other brands, including Norton, McAfee and avast!.
- Install a firewall, which is software designed to stop unwanted traffic from infiltrating your system. The firewall says, Hey! We didnt ask for you, and you cant come in, Bradley explains. Some security packages and computer operating systems include a firewall, and some dont. Recent versions of Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh OS X include a firewall.
- Keep your computers operating system up to date. If your system offers automatic online updates, sign up or apply them.
- Dont open e-mails from anyone you dont know. About 97 percent of e-mail traffic today is spama useless solicitation or, worse, an avenue used by hackers to deliver malware. You dont have a secret admirer, Thompson says. If its an e-mail from somebody you dont know, delete it immediately, or there will be a new name for you, and that name will be victim. Never buy anything from a spam e-mail, he adds. That just encourages them.
- Use a variety of passwords. When creating a password, use a combination of letters (including random capitalization) and numbers.