Top Ten Computer Security Tips -Part 1
Article by Rick Leinecker, June 27, 2006

I've been talking about computer security now for several months. I find myself referring back to previous columns, so I thought it was time for a compilation of the top ten computer security tips. Since the ten tips turned out to be too long for a single column, I've broken it into two columns. You can use these columns as a roadmap to keep your computer safe.

Tip Number 1: Always, and I mean always, run antivirus software.

Antivirus software is the most essential step you can take to keep your system safe. There are tens of thousands of viruses that can easily infect your system and bring it to its knees. Computer viruses live just to wreak havoc. Sometimes they lie dormant for days, weeks, or months, coming out of hibernation when least expected. The wait gives them a chance to infect other files so that offspring infect other computers. The wait also allows some viruses to synchronize their effect worldwide and maximize the shock and effect. Make sure that you always run antivirus software.

Examples of antivirus software include Symantec (www.symantec.com), McAfee (www.McAfee.com), PC-cillan (www.trendmicro.com), HouseCall (housecall.trendmicro.com), and AVG (www.grisoft.com). Symantec, McAfee, and PC-cillan cost money; HouseCall and AVG are free. Of these five, HouseCall runs on demand from the Web site and does not offer an "auto-protect" feature.

Tip Number 2: Make sure that your system is updated regularly.

Operating system vulnerabilities are sometimes discovered by the bad guys, and this may give them an opportunity to gain access to your computer. Microsoft fixes these holes as soon as it knows about them. If you keep your system updated, your chances of being exploited go way down.

Windows XP usually updates automatically when it's running. You can check your settings by going to Control Panel, selecting Security Center, and then clicking on the Automatic Updates link. The "Automatic" radio button should be checked.

Tip Number 3: Observe recommended password procedures.

These include using complex passwords (more than six characters, a combination of letters and digits, and avoid easily guessed words), using different passwords for different logins, and not leaving your passwords written on sticky notes attached to your monitor.

Tip Number 4: Run anti-Spyware software weekly.

Spyware can zap the performance of your computer. It can also be extremely annoying as some Spyware programs deliver constant popups, and some take you to pages you weren't expecting. And while Spyware, unlike viruses, isn't malicious for the most part, you don't want it on your computer.

The three programs I recommend for Spyware eradication are Ad Aware (www.LavaSoft.com), Spybot (www.safer-networking.org), and Microsoft's Windows Defender (www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/default.mspx). These programs are normally run on demand, but can be used in auto-protect mode. I normally don't run them in auto-protect mode since the anti-Spyware programs haven't matured like antivirus programs have.

Tip Number 5: Exercise care when opening emails.

The biggest threats from emails are the attachments. These can contain viruses, Spyware, and all sorts of malicious scripts. Make sure that if you open an email attachment that it's a safe file type (text and picture files for example), or that you implicitly trust the source.

Emails are also subject to an information-gathering technique known as Phishing. Phishing gives the spammers lots of information about you. They know your general habits - pretty much when you are prone to open emails. They know what part of the country you are in, and usually the exact city. They know about your system - things such as the operating system (Windows 2000, Windows XP, etc.) and the Internet software and version (for example Internet Explorer version 6.0). They might even be able to pair all of this with your exact email address.

With all of this valuable information, you're in for more spam. But this time they're targeted to your specifics. It's like the target marketing that TV advertisers strive for, but even better because it's more information than the most sophisticated TV advertisers can glean.

There is a defense against Phishing. From the Outlook Express options dialog, select the Security tab. Then, by selecting the checkbox that says "Block images and other external content in HTML e-mail" the images won't appear in emails. You will, however, get a prompt at the top of the email that lets you see the images if you decide it's safe.

Wrapping Up

We teach quite a few computer security classes at RCC. If you're interested, please email me and I'll give you more details and answer your questions. You can see what courses are available at www.RockinghamCC.edu. I am also willing to come to businesses in Rockingham County and give seminars at no charge.

If you need help and don't know where to turn, I have a student who has a business to help out folks in Rockingham County with computer problems. You can email him at clarkr@gmail.com.

Those are my top ten computer security tips.