An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This rings especially true when it comes to avoiding the accidental acquisition of malicious software (commonly known as malware). Unwanted software that attaches itself to your PC or operating system can assume many forms –some more damaging than others—it includes: viruses, spyware and “Trojan horses”, and can also include those pesky little “cookies” that Web site operators plant to secretly track where you visit. Some are just annoying, and others may create serious problems-- corrupting files and interfering with your computer’s normal functions; “reporting” personal and confidential information to unauthorized sources; or exposing your data to external intruders and thieves.
Many of the preventive measure are simple, but easy to postpone while we attend to today’s pressing issues. As cyber thieves continue to get smarter, none of us can afford to be complacent, or just plain lazy, when it comes to protecting our computers.
- Be suspicious –or as we were taught as school kids-- don’t talk to strangers. Any online requests from people or organizations you don’t know, or any offers that seem to good to be true, are highly suspect. If you don’t know the source, decline or delete the message. If you are not sure that a link is bona fide, don’t use it. You can always find the legitimate Web site address in directories compiled by search engines (use the well known names you know!).
- Be cautious about free software. Read the fine print on the agreement to make sure the package doesn’t include some “extras” like tracking cookies that you don’t want.
- Perhaps the most important factor involves keeping your security software updated, as well as paying attention to the updates issued for your operating system (OS). Don’t allow your computers at home, or at work, to be vulnerable because of neglected security advisories or lapsed subscriptions.
- Anti-malware tools continue to evolve in order to outsmart the ingenuity of cyber crooks. As a result, there is no one product that can identify all potential threats. There’s a range of products available to PC users, but at an absolute minimum it is a good idea to run both anti-spyware and antivirus programs on a regularly scheduled basis, and have a software firewall in place. Email is a common entry point and potential problems can be countered in part with an anti-spam filter. Investigate the security options offered by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), and if you use Microsoft products, activate any applicable security programs and OS patches offered to protect you.
Some of the most popular programs include the subscription services, Norton Internet Security 2009 from Symantec, and McAfee Internet Security. Both include anti-virus protection as well as spyware protection, anti-phishing and anti-spam utilities, and a software firewall. Subscriptions for either program are $69.99 for up to three PCs. AVG Anti-Virus offers a free program for non-commercial use (subscription services with more features and support are available). Other useful free programs are offered to personal users by Ad-Aware (the company charges for the version that comes with automated scheduling), and ZoneAlarm, which offers a free firewall to personal users.
There are no shortcuts to running the anti-malware tools. Each anti-malware installation should be run on its own, with all other programs closed down. Start with each PC shut down and disconnected from the network or modem cable. Reboot before each scan and close after each is finished. Windows has various tools to clean up disks and defrag the hard drive. Use them regularly and empty the recycle bin after every scan, too.