Easy Ways to Protect a PC, 20/09/07


If media reports and those scary adverts are to be believed owning a computer can be a tricky business. Many PC owners live in a constant fear that their personal details, PIN numbers and passwords are being plundered by armies of hackers and malicious programs planted on their machines.


Such threats do exist and it would be foolish to underestimate the danger but it has to be said that a little paranoia also means good business for companies hawking protection and salvation.


Of course many of them are entirely respectable but others -- and there are plenty of examples -- sell what amounts to scareware, programs that report ‘false positives’ and in a few cases, deliberately infect a users PCs, and then offer to cleanse the machine, usually for a hefty fee.


So how bad is it really, and what can be done to protect your computer and your sanity? The truth is the risks, while they do exist, can be reduced to almost zero with a few simple precautions; in fact some computer owners need do nothing to remain completely safe. Apple Macs, for example are virtually immune to hacker and virus attacks, as are Windows PCs that never connect to the Internet, and of those that do, a slow dial-up connection provides a very effective barrier against intruders and viruses. If you are using Windows 95,98 ME or SE the chances of your computer catching something nasty are getting smaller by the day as virus writers concentrate their efforts on Windows XP and Vista.


Simple things, like not opening unexpected email attachments, never responding to Spam messages, avoiding dubious websites and not clicking OK buttons on pop-up boxes asking to install software also enhance your computer’s security.


Most new PCs are also quite well protected, though all too often this is in the form of pre-loaded ‘demoware’, anti-virus programs and security suites that stop working after the trial period has expired and stubbornly refuse to go away until you’ve paid out for a year’s subscription.


A good anti-virus program should be every PC owner’s first line of defence but what most retailers and manufacturers do not tell you, is that it needn’t cost you a penny.


Several very highly regarded anti-virus programs are completely free, and they provide at least as good, and in some cases even better protection than their commercial cousins. They can also be a lot less troublesome and suffer fewer conflicts with Windows and email programs.  


AVG is the most popular of the free AV programs (http://free.grisoft.com/), but Avast! (http://www.avast.com/) is also worth getting to know, and for those who spend less time online and mostly confine their Internet activities to emailing, try Antivir (http://www.free-av.com/).


Aggressive viruses that can wipe a hard drive have become less of a problem in recent years and the focus has shifted to exploiting vulnerabilities in Windows, often for very little purpose, or as a means of commandeering PCs to send out Spam messages.


Microsoft wages a running battle with these annoyances and issues regular security updates, usually on the first Tuesday of each month (Patch Tuesday) so it is essential that your PC is set to download them automatically. Normally this requires no user intervention, nevertheless it worth checking the Windows Security Centre every so often (double-click the shield icon next to the clock), for an overview of your PC’s security status.


If you have broadband Internet then a Firewall is vital. The basic Firewall built into XP and Vista does a reasonable job of blocking incoming traffic but that’s only half the problem. Many programs try to use your Internet connection, often without your permission. Most of them are harmless and are just ‘calling home’ to check for updates but equally it could be a ‘malware’ infection, picked up from a dodgy website or download, and once up and running it could monitor your web activities, seek out passwords or record keystrokes and send them back to remote PCs operated by fraudsters.


Once again there is a cost-free solution and programs such as ZoneAlarm Free (http://tinyurl.com/296pwe), Comodo(http://tinyurl.com/la95f) and R-Firewall (http://www.r-firewall.com/) check outgoing traffic and alert you to any unauthorised attempts hijack your Internet connection.


A regularly updated anti virus program, Windows Updates and a two-way firewall should be all the protection you need but if you believe in the belt and braces approach then a weekly check with a malware cleaner is also advisable. Windows Defender, included with XP and Vista, does a fair job but it doesn’t hurt to run a scan with AdAware (http://tinyurl.com/du0h), SpyBot (http://tinyurl.com/37t9f) or A-Squared Free (http://tinyurl.com/6rvtb), which often finds things that Defender misses.


Finally, if you really want some peace of mind then allow your PC to be deliberately hacked. Shields Up!!, (http://tinyurl.com/sovd) attempts – with your explicit permission -- to penetrate your PC’s defences using a variety of techniques; these are all completely benign and no personal information is extracted. You may be lucky and get a clean bill of health on the first try, if not it will tell you what needs to be done but mostly it shows that it is possible to achieve a very high degree of security with relatively little effort, and without breaking the bank.




© R. Maybury 2007 1809

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