Protecting your computer
Computers can do a lot of things, but they're not much good at protecting themselves from the various viruses, malware and other nasties that float around the internet. Any machine that goes online needs to be protected. Here are a few tips for keeping your computer safe.
Set your computer up safely
If you're setting up a brand new Windows XP machine, it's important to keep it away from an insecure internet connection. Windows XP is notorious for allowing brand new machines to get infected with malware within minutes of going online for the first time. The only way to avoid this is to go online behind a firewall, provided by a network or by a router. If you know a friend or neighbour who already uses a router for their broadband connection and has activated the router's firewall, ask if you can use their connection to set your machine up safely. Just using a plain USB broadband modem offers no protection at all.
Thankfully, Windows Vista has fixed many of the security problems in XP, and is what you will find yourself using on any PC you buy now. That said, there are still some things you should do to keep a Vista PC safe.
Windows Defender comes with Vista and is a free download for XP users too. It's a security application that continuously monitors your computer system for spyware and other junk, and flashes up an alert when it finds anything suspicious. If it's not on your PC already, download it here.
Another thing to check as soon as you first get your PC is Windows Security Centre (you can reach it from the Vista Control Panel). This software makes it easy to switch the firewall on and off (switch it on, and leave it on), keep your computer's software up-to-date (leave that on automatic), and check for malware.
Make use of users
Windows Vista allows you to create multiple user accounts, and it's a good idea to make use of this feature:
- Go to the Control Panel and click "Add or remove user accounts";
- Create an account there that you will use for most day-to-day activities;
- Don't give this account administrator rights (use the "Standard account" option). Also, choose a good password, something that's a mixture of numbers and letters.
Using this account most of the time protects your computer from invading malware that might try to grab administrator rights for itself; you'll be warned of the invasion and able to do something about it.
Don't download what you don't need
One of the most common way for computers to become infected with malware is via apparently legitimate downloads that install stuff you weren't expecting. Sometimes they are genuinely secretive about it, hiding the malware out of sight. Other times it will be mentioned during the install process, probably in very small print, with a little checkbox for you to untick if you don't want the unwelcome extras.
It sounds like hassle, but it's always worth reading through the details at every step of an install wizard, to make sure you're installing what you expected to install.
Better yet: don't download anything you don't genuinely need. Keep away from free software offers that sound too good to be true (because they probably are). Don't bog your computer down with games downloaded from the net - use a games console for games.
Be wary of phishing
Although the new Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail, and Internet Explorer applications are safer than Outlook, Outlook Express and old versions of IE ever used to be, you still need to be careful.
Don't trust any email offering you money, or anything that asks you to fill out a form with your username, password or credit card details for any site. Links in email messages are easy to spoof, so you might be falling right into a phishing trap.
Macs have built-in protection
If you do get a message from eBay or Paypal or Amazon, and you think it might be a valid one, don't click the links in the email message. Instead, switch to your web browser and manually type in "ebay.co.uk", then log in with your username as normal. If eBay (or whichever company it is) really want to tell you about something, they'll tell you on the website when you log in.
Tips for Mac users
If you use Mac OS X instead of Windows, your system has a certain amount of protection built-in. OS X is based on Unix, a computer system built with much more secure foundations than Windows. Mac users should still activate their firewall (in the Security section of System Preferences), and be careful of phishing attempts via email. Although a handful of trojans have been spotted for Macs, there are no recorded cases of successful viruses.
Macs, like Windows Vista, allow multiple user accounts so it's a good idea to create a general-purpose account without administrator rights, and use that for day-to-day stuff. Keep the admin account solely for admin tasks, like updating the system and installing applications.
Adware - software that bombards you with unwanted adverts, often as pop-ups.
Malware - a generic term covering any nasty unwanted software.
Virus - harmful software that tries to replicate copies of itself across computer networks, causing damage on every machine it infects.
Trojan - harmful software that hides behind something else, or pretends to be something else. It will require the user to download and install it manually. A virus spreads all by itself; trojans rely on ignorant users to help them spread further.
Rights - things that a particular user account is allowed to do. "Administrator rights" means a user can do anything on a computer, including mess about with the essential system files.
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