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Protect Yourself

Hackers are lurking, so follow these tips to protect your computer and your network.

By David Connell

If you’re at all computer savvy, you probably think there is no way you’d be dumb enough to catch a computer virus. After all, who can’t spot an emailed virus these days, even if it’s “from” someone you know. The innocuous subject (“thanks!” “Here You Go” “Did You See This?”), the lack of text in the body of the email and the bizarre attachment with the extension you don’t recognize are all telltale signs of a malicious email. Most of these viruses have moved from legitimate threat to pesky annoyance. In fact, more often than not, they’re filtered directly in the trash or bulk folder, and you never give them more than a cursory glance.

Not so fast
I used to feel this way, too. “Viruses?” I thought. “Only fools and grandmas get viruses anymore; they’re so obvious!” Then I saw this little gem in the Nov. 23 edition of The Washington Post:

Hackers co-opted several popular website including over the weekend, using them to infect thousands of computers with a virus that can be used to steal passwords, bank accounts and other personal information. … The hackers gained control of a German online advertising services firm and served up thousands of internet ads designed to send visitors to one of several websites where the hackers had installed the virus.

If you have a Windows OS that predates XP, you are in serious danger of being infected.

Gulp! I visit Have I clicked on any ads recently? I better check my bank account …

Fortunately, all my money was still in place. But the message was clear: Hackers have gone beyond email and set up sophisticated viruses that can fool anyone on the web. It’s only through sheer luck—or the ineffectiveness of online advertising—that this malicious group hadn’t caused more havoc. So, it’s time to stop ignoring ‘net security and start brushing up on ways to keep your system virus free. Here are the steps you should take:

  1. Upgrade to Windows XP. Microsoft has stopped supporting versions of the Windows operating system older than XP. This means if you have a Windows OS that predates XP, you are in serious danger of being infected. Microsoft is no longer making security patches for your computer, leaving you vulnerable to hackers, who right now love you very much.
  2. Read up on Windows security. Unfortunately, Windows XP will not solve all your problems. Fortunately, Microsoft realizes this and has set up a comprehensive, easy to follow page on security located here. Follow the steps on this page and bookmark it. Microsoft frequently posts updates about new viruses and threats are detected. For instance, it currently has a posting relating to viruses disguised as electronic greeting cards.
  3. Update your software. It is particularly critical that you install the frequent Windows updates Microsoft publishes in response to attacks. This is your first line of defense. These updates can be found here. Again, bookmark this site and check it often.
  4. Install a firewall. If you have a high-speed internet connection you must install a firewall to protect yourself from hackers. Without one, you leave all your critical information open to the bad guys. Also, if you have a high-speed connection without a firewall and leave your computer turned on all the time, hackers can use your PC as a remote server to hide viruses and illegal websites. Many high-speed internet providers include firewall software in their offerings and Microsoft lists well-known firewall providers here.
  5. Install antivirus software. If a virus does slip through the cracks, most antivirus software will catch it. Again, many ISPs are beginning to bundle antivirus programs with their software, a fact AOL has been promoting a lot recently. But if you don’t have one, Microsoft again lists recommended programs here.
  6. Ditch Explorer. Because of Microsoft’s dominance in the PC industry, all viruses are written to attack Microsoft products. So, one sure way not to get a virus is to simply not use Microsoft. OK, stop laughing. Seriously, stop. One alternative to the popular Explorer browser is the free (and very hip) Firefox browser, which was designed by Mozilla, a consortium of independent software designers. You can download a free version of Firefox at Mozilla’s home page.
  7. Buy a Mac. Like I said, viruses are written for Microsoft products, so if you don’t use those products you won’t get viruses. To date, hackers have not written a virus that effects the Macintosh OS or its Safari browser—a fact Apple has touted a lot recently as consumers rediscover the company through its wildly popular iPod music player. The reason hackers have not targeted the Mac OS isn’t known—hackers tend not to issue press releases—but most experts chalk it up to a lack of market share. Hackers seem to want to wreak the most havoc possible, and Microsoft is the dominant player in the personal computing world. However, most experts also agree that it’s only a matter of time before hackers find a way to crack the Macintosh. So if you own a Mac, don’t assume you own a silver bullet.

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