5 Common Computer Security Mistakes

by Mike McEvoy on August 31, 2009

common computer mistakes

Computer security mistakes can be a painful and costly experience. While computer viruses have been around since well before the Web, the growth of web traffic and email usage have accelerated the distribution of malicious software or “malware.” The good news is that with a bit of thought, planning and vigilance you can effectively protect yourself. Here are 5 common computer security mistakes to avoid.

Common Computer Security Mistakes #1 — No Antivirus/antispyware software.

This might elicit a “duh,” from most people but there are those who still don’t run antivirus software. However, the other key facet of this element of computer protection is keeping your software and virus definitions up to date. Most worthwhile anti-malware programs (the term “malware” includes viruses, spyware, Trojan horses, keystroke loggers and other forms of malicious software) make it easy to check the date of your last update and to easily launch the update process manually.

Since most anti-malware/antivirus software is sold on an annual basis you need to purchase a new license each year. If you let your license lapse you will be unprotected against any new malware. So even if you have an active antivirus program, but it expired six months ago, you will not be protect from any new viruses or malware that were released in the last six months since it expired. A definite security mistake.

Common Computer Security Mistake #2 — No Firewall software.

Some people feel that having an antivirus program is all they need. A definite computer security mistake. Firewall software acts as a filter to protect your computer from malware and intruders. If some form of malware does get on your computer, firewall software can prevent malicious programs from connecting to the Internet.

Firewall software is particularly effective at blocking Trojan horse software. This common form of malware can transfer data files off your computer without your knowledge or permission and download other malicious files and programs onto your computer. A software firewall on your computer is a key element in blocking these types of programs from getting access to the Internet. Like antivirus software, the firewall software must be updated regularly. This is all the more reason to use an Internet security suite which ties these two important elements together for updating and renewing.

Firewalls can be either software based or hardware based. Software firewalls can be a standalone program but more commonly are part of an Internet Security Suite. A hardware firewall is a device that is connected between the Internet and your computer and normally is included as part of a network router. For a more in-depth look at computer firewalls, both software and hardware based, see our post on “Computer Firewalls – Security Basics”

Common Computer Security Mistake #3 — Not keeping Microsoft Windows, Office and Internet Explorer up to date through the Microsoft Updates process.

Microsoft produces software updates, patches and bug fixes for its products on a regular basis. Updates are free and can be manually downloaded or Windows can be set to automatically download and install them. By default the Windows XP automatic update process does not check for Microsoft Office updates. You need to configure this manually. The Windows Vista Updates process does automatically ask you to check for Office updates.

Periodically Microsoft combines a group of these “updates,” adds some additional functionality and features, and delivers them in what is known as a Service Pack (SP). We strongly recommend that you install all service packs as they become available. Without the benefits that these service packs provide your system will be much more susceptible to problems from instability, degraded performance, and security breaches. While it is not essential to install a Service Pack the moment it becomes available you should not put this off too long as future Microsoft updates may require having the most current Service Pack installed first.

Microsoft releases brand new versions of its software products periodically. For instance Microsoft Office has evolved from Office 2000 to 2002 (XP) to 2003 to Office 2007. While it is not always essential to upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office or Microsoft Windows it is strongly recommended that you do keep current with the latest version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser which is now up to version 8.0. At the very least no one should still be using Internet Explorer 6.0 as it presents serious security compromises to a computer. See our post on “Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 Released” for additional information on IE 8.

If you use the Mozilla Firefox browser, which is an excellent alternative to Internet Explorer, be sure to keep up with the latest updates and version through Firefox Updates. Firefox users should also check out our post on “30 Firefox Keyboard Shortcuts.” If you are using a browser other than Internet Explorer or Firefox be sure to check with the software publisher (such as Apple or Google) to keep up to date.

Common Computer Security Mistake #4 – No Email Spam Filter.

As most users are aware email spam is a huge culprit in the spreading of malicious software. Have a good spam blocking program and have it set to a high enough level. Some email packages such as Outlook, Yahoo mail and Gmail have built in spam blocking/capturing functionality. If your email program does not provide effective spam blocking there are a number of effective and relatively inexpensive spam blocking programs available from third party software publishers.

It is important to remember that spam filters are not 100% effective and some junk will get through. It is best to follow some email self-protection rules of thumb including:

1.   Do not open email or email attachments unless you know who they are from.

2.   Never download an attached file from an email that you weren’t expecting to receive.

3.   Never click on “Unsubscribe” on an email that you suspect to be spam or junk mail. This will just tell spammers that your email address is active and you will likely end up getting more junk mail.

4.   Never click on an email attachment with an .exe file extension such as “myfile.exe”. These are program files and clicking on them will begin running a program that could be nasty.

5.   Never click on a link within a suspected spam email – just delete the message immediately.

Common Computer Security Mistake #5 — Not keeping your various security components up to date.

This was mentioned earlier in this post and regardless of the specific parts and pieces that make up your security solution you need to pay attention to them periodically to make sure everything is up to date and functioning correctly. While most security components are updated automatically it is highly recommended that you check occasionally to make sure that these updates are taking place and that your components are up to date. New viruses, spyware and other security threats are released almost daily. If your software expires or gets out of date, your system becomes susceptible to new threats.

Wrap Up
There are a number of elements that play a role in keeping your computer secure. Making sure you have the five items above covered will provide a significant level of protection. As mentioned in #5, vigilance is a key. It is also important to take immediate action if you think you have been infected. Letting a potential malware infestation go for days or weeks will make the problem worse and provide an opportunity for additional forms of malware to be downloaded onto your computer. Awareness of your computer and Internet security programs and settings will play an important role in keeping your computer and your network secure.

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{ 11 comments }

GeorgeH September 2, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Very helpful. I was familiar with most of these items however I haven’t been as “vigilant” as I need to be. Thanks for the reminders, especially on the firewall stuff. I’m sending this on to all my family memebers and relatives.

Klaus @ TechPatio September 3, 2009 at 12:39 pm

That was a really great piece, you covered the most important parts for any personal computer, I’d say.

Now we just need this article to be bundled with every computer sold and tell the owner he’s not allowed to use his new computer before he reads and understands this :)

Mike McEvoy September 3, 2009 at 4:39 pm

@Klaus, Glad you liked the post. Yes, I agree that getting this type of information out to every person buying a new computer would be very beneficial. Too many people are unaware that with a bit more effort up front they could save themselves a lot of aggravation, and potentially cost, in the long run. Thanks for stopping by and for your comment.
–Mike

Michel September 4, 2009 at 7:43 am

Good article, definitely something I told people/still still from time to time. Only thing else I’d add to that is if your already under attack from some rogue malware, google the problem and the answer might be a simple fix. You may even find them here on the blogosphere.

Ching Ya September 8, 2009 at 8:26 am

If only I’m still working my 9-5, I’ll definitely print this article out and pass it to all my customers regarding PC problems. You’ll be surprised that quite many of them still coming back with the same security issues, daily. This article is relevant to whoever is using the net and connecting 24/7. Just can’t be too careful nowadays. ^^

Very well shared. Tweeted & Stumbled it!

@wchingya
Social/Blogging Tracker

Tim September 9, 2009 at 8:11 am

Nice article Mike.

It’s surprising how many people don’t keep there apps up to date, I am guilty of it quite a bit. Maybe you could do an article on the best security software, I have always used norton and never had any issues, however I did use McAfee on an old laptop and had a few issues with trojans.

Mike McEvoy September 10, 2009 at 9:36 pm

@Michel: Glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, searching Google can many times provide useful information on a specific type of malware. Google Groups can also provide helpful info for removal.

@ Ching Ya: Yes, please feel free to share this far and wide. As you mentioned some people continue to run into the same type of malware problems. One aspect is keeping everything up to date. The other aspect can be that they are not using all the correct security pieces. Many people still forget about or ignore Firewall software.

@Tim: Thanks, glad you liked the article. There are actually a number of good Internet Security Suites available. I do like the Norton Internet Security suite, it is solid and easy to use. Some suites allow more fine tuning of settings and are a bit more technical for people who want to “get under the hood.” Thanks for the suggestion for a best security software post. I will add that to my list.

Bunnygotblog September 10, 2009 at 7:09 pm

I really appreciate this article.
I now every second there are people working to make things safer for us as well as people that try to break these things, widgets etc.

I know my husband does my updates manually and he tends to wait until he reads feedback before installing anything. This allows time for others to find and fix any tweaking that may be necessary, to be done.
Thank you

Mike McEvoy September 10, 2009 at 9:46 pm

@BunnyGotBlog: Thanks for stopping by. Glad you found the article useful. Regarding the Update installation schedule, yes, most Windows Updates do not need to be done immediately. You can set the updates to be automatically downloaded but not automatically installed. The trick is not to let too much time go by without installing the Windows updates. For most people who don’t want to have to think about this, it is best to just let windows do this automatically.

When it comes to antivirus/antispyware/anti-malware & firewall software I would always let the program install the new updates as soon as they are available. There are so many new nasty things being released each day that you don’t want to delay and be caught unprotected.

Mike May 24, 2010 at 12:44 pm

These are great points for a Windows based computer. Honestly for me, the most secure thing I have done was switched away from Microsoft products, and moved over to Ubuntu Linux Not only more secure, but uses less computer resources, which makes my computer run much faster.
.-= Mike´s last blog ..Get IPcop’s VPN To Work With Vista and Windows 7 =-.

Suemac June 10, 2011 at 4:44 am

This was a good wake up call. Thanks!

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