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.
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.