by Terry Wilhite
You are just one email away from losing all the hard work on your computer. If the digital bombshell doesn't come attached to an email, it will happen when a hacker gains access to your computer through a weakness in the operating system-unless you put up your guard.
Protecting your computer should be your top priority if there's any work of value on your machine. I want to give you some tips to protect your computer, point you to some helpful resources, and most importantly, give you full warning that the danger is real. At first blush, one might just want to revert to pen and notebook paper, but protecting your computer isn't as difficult as you might think, so let's investigate some protection.
First, you should have anti-virus software running on your machine. The "virus definitions" should be updated weekly. If you only have limited dollars to spend on software, spend it protecting your computer. Over the past 12 months, several viruses have come my way but anti-virus software stopped them. Each week-sometimes even oftener-new virus definitions (digital "vaccines") are downloaded into the software automatically.
Second, you should have a firewall installed on your computer. As the name implies, it will let no data into your computer and nothing out, unless you give it permission. Your PC is particularly vulnerable to a hacker making entry through flaws in the Microsoft operating system-no matter whether you're running Windows 98, XP, or anything in between. You are not immune to such hacking, even if you use a dial-up connection, but you are especially susceptible if you have high-speed access. Install a firewall pronto.
Third, you should consider running the latest security patches made available by Microsoft, found at www.windows.com. The largest patch for Windows XP is called Service Patch 2 (SP2). It is about 90 megabytes. You should have high-speed access to download this update. Colleges, universities and public libraries usually have free high-speed access, or a reputable computer dealer can assist you in updating your computer. SP2 has a firewall included, but you should still have your own firewall installed. Before you install SP2, you should do a little research on the Microsoft Website, to know what software this patch affects and how to control Microsoft's new firewall. It ran successfully on my computer, but some have reported problems. Do your research to see what others with your type of computer have experienced. Also, you should back up your files before installing any patch. Installing a patch is akin to doing brain surgery!
Fourth, you should be aware that there is a security threat that can bypass every piece of protection software that you have installed on your computer. The scam is called "phishing." Con artists, making themselves out to be legitimate mortgage companies, credit card companies, or financial institutions, will send you authentic-looking emails, asking you to update your confidential banking information. Never give personal information of any kind to an on-line source, unless you are sure the vendor is legitimate.
Con artists shouldn't deter you from doing business with legitimate on-line companies, however. I frequently order books, CDs, software, and other items on the Internet. The companies are reputable and the information is transmitted over a secure server. Also, the limit of liability on my credit card is $50, meaning that's all I would be out if a charge was illegitimate.
Fifth, you should have anti-spam software installed on your computer. Spam is junk mail. It's digitally harmless but terribly annoying. If you want your email account to remain as "pure" as possible, never sign up for email newsletters using your primary email account and never post your email address to your Web site. Present your email address on your Web site as a graphic and use an alias email address you can quickly delete to sign up for newsletters and the like.
My choice for protection software is Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2005 which includes an anti-virus scanner, a firewall, anti-spam and anti-spyware capabilities, parental controls, and a wireless network monitor, which allows you to enable or deny wireless access for others to your network. At a street price of $49.95, this will be the best money that you spend this year for any software.
The issues I've outlined here are serious enough that they are included in the government's Homeland Security plan. You should not only have a plan, but begin immediately to protect your computer. I highly recommend that you see www.us-cert.gov to get the latest protection information.
Terry Wilhite is a communications and multimedia specialist. He welcomes your emails at PulpitHelps@terrywilhite.com.