Computer keyboardby Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and Boston City Paper, 7/2011

As a computer geek since 1981 and a professional at it since 1988, I get asked a lot of computer questions. These days, every home has at least one computer and we depend on them more and more. Our computers hold a lot of personal info: Bank and financial records, school papers/reports, all our digital pictures, bills, taxes, Justin Bieber fan club newsletters, etc. – So it’s important to remember that your computer is like your house – you need to lock the door and make sure only family members have a key. You need to keep the bad guys out.

With that in mind, I thought I would start with the basics of computer security, and also pass along some tips to help your computer run better. As with all things computer, there are hundreds of programs (and methods) to do these tasks; I am recommending the ones below because they work really well for me, or are free, or both.

Before I start, there are two important points to note. 1) Everything here is Microsoft Windows (any version) related. If you have a Mac or are using UNIX/Linux, this one’s not for you. 2) Please be aware this is a “buyer beware” column. If you don’t know how to navigate the web, download a program and install it, STOP! If you crash your computer trying any of the following DO NOT BLAME ME. A reasonable understanding of how to use your computer to install and troubleshoot a program is expected and required here. Closed course, professional driver, your mileage will vary, and all that. And for the love of monkeys DON’T make changes unless you understand why you’re doing it. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!

First up and most importantly is ANTI-VIRUS software. If you are connected to the Internet (and we all are) the FIRST thing you need to install after your operating system is anti-virus and firewall software. I CANNOT POSSIBLY OVER-EMPHASIZE HOW IMPORTANT GOOD ANTI-VIRUS / FIREWALL SOFTWARE IS. Always ensure you are running a good anti-virus and firewall program. Norton and McAfee are both very good and worth the money. Install them. Set the updates to automatic. Scan your PC (the entire PC) regularly. NEVER shut them off. Unsure what to buy? http://www.cnet.com and http://www.pcworld.com are excellent resources for impartial ratings of software. Next, learn how to configure and use your anti-virus and firewall software. It is your first and most powerful line of defense against intrusion.

Next on the subject of security, is wireless access. More and more folks these days use a router to allow several computers in the house to connect to the Internet (or each other) wirelessly. In families, this is very convenient. Router configuration and set up is way beyond the scope of this column but here’s the bottom line – if you choose to use a wireless router – you MUST understand how to set it up, or get someone you know to do it for you (that’s not me, by the way). Next, IMMEDIATELY change the password to the router. Here’s why – routers have a radius of about 200-300 feet (or far more); this means a person driving by your house can use their laptop to access YOUR wireless unless you changed the password. And if you were silly enough not to protect your directories, they can be accessed as well. CHANGE YOUR ROUTER PASSWORD IMMEDIATELY and don’t share it with anyone!

There are hundreds of articles on the net about what makes a good password – read a few of them. Best bet? Make it something not obvious that no one can guess (no pet names, no birthdays, and no dictionary words). Again, I could write an entire column on this subject – read up on good passwords. Yes, they are a PAIN to remember. That’s why they help keep you safe!

Still on the subject of security, In addition to viruses, another class of intruders to block is called Malware or spyware. Malware /spyware is like a virus but different. It loads on your computer without you knowing it, and it’s designed not to be detected by your virus scanning software. These small (and destructive) programs might be tracking your keystrokes (to steal your passwords), using your computer as a server, or even “data mining” to grab your email lists or credit card numbers.

Fortunately, two excellent (and free) products are very reliable in killing malware. First, go to http://www.malwarebytes.org/products/malwarebytes_free and download Malwarebytes. Install it, download any updates, and run a FULL SCAN on ALL your drives. It may take a few hours. When done, it will list your adware and malware. Tell it to remove all of it. It will only remove the malware, not the good stuff. Run the scan every week or two, or buy the full version for about $25 and it will run all the time for you.

I also recommend the program Super Anti-Spyware at http://www.superantispyware.com — Like Malwarebytes, there is a free and professional (need to buy) option. Download the free version and run a scan of your entire computer. Again, when it finds spyware, this is a “remove” option. Remove all spyware found.

Running these two tools every so often will rid your computer of malware and spyware and help keep your computer and data safe.

Next, let’s talk UPDATES. it’s important to keep your computer updated. The series of steps varies by windows operating system (XP, Vista, 7, etc), but in control panel, set your “Windows Update” option to download and install windows updates automatically. Microsoft frequently sends out fixes and enhancements for its operating systems. Many of these fixes plug so-called “holes” in your browser that allows hackers to get into your computer. Update windows regularly and keep you system running safer and with less errors. You can also run windows update at any time manually by going to http://www.update.microsoft.com

Finally (for now) let’s do a little cleanup. You may not know that Windows tends to leave behind tons of temporary files on your PC that never get cleaned up. Not just the history of web use, but “scratch” files used for all sorts of windows functions, and hundreds of temporary files are at first useful but later turn to clutter. Over time, they slow your computer. I recommend Piraform CCleaner, available at http://www.piriform.com/CCLEANER — Download the latest free version, install, and run it. It won’t hurt any “good” files but will get rid of all the junk. Run it regularly (you can even set it up to run automatically) and you’ll be amazed at the amount of disk space you save, and how better your computer runs.

Well, you have your homework. I hope you can see that computer security is very important but doesn’t have to be confusing.  Again, please know what you’re doing before you attempt anything I’ve described here; as long as you know how to download a program and install it, you should be fine.

Be safe, and happy computing!

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