Protect your Data and your Identity
Protect your Data and your Identity
A high level article in layman’s terms on basic computer security, viruses, and how to deal with them from a veteran information technology troubleshooter.

A computer in a box is safe, but that is not what computers are for

The old adage that “a ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for” can certainly be applied to many things. Among them and possibly highest on the list of many people today is the computer.

The sad truth is that once you turn a computer on and connect it to anything, including your personal USB thumb drive, it is exposed to threats. Because of the nature of data movement methodologies and personal habits there are threats everywhere. Know this and accept that fact and you have the right mindset to be safe. The Internet is a vast and cool place, but as with everything good, there is a counterculture who wants to exploit it for their motives. In a way, a healthy dose of paranoia is good when computers are involved. The first preventative is a password.

When your PC is on, it is possible for someone to access your system if they want to and try hard enough. The only way to keep this from happening easily is to be defensive. Use passwords, and change them regularly. Make your password difficult to guess and harder to reproduce and decode. There are good tools to check whether or not your password is good enough.

Microsoft has a page dedicated to security and helping educate users. Following its advice is only one step in the process. Be creative with passwords and combine words that aren’t found in common language. For example the words, hot and snowstorm might become h0T$n_0w$torm. This incorporates some key elements in a good password.

1. The password is not in an English dictionary

2. The password uses upper and lower case letters

3. The password doesn’t use a leading capitol letter

4. The password combines alpha and numeric characters

5. The password substitutes special characters for some alpha characters

6. There is a random special character placed in the password

7. The password is over 10 characters in length (8 is typically a minimum)

You can make the password harder and more complex simply by adding more characters, numbers, or letters if you need more complexity. The password is just one thing you have under your control. Use it and change it often, as in monthly or every 90 days at a minimum. Not like the smoke detector batteries that get changed every six months. It is your data which is your electronic life, after all, how important is its security to you?

Why computers become slow and non-responsive

Computers slow down when their drives get full, when their memory is not refreshed, and when they get malware. Let’s break these out separately from best to worst for your computer:

There are files which you cause to be put on your machine, that you control fully. These are the files you create and use for productivity (or fun). Any program you download or install takes space on your machine. Every document, spreadsheet, and image uses some space. The games you may play keep records of your scores, and the point in a game you stop, or start each time it launches. These are good files. These files are the reason you have a computer. This is generally referred to as data. Make backups of data you do not access frequently to save space on your computer. Move music, old photos or videos to CD, DVD, or to another portable drive like a USB.

Over time computers collect files just like furniture collects dust. They don’t have to be used to collect these files in most cases. The files are accessed whenever the system is running. I am referring to automatic updates. These as a whole are good files, but they do take up drive space on the machine. In all my years of experience, I have never seen an update from any software which took less space than the original installation did. This is not to say that you should preserve drive space at the expense of security or functionality. The updates in many cases contain security enhancements that are necessary, as well as new features that the software maker feels you need. Many times you do not get to choose the security update apart from the feature update. In large controlled enterprises, these updates are managed by the administrators of the network environment. They are typically tested before they allow your PC to get them.

Next, there are tracking and status files. There are typically cookies (tiny text files) which allow the computer to visit a site without re-entering a zip code, location preference for a store, or other information. Occasionally, they allow you to stay logged in to certain sites like your e-mail site. These files are automatically downloaded to the computer as you browse the Internet. You do have some control over them, but if you tighten down your acceptance of cookies, you are not allowed to visit certain sites. You have to choose your comfort level. These can be cleaned out periodically by setting the limit in your system as to how much space they can use.

Computer user defend thyself

Lastly, there is malicious software or malware which get on your computer. These are the most common cause of computer slowness, programs failing to function properly, and computer death as well as data loss. These are the files that piggy back on the cookies, or attach themselves to e-mail or images which you unintentionally download along with a file. Yes, you did it, unintentionally, but you took some action which initiated a process, and the malware is on your system.

Fifteen years ago the virus was the most prevalent concern for computer systems. Today, it is ID theft through browser or computer hijacking. The only way to protect your computer is to be on the defensive. Buy and maintain a reputable anti-malware software solution. Sadly, there is no one solution which I have come across that catches every piece of malware. There are several which I use and own. I keep one on the system at all times. On occasion, your resident protection program misses a threat and you need another tool. I do not run them all at once. They get installed, clean the computer, and they get removed. Just like any other tool.

I am not selling any of these products, but I am endorsing them because they simply work. Not that the big brands don’t, but these are lesser known products that the IT industry relies on. When push comes to shove, I will grab one of these to fix most malware problems.

AVG offers a free fully functional trial and is very effective in many cases. I’ve used it for years and it protects my Android phone. Kasperskey is another an old favorite from my first days in IT with a free trial which works well. Malware Bytes offers a free trial, but I would buy this as a tool because it is one of the few that removes fake anti-virus, and they are everywhere. Sophos is a good network and personal computer tool I’ve used with great success. Spybot Search and Destroy is another of the strongest tools I’ve used for cleaning some nasty root kit virus’. And finally, Vipre which is a light and fast program I own for all my PCs and laptops. This is the one I run in the background all the time.

Beware of fake anti-virus programs like “anti-Virus 2009,” “anti-Virus 2010,” “anti-Virus 2011.” They are actually some of the worst malware to get off your machine once you get it on the machine (that process will have to be another article). If it isn’t a major brand like Symantec, Norton, CA (Computer Associates), McAfee, etc. and it’s not listed here, beware.

This list is not comprehensive, but it does include some great legitimate software you can fully test for free. Buy a licensed version of three of these and it will still cost less than one trip to the tech support counter when you do get hit, and you will.

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