The New Year is a time of reflection, and traditionally a time to consider changing one’s habits.
Our reliance upon computers and networks has exceeded our means to safely use and control them. Every computer user has some responsibility to make sure that their computer and use of the Internet does not introduce unknown and unwanted risks. By following these recommendations you will greatly reduce your risk to fraud, identity theft, and other risks related to Internet usage.
1. Change your passwords. Use strong passwords, which cannot be easily guessed by others, even those who know you. Do not share your password with any other person. If needed, store your passwords in a protected vault such as Password Safe or KeePass. I recommend you not use an online vault for password storage: if their security is compromised, so are your passwords.
2. Scan for Viruses and other malware. Configure your anti-virus software to scan your entire computer at least weekly. Make sure that your anti-virus software is checking for updates at least once per day. Also scan your computer with one of several online virus scanners at least once per month.
Panda: http://www.pandasoftware.com (look for the ActiveScan link on the home page)
Trend Micro: http://housecall.trendmicro.com/
3. Block spam, and don’t open spam messages. The majority of spam (unwanted junk email) is related to fraud. Spam messages advertise fraudulent or misleading products, or lure you to websites that contain malware that will attempt to take over your computer (without your knowing it) and steal valuable information from you.
4. Get a firewall. If you use Windows, turn on the Windows Firewall. Ask your broadband service provider to upgrade your modem/router to one that contains a firewall (most newer modems / routers do have firewalls or other similar protection).
5. Remove spyware. Obtain a good anti-spyware program and use it to find and remove spyware from your computer.
6. Update your software. Obtain up-to-date copies of browsers and tools on your computer, as many older versions are no longer secure. This includes Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, Java, and other programs.
7. Install security patches. If you are using Windows, turn on Automatic Updates, and configure it to automatically download and install security patches and updates.
8. Use separate accounts on shared computers. If more than one person uses your computer, set up separate accounts for each user. Make each user an ordinary user or power user, but never an administrator. Making each user an administrator makes the entire computer more vulnerable to malware (viruses, etc.).
9. Browse Safely. Change to Firefox and use the NoScript add-on. This is the only combination designed to block the new “clickjacking” vulnerability present in all other browsers. Also consider using Flashblock (works only with Firefox) if you want to control the use of Flash content in your browser.
10. Protect your wireless WiFi network. The old an still-common “WEP” protocol designed to encrypt your wireless traffic has been broken, and is no longer safe. Upgrade to WPA, even if it means buying a new wireless access point.
11. Back up your data. All kinds of bad things can happen, from mistakes to hardware failures. If you cannot afford to lose your data, then you need to copy it to a separate storage device. External hard drives and high capacity USB thumb drives cost well below US$100. You’ll be glad you did, sooner or later.
12. Encrypt your hard drive. Mostly important for laptop computers, but also important for desktop computers. The TrueCrypt tool is by far the most popular one available, and it’s free. If you don’t encrypt your data, then anyone who steals your computer can (and will) read all of your private data.
13. Check your credit reports. Fraud and identity theft can result in thieves opening new credit card and loan accounts in your name. They run up a balance and then never pay the bill, making that your problem instead. Consider a credit reporting service as well, which will alert you to inquiries and changes to your credit accounts, limits, and balances.
Federal Trade Commission information on free credit reports
Secunia Personal Software Inspector – free tool that examines your computer and alerts you to all of the unpatched and older versions of programs that need to be upgraded.
Password Safe – safe and secure storage of all of your Internet passwords. Also remembers userids and URLs.
TrueCrypt – safe and free encryption of your PC’s hard drive.