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Computer Security and You
by Karen Lynn Thomas
Austin, Texas

If you have worked with computers for any length of time, you have doubtless heard about hackers and the damage they can cause costing millions of dollars to individuals and businesses every year. I had a rather rude awakening to hackers and the importance of maintaining computer security years ago when I had my first computer. I received a software update disk in the mail from a vendor. Unbeknownst to me, the disk was infected with a virus and subsequently crashed the computer. Was it sloppy of the vendor to send out infected disks? Definitely. Was it foolish of me not to check the disk for viruses before attempting installation? Absolutely. Was there a lesson learned? Certainly. That little experience cost me the expense of hiring a computer doctor and lost productivity. Hackers have gotten increasingly malicious in recent years; if you own a personal computer, it is crucial that you take steps to avoid a disaster like mine or one much worse.

Your first defense against hackers is investing in an antivirus program such as Norton Antivirus by Symantec ( Once you have an antivirus program installed, you must keep it updated with the latest virus definitions, which can be downloaded from the manufacturer's Web site. Most programs can be set up to download updates automatically as they are released. It's best if you download updates daily or at least once a week if you do it manually. You need to be able to check every file you load on your computer for viruses whether it comes to you via disk, e-mail, or the Web, and you want to be certain that you are using the most up-to-date version. Never open an e-mail attachment without scanning it first for viruses as that is how most viruses are spread on the Internet. Even if you receive files from a trusted source, it pays to be vigilant as my unfortunate experience demonstrates. Routinely perform a full system scan of your hard drive to be certain your computer is virus free.

For anyone who surfs the Web and uses Microsoft products, it is critical that your operating system and browser have the latest patches, which can be downloaded at Hackers are continuously finding vulnerabilities in software and Microsoft regularly releases updates and service packs to fix these problems. Once you have the latest patches, you can increase your computer's security helping to prevent hackers from putting adware and spyware onto your machine simply by making changes to your security settings in Internet Explorer. Avoid malicious programs from automatically being downloaded to your machine by carrying out these steps:
  1. Launch Internet Explorer.

  2. Open the Tools Menu by holding down the Alt key and tapping T, then releasing the Alt key.

  3. Tap the letter o to select "Internet Options."

  4. Hold down your Shift key and tap Tab to give focus to the control tabs.

  5. Tap your Right-Arrow key once. If you're using a screen reader, it will say "security." Mouse users will note that the Security tab is now highlighted.

  6. Tap Tab until the "custom Level" button has focus, then tap either Enter or Space to activate that button.

  7. When you activate that button, a treeview appears. You can move through the treeview with your Down-Arrow key. At the top of the treeview, the first thing you'll see is a category labeled ActiveX Controls and Plug-ins. If you tap Down-Arrow again, you'll see a subcategory labeled "Download Signed ActiveX Controls and Plug-ins." Under this subcategory are three options which can be turned on or off by tapping your Space bar. The options are "disable," "enable," and "prompt." The "prompt" option is the one that should be turned on; all others should be off.

  8. Tap Down-Arrow again to see another subcategory labeled "Download Unsigned ActiveX Controls." Again, there are three options here--disable, enable, and prompt. In this case, the "disable" option should be turned on.

  9. Again, tap Down-Arrow and hear another subcategory labeled "Initialize and Script ActiveX Controls Not Marked as Safe." Again, the options are the same three as above. The "Disable" option should be turned on.

  10. Tap Down-Arrow again and find another subcategory labeled "Run ActiveX Controls and plug-ins." This time, the "prompt" option should be turned on.

  11. Tap Down-Arrow one last time and enter a subcategory called "Script ActiveX Controls Marked Safe for Scripting."
    Again, the options are similar, and you want to ensure that the "Prompt" option is turned on.
Windows XP machines have the strongest security features. In the event you are using an older machine, you may want to consider buying a new computer.

Web surfers should also become familiar with firewalls and anti-spyware. Microsoft has a built-in firewall to aid in keeping your computer safe, but you can invest in a software firewall and a hardware firewall such as a router used with a high-speed Internet connection. In addition, there are anti-spyware programs available that work much like antivirus software that you can install, keep updated, and run to help protect your system. Free versions of firewall and spyware software can be downloaded from the Web and are worth investigating, but be careful. Always, always get product reviews and read the terms and conditions of agreements before you download or you could be putting your system at risk of the very problems you're trying to escape.

ZoneAlarm is a widely used software firewall, as is , Sygate. Two popular anti-spyware programs are Ad-Aware by Lavasoft) and Spybot Search and Destroy. Free and fee-based versions of all four programs are available. Please be advised that these and other programs may conflict with access technology.

When online, be sure that you use good passwords. That is, passwords that are at least six characters long and that contain numbers and both upper and lower case letters. You need to have a different password for every site you register with on the Web and it is recommended that you change your passwords periodically. It can become difficult to remember all of your passwords. I keep an index card for each of my password-protected online accounts. It's better to keep your passwords in hard copy than have them open to prying eyes on the computer or subject to loss in the event of a hard drive crash. Before you provide any information on a Web site, be sure that you trust the site owner and that your information is protected. Look for a Web site address that begins with https://, which indicates the site is secured. If your browser settings are set to high, it is likely you will be alerted when you are entering or leaving a secure site. Shopping and online banking sites are good examples of sites that must be secure for you to make transactions and feel confident that your information is safe. If you receive an e-mail that appears to come from a trusted source such as your bank, make certain it's not from a scam artist phishing. No matter how legitimate the e-mail seems, don't provide any personal information, click on any links or respond in any manner whatsoever to e-mail solicitations regarding your accounts. To verify the status of your accounts, check your records and call the telephone numbers or type in the Web site address you know to be correct. For more information on phishing, visit With your on-line interactions, always be mindful of the risks and take the necessary precautions.

The best thing you can do for your computer security in addition to getting and maintaining an antivirus program, is to back up your files. You can't use a computer and not experience a hard drive crash at some point. Not backing up your files could potentially cause you to lose everything--your work, your research, your address book. Back up all of your important files. It doesn't matter how you do it, just do it! Use floppy disks, CDs, thumb drives, whatever. You want to be prepared in the event the unthinkable happens.

If you have concerns about how safe your computer really is, take the "How Safe Are You?" quiz at. According to the National Cyber Security Alliance, sponsor of the quiz, following proper steps as outlined in this article will certify you as a cyber secure citizen--a little peace of mind in the wacky world of computers and the Internet.
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Internet Explorer Security and Privacy
Home Computer Security
National Cyber Security Alliance

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