A Few Simple Steps Can Help Protect You From Hackers, Viruses and Other Risks

Microsoft has issued some tips to keep your computing experience secure. You experts know this already but it can’t hurt to have a reminder:
As gifts for loved ones or tools for getting organized in the new year, personal computers (PCs) are always popular items during the holiday gift-giving season. Analysts predict that nearly 52 million PCs will be sold worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2004, up from 47 million in the same period last year.
We have all come to enjoy and rely upon personal computers and the Internet to learn, work and play. But the same qualities that make the computers and the online world so enriching can also make us vulnerable to security threats lurking on the Internet. Just as you take precautions to keep your home safe from burglars, there are steps you can take to protect your PC and yourself from computer viruses, spyware and hackers to unsolicited and sometimes fraudulent spam e-mail messages that have the potential to take the joy out of owning that new home computer or device. To help consumers better protect themselves, Microsoft Corp. offers an array of helpful tips, tools and resources.
Whether consumers are plugging in a freshly unwrapped PC for the first time or updating an existing system, assessing security features should be their top priority, Kaplan says. Most new PCs already include extensive security protections built into the system with Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2. This latest release from Microsoft has technologies designed explicitly to improve protection against hackers, viruses and other security risks, including a new Windows Security Center that allows users to check the status of essential security functionalities — such as firewalls, automatic updates and antivirus protections — and lets them know whether these key security capabilities are turned on and up to date.
To round out security defenses, Rich Kaplan, corporate vice president of the Security Business & Technology Unit at Microsoft recommends that home users follow these guidelines, whether they have a new PC or a Mac:
— Use an Internet firewall. This is a type of software that forms a protective boundary between the PC and the Internet or other computers on a network by monitoring and restricting the flow of information across the boundary. Windows XP Service Pack 2 has a built-in firewall; other companies also market firewall products.
— Get computer updates. Microsoft and others in the technology industry continually provide new and enhanced security tools to ward off emerging viruses, security vulnerabilities and other threats as they are discovered. Microsoft Windows Update ( http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com/ ) provides the latest updates users of Windows need to better protect their computer and keep it running smoothly. Microsoft strongly recommends turning on the Automatic Updates feature in Windows XP Service Pack 2 to make this process even easier because the feature can download and install the latest security updates automatically.
— Use up-to-date anti-virus software. Installing anti-virus protection and subscribing to regular updates provides an essential safeguard against constantly evolving online threats.
— Don’t open files from strangers. Most e-mail viruses are spread by people who get fooled into opening an infected file, and instant messaging can pose the same danger. Never open a file attached to an e-mail message or an instant message from an unrecognized sender.
— Use a spam filter. Many e-mail programs have built-in filters that can help you separate spam from the e-mail you really want. For example, MSN, Outlook and MSN Hotmail can help you stop receiving junk e-mail or delete junk e-mail before it arrives. Find your spam filter and set it to the level you are comfortable with — and check with your ISP if you have questions. If you are using Microsoft products, you can find more information by visiting http://www.microsoft.com/spam.
— Never reply to spam. No matter how enticing or interesting the offer, you should never respond to spam. Even offers to remove your e-mail address from mailing lists can be a way for spammers to authenticate active e-mail accounts.
— Beware of spyware and other deceptive software. Spyware is software that uses deceit and trickery to get you to download and install unwanted and sometimes destructive software, for example, software that collects personal information about you without asking for your permission. Common sources of spyware include music or file-sharing programs, free games, and other software programs that come from untrustworthy Web sites. Several varieties of spyware removal and protection software are available for PC users to download from the Web; Microsoft provides links to several options at http://www.microsoft.com/spyware. Windows XP Service Pack 2 provides several tools focused on blocking potential entry points and distribution methods of deceptive spyware, including a new Internet Explorer Pop-up Blocker and Internet Explorer Information Bar.
— Use password protection. Setting up a password for access to the PC is the first line of defense against criminals, pranksters or a careless roommate. Protect your information by using a hard-to-guess password that is at least eight characters long and contains a mixture of letters, numbers and symbols. Also, it’s a good idea to “lock” the computer whenever it’s on but not in use. Locking a Windows-based computer is simple: Hold down the Windows logo and L keys. When you are ready to use the computer again, follow the instructions on the screen to unlock it.
— Protect your online identity. Microsoft and most legitimate businesses will never ask for passwords, credit card numbers, social security numbers or other personal information in an e-mail. If you do receive an e-mail requesting this kind of information, don’t respond. If you think the e-mail is legitimate, contact the company by phone or through their Web site to confirm. To be safe, it is best to open your browser and type in the URL for the company in question. You should never click on the link provided in the e-mail, because it may redirect you to an illegitimate site — without your knowledge — created solely to extract your personal information.

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Ramon Ray, Editor & Technology Evangelist, Smallbiztechnology.com . Editor and Founder, Smart Hustle Magazine Full bio at http://www.ramonray.com . Check him out on Google Plus, Twitter or Facebook