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How to protect your computer from viruses and hackers

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April 15, 2014: A lock icon, signifying an encrypted Internet connection, is seen on an Internet Explorer browser in a photo illustration in Paris.

“Protect your computer” is undoubtedly the best advice you can be given.

This is such an important topic that we’re actually going to offer guidelines from the FBI’s official online website, which we’ve either modified or quoted verbatim. We’ll also provide some personal advice and tips in order to help you better understand these guidelines.

While these guidelines are geared for your computer, they also hold true for many of your digital devices, notably your smartphone.

Keep your firewall turned on

A firewall helps protect your computer from hackers who might try to gain access in order to crash it, delete information, or even steal passwords or other sensitive information.

A “firewall” is an internal security system that helps protect your computer from unauthorized access.

Both Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac operating systems come equipped with firewall protection. Remember, however: While firewalls are generally incorporated, they still need to be turned on. You’re usually given this option when you first set-up your computer, so make sure to say “yes” to this security protection.

You can also easily purchase firewall software programs such as ZoneAlarm, Kaspersky and others. These programs keep evolving (or devolving) from year to year, so you might want to check on the most highly-rated programs ahead of time.

If you’re concerned about security for your smartphone, you might want to investigate Sophos Mobile Security, F-Secure Mobile Security, Kaspersky Mobile Security, Trend Micro or Norton Smartphone Security. These systems are among the more popular security software for mobile devices and also provide antivirus protection as well (see below):

Install or update your antivirus software

Antivirus software provides a different function than firewalls. Antivirus software is designed to prevent malicious software programs from embedding onto your computer. If it detects malicious code, like a virus, it works to disarm or remove it. Viruses can infect computers without users' knowledge. Most types of antivirus software can be set up to update automatically.

Among the top antivirus software include Symantec’s Norton Antivirus, McAfee, Kaspersky, Webroot and more. Like with the firewall software mentioned earlier, you might want to check on the most highly-rated program ahead of time.

Install or update your antispyware technology

Spyware is just what it sounds like — software that is surreptitiously installed on your computer to let others peer into your activities on the computer. Some spyware collects information about you without your consent or produces unwanted pop-up ads on your web browser.

We provide several chapters in our book Just Tell Me How It Works: Practical Help for Adults on All-Things-Digital on web browsers and search engines. For now, know that a “web browser” is the term used for the program that allows your computer to connect to the Internet. (You might also have heard these web browsers referred to as Internet Explorer on your Windows, or Safari on your Mac computers).

Some operating systems – including Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac operating system – offer free spyware protection. Free or inexpensive software is also readily available for download from the Internet or which can be purchased at your local computer store.

Be wary of ads on the Internet offering downloadable antispyware – in some cases these products may be a fake and may actually contain spyware or other malicious code. It's like buying groceries: shop where you trust.

Keep your operating system up to date

Computer operating systems are periodically updated to stay in tune with technology advances or to fix security holes. Be sure to install these updates to ensure your computer has the latest protection.

By “computer operating systems,” the FBI is referring to your Windows or Apple Mac computer. We suggest you turn on the “automatic updates” feature that these systems provide, so you won’t have to put you attention on them.

Be careful what you download

Carelessly downloading e-mail attachments can circumvent even the most vigilant anti-virus software. Never open an e-mail attachment from someone you don't know, and be wary of forwarded attachments (files, pictures or even links) from people you do know. They may have unwittingly advanced malicious code.

Turn off your computer

With the growth of high-speed Internet connections, many opt to leave their computers on and ready for action. The downside is that being "always on" renders computers more susceptible.

Beyond firewall protection, which is designed to fend off unwanted attacks, turning the computer off effectively severs an attacker's connection – be it spyware or a botnet that employs your computer's resources to reach out to other unwitting users.

A “botnet” is a number of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the owners’ knowledge (i.e. to send spam).

“Spyware” and “botnet” are just some of the terms for malicious software that could “infect” your computer. The most common phrase you’ll also hear are “computer virus,” “Trojan Horse,” “adware” and even “worms.” Not too pleasant, but that’s the general idea.

Protecting your computer: Our general advice

  • Both Microsoft Windows and Apple’s Mac operating systems come with pre-installed firewalls, anti-virus, and spyware protection, They’re quite reliable and very handy, so we suggest you “agree” to use them – you’ll be asked when you first set-up your computer or laptop.

Sometime these pre-installed software protection programs – notably, anti-virus software – are for a free-trial period only. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to pay a yearly fee after the trial period is over. Again, usually worth the cost.

  • If you’re thinking of adding two anti-viruses or spyware programs for ‘double-protection’ – think again.

Multiple anti-virus and spyware programs often run at-odds with each other and can cause conflicts within your computer. Decide on the best protective program you’d like to run and stick with it.

  • Both Windows and the Mac operating systems provide automatic updates for your computer. When you come across a prompt asking whether you want to automatize these updates, we suggest that you click “okay / agree” to the request.
  • Heed the FBI warning about taking precaution when opening e-mail attachments. You may receive an e-mail from someone named “Helen,” but that person might not be the “Aunt Helen” you know (or your Aunt Helen’s e-mail account may have been hijacked by someone else). When in doubt, contact the person whom you think sent the e-mail and make sure the contents is safe (and that they, indeed, did send you the e-mail).
  • Don’t panic or grow paranoid. Although you’ll want to take care to protect your computer or digital device, there is no need to grow anxious or paranoid in this regard.

Even if your computer – or even your smartphone – gets “infected,” there are a number of ways of ridding yourself of the virus or spyware problem. (We recommend you follow the earlier FBI guidelines so you won’t even need to worry about infections.)

The bottom line: Relax; take proper precautions; then go ahead and enjoy your computer, smartphone and digital devices.

Paul Lance has spent the last 20 years at the intersection of entertainment, publishing and new media. His book, Just Tell Me How It Works: Practical Help for Adults on All-Things-Digital, provides the ease and understanding people need to gain control over our ever-changing digital world.