Protect Your Computer!

The internet used to be a fun place.

Every day you could find lots of new and unusual places to go.

Now, just opening your browser is an adventure. Are you going to get bombarded with dozens of pop-up ads? Will your home page be the page you selected, or will it be replaced by a gambling page, or a page you do not want your children to see?

Even worse, there might be hidden programs on your computer that are capturing all of your keystrokes and sending them to a program that looks for names and password, or social security numbers, or credit card numbers.

It's enough to make you want to get rid of the machine once and for all!

There are some things you can do to help get the pests off your computer and, even better, keep them from getting on there in the first place!

The difference between getting rid of the bad guys and keeping them off in the first place is the difference between hitting your brakes after the car has gone off a cliff, or before.

Free Ways to Thwart the Bad Guys

First, you need to know that it's wrong to say you're "connected to the Internet" when you dial in to AOL or Earthlink or whoever you dial up. You're not connected to the Internet. You are the Internet!

You have become another computer on the Internet. If you have your own little home network, you're all part of the Internet.

Your computer is the same as, or, or, or any other computer. Mostly, you're just running different software and you're a bit harder to find. But anyone can find you; it just takes patience and a specialized program.

The world is full of people with too much time on their hands and one of those programs.

Once one of them finds you, it can take advantage of Windows to look for holes that they can use to get into your computer. It's possible for someone to delete or steal your files and do a whole lot more.

You can see how open your computer is by going to Gibson Research's Shield's Up. It will try to attack your computer just like a bad guy would. But Gibson's a good guy; he'll just tell you what a bad guy can find. The explanations are pretty technical, but when you're open to the world he tells you pretty clearly.
Click Proceed on the first page, and try File Sharing, Common Ports, All Service Ports, and Messenger Spam. You want your computer to show "Stealth" status. That means you're hidden and much harder to attack.

You've probably heard of firewalls. A firewall will protect you from prgrams that are trying to attack your computer, or send information from your computer.

Send information from your computer? Yes, that's what spyware does. It tracks what you're doing and sends it all to someone else. Some viruses also will send information or requests to other computers as their "payload". You want that to stop.

The problem with a firewall is, it's hard to set up. When your firewall asks you, "Do you want to allow or deny ccApp access to the Internet?" you need to know the right answer. I've used Norton Internet Security, which is a virus checker, firewall, and more. It can be difficult to install, but it knows a lot of programs and whether to allow or deny access. It is a commercial product and I generally don't recommend it simply because the Norton suite puts a lot of strain on the computer.

A free firewall is available from ZoneLabs. It's called Zone Alarm and you have to poke around a bit, but there is a free version which is pretty much all you need for your home computer. Unless you're interested in the advanced features, you can use the free version instead of the (pay) "pro" version.

The key to setting up a firewall is to look at every question it asks and what program it's for. If you recognize the program then let it access the internet. If you don't, deny it. If something doesn't work because you denied it, then you either have to allow it to access, or decide you don't need that program.

Another way to keep the bad guys off your computer is to stop using Internet Explorer! In spite of Microsoft's security patches, it inherently allows too many ways for other programs to get in and take it over. They can monitor your keystrokes, redirect your searches and home page, and more.

I recommend getting the latest version of Firefox, an excellent browser. There are some pages that will only show on Internet Explorer, but that might be because the bad guys are trying to hitch a ride in.

Firefox also was the first to block pop-ups which can really become annoying after a while.

Finally, make sure Windows is up to date! If your version doesn't automatically update go to (and you have to use Internet Explorer for this!) and get the critical updates at the very least.

The Free Solutions
I like free products. They generally come without support but the ones I use are pretty robust and I've never had problems with any of them.

A disadvantage of the commercial products is, they have three purposes: one is what you paid for, one to make sure you paid, and one to encourage you to pay next year. This means your virus checker is using your computer to make sure you didn't get an illegal copy of the software. This is usually quick and easy and wouldn't noticably slow down your computer.

But it's also trying to convince you it is a valuable program and don't you dare let it lapse! This means you'll see little windows open telling you that it's protected you from (some number) of serious threats today and other little reminders you don't care about. They need to make sure you're thinking about them, and scared enough to buy another year of protection.

Free products don't have to do that. They just keep working.

So what do I use?

  • For virus, I like AVG from Grisoft. It doesn't slow you down a lot when it's scanning, it updates regularly, and it's lightweight (there are only a couple of services running; some virus checkers will have ten or more running and each one is slowing you down a bit). The only problem I have ever had with AVG is, sometimes it will need a push to update. If the little colorful flag in the system tray turns black-and-white, click on it and click "update" and all will be well again. If you prefer a commercial product, try BitDefender or Trend Micro. Only use one virus checker!
  • For spyware and adware, you can buy Spysweeper which will run all the time and check for spyware or adware. Or you can use a couple of scanners that you run periodically (say, once a week) or if you notice evidence of infestation, like lots of pop-ups or sudden slowness or other unusual behavior. I like Ad-aware (look for the free or personal version) and Spybot Search and Destroy. Unlike virus checkers, it's OK to run more than one. Each has an update button so you can get the latest information. This is important -- what you're downloading is information on the newest bad guys.
  • I mentioned Zone above for a firewall. Mostly, you're safe if you're careful and your router provides a firewall (almost all do these days) and you use Windows firewall. Only use one firewall! If you get zone or another, turn off the Windows firewall.
  • A final protector is the little Winpatrol Scotty dog. It sits in your system tray and looks at all the places that bad guys try to sneak into or attack your computer. If you hear his bark and see a message, something is about to happen and it may not be good. If you're installing a new program, just say OK and let it install. If you're writing a word document or browsing a cool new website, say no and you'll probably prevent a house call.

Computer-Ease, LLC
Fairfax, VA
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