The environment in which we conduct our home computing tasks, particularly using the Internet, is becoming more and more hazardous to our computer’s health. In recent years the threats to our computing environment have gone from relatively harmless recreational hacking of Web sites to today’s mass crime waves by organized criminal groups. No, it’s probably not the Mafia as we know it, but these groups are just as organized and very skillful at perpetrating theft and other crimes using the Internet, and in some circumstances our computers. Let me explain…the groups I’m referring to, typically located in Russia, Romania and North Korea, have developed techniques and software that place software programs on millions of PCs across the world that will use them to commit crimes on command. When these machines become infected and controlled they’re called bots, short for robots. This technique was used in a recent theft of money from bank accounts here in the US. We have seen reports that these bots are even being rented out to other criminal groups for short periods of time to be used in similar unlawful activity.
At this point I hope I’ve captured your attention. Now how do you protect your PC from becoming a bot and other harmful conditions? There are several things you can do to help protect your computer…none of which will completely protect you, but the aggregate of the techniques will make you as safe as you can reasonably be. What I mean is that these criminals…you notice I don’t call them hackers—because they are skilled, hardened criminals and should be addressed as such…are good enough to break into banks, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Defense, so they have the capability to break into almost any home PC they desire to. So we must be vigilant in the protection of our computing environment in the following ways:
- Use a good Anti-Virus (AV) package that will alert you of all software programs on your computer that don’t belong there, including software that will turn your computer into a bot. I say a good AV because there are some packages that are only fair when it comes to effectiveness. Among these “fair” packages are the free ones. I’d look first at the AV industry leaders such as Norton, Kaspersky, and McAfee (I have no affiliation with them). Primarily because they have lots of resources to apply to identifying and neutralizing viruses and other malware like that mentioned above and will send automatic updates to your computer to protect it from the latest attacks.
- Use a firewall (a software program that can be configured to refuse access to your computer from undesirable sources) and make sure it is configured properly. Microsoft’s firewall and most security suite (Norton, Kaspersky, McAfee) firewalls will suggest a default or recommended set of configuration choices. I’d use their suggested settings at the minimum.
- Use a strong password on all your Internet accounts. These criminals have sophisticated software that is used to guess your password and the stronger the password, the less likely it will be guessed correctly. A strong password (see my previous posts titled Passwords Part I-IV) will cause the “password breaker” software to take longer to be successful and consequently, the criminal sometimes will move on to other, easier, less strong passwords which will break much faster.
- Don’t open emails from anyone you don’t know…let me repeat, don’t open emails from anyone you don’t know. I’d also add to this list anyone you do know who sends you forwarded emails because the forwarded email may be malware and the person who sent it to you may not know it. Much of the viruses and other malware today are sent via email messages. Many of these emails have enticing subject lines and may even come from someone you know. However, you must be careful to send a separate email or call the known sender and ask if the email is legitimate before opening it. Sound like a pain…too much trouble? I think not, because should your machine be infected or controlled by one of these malware, you could lose much more time (and money) recovering from the loss of personal information such as banking accounts and passwords, etc.
Put these protective techniques in place as soon as possible so that you can enjoy your time on the Internet with some peace of mind that you’ve done all you can to have a safe computing environment.
Remember, home computing is a blast…keep it productive and enjoyable.