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Keeping your systems relatively safe from the perils of the online world is not as difficult as it is often made out to be. In fact, following just a few basic rules will keep you safe from 99% of what a home user faces. Here are a few simple steps that cost nothing to implement and can greatly improve the security of your home network.
E-mail is the easiest way into your network!
First and foremost, dont ever open mail that looks suspicious in any way. If you arent expecting it and/or it looks strange in some way, just delete it. Also, avoid using the preview function of your chosen e-mail client; you dont want malicious e-mail payload to launch just because you highlighted a message. If possible, switch to a non-Microsoft e-mail client such as Mozilla Thunderbird. You are much safer using a non-Microsoft e-mail client at this time, mostly because the majority of people writing viruses and other bad stuff are targeting Microsoft software specifically. Also, ask your ISP about spam and virus filtering options; get them to help you configure your e-mail client to do these things if possible.
A web browser can run malicious applications on your machine without you knowing -- if you don't have it configured correctly.
The easiest way to secure your online browsing experience in one easy step is to switch from Microsofts Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firebird. Internet Explorer has a horrible security track record, and it often makes things too easy for attackers by letting special and potentially malicious content (activex, java, scripting, etc) run on your machine without you knowing -- unless you have configured it to do otherwise. Running Firebird lets you avoid the majority of these issues altogether and still offers a very nice browsing experience.
Be aware of updates.
Subscribe to the Microsoft Security e-mail list (link below) so that you know when there are Security updates available that you should install. When you see one is available, just run Windows Update, and it will be installed for you. Its also a good idea to set up the critical update checking that is available to you in Windows. Pay attention when you see the little globe in the bottom right hand corner of your screen, and when you see that it has updates available, try to install them as soon as possible.
Passwords are the keys to your online world.
Come up with a password scheme that is sufficiently complex, yet easy to remember. For low to medium security sites, I suggest the use of a common scheme that involves using the first letter from each of a six to ten word phrase, and then changing some of the letters to numbers. For example, "There is a lot of money in the lottery" becomes T1AL0M1TL (plus you can vary it with lower case as well). The phrase is easy to remember, but guessing that password is really difficult. For higher security sites, you can either make your passwords much more complex and change them more often, or you can use a free program called Password Safe. It's available here::
Be ready if something bad does get through.
Run an updated anti-virus solution at all times. AVG, by Grisoft, is an excellent solution. Panda and Norton are more feature-rich solutions that are available for purchase. The key thing, however, regardless of which product you go with, is to remember to keep it updated.
Don't let people into your "house."
Block all inbound access to your network. If you have a dedicated NAT device to do this (or a firewall if you have money to buy it and the skill to set it up), that is fine, but if you don't, you can achieve excellent protection with a free software firewall like Zone Alarm Free Edition.
Watch for tricky software.
If you have multiple users, and/or are unsure of where all your computer has been online, run Ad-aware on a semi-regular basis (depending on how much it's used online) to ensure that your computer is not being littered with Spyware (small applications designed by companies to gather information about you for marketing purposes). A free version is available here:
Consider the source.
Do your best to stay on reputable sites when browsing the Internet, and be cautious of who you deal with. The odds of you receiving something nasty go up exponentially when dealing with obscure presences on the Internet.
Common sense is king.
This is perhaps the most important rule. Allow for a healthy dose of skepticism when conducting yourself online. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If you ever doubt something, do not participate immediately. Consult with an Internet savvy friend or relative, or come to a forum like this one and ask someone what you should do.
Tips and Links
*Do not reply to or attempt to unsubscribe from spam. They use your responses to create lists of e-mail addresses to sell. If you want to do something about it, forward the spam to email@example.com and/or email your congressperson about it.
*Be cautious of who uses your computer systems at home and what they do when they are on them. Not only are you responsible for what is done on those systems, but you never know what they could be downloading and installing on your system that could hurt it. Consider implementing precautions such as password-based access control to reduce the risk from outside users, such as your kids' friends, etc.
*Make backups of anything you can't live without. Storage media is too cheap these days to lose valuable data to a power surge or theft. Things like images and letters often can't be replaced.
*Try to use plain text e-mail as much as possible. Set your outgoing e-mail to be plain text, and consider requesting that those who send you e-mail use plain text as well. HTML e-mail is a haven for malicious content and should generally be avoided. Pictures and attachments work just fine within plain text mail.
*Remember that you can have multiple web browsers on your system, and that you can use one for one thing and another for something else. Some banking sites, for example, are still built for Internet Explorer. Use it for those sites and then go back to Firebird for your regular browsing.
It's not impossible to defend yourself from online dangers. Follow the steps above on your own, come ask questions when you need help, and together we can make your life online a whole lot more secure.