3 Critical Facts Every Computer User Must Know About Keeping Their Personal and Financial Information Safe Online

Despite all of my nagging about online security, computer users rarely seem to give enough attention to online security and protection UNTIL a virus or a hacker renders their computer useless or destroys their data. Once this happens, it can be very expensive if not impossible to repair the damages done.

If you own a computer that is connected to the Internet without proper firewall and security measures set up, it’s only a matter of time before a worm, virus, hacker, or spyware takes over your computer.

Cyber criminals lurk everywhere on the Internet and are constantly figuring out new ways to access your personal and financial information. Even legitimate Web sites have sophisticated methods of snooping, such as cookies and spyware, that track your identity, browsing habits, and personal information.

This week, I thought I would take some time to outline the 3 biggest threats to you online, and show you how you can keep your private information from falling into the wrong hands. I’m going to start by setting the mood. I’m not a fan of Norton, but I think they’ve nailed the emotions experienced when you’ve been hacked or infected with a virus quite perfectly in this commercial.

Threat #1: Hackers

Small business owners and home users tend to think that because they are “just a small business” or “just a home user” no one would waste time trying to hack in to their computer.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Just recently an experiment was conducted were a single computer was connected to the Internet with no firewall.  Within hours, over 13 gigabytes of space were taken over with malicious code and files that could not deleted. Hackers are malicious individuals who prey on unsuspecting computer users who have not properly secured their PC from outside access.

These cyber criminals run scanning programs over the Internet to find computers with electronic openings, called ports. Once they find such an opening, they have as much access to your computer as you do. That means your online banking, personal data, passwords, family data, and files. Often the goal of these intruders is to install a Trojan horse to your hard drive.

Here are some of the tell tale signs that your computer has been hacked:

  • Mysterious files suddenly start appearing.
  • Your CD drawer starts opening and closing by itself.
  • You get constant runtime errors in MS Outlook/Outlook Express.
  • You find e-mails in your sent items folder that you didn’t send.
  • Some of your files are moved or deleted.
  • Icons on your desktop or toolbars are blank or missing.
  • Your mouse feels sluggish, like someone else is trying to control it.

The best protection from a hacker is a good firewall. When properly set up, a firewall will make your computer invisible to the scanners and prevent hackers from accessing your computer.

Threat #2: Viruses, Worms, and Other Malicious Software

A virus is a freeloading program designed to install itself onto your computer without your knowledge or permission. Once installed, the virus attaches itself to files or boot sectors with the intent of taking over your computer’s programs.

A worm is a parasitic program designed to replicate itself on your computer and then spread to other computers via email (through your address book), downloads/links or an IRC (chat program).  Both of these programs are considered “malware”, which is short for malicious software. Many of the worms on the Internet today have been designed by advertising agencies to gain lists of working email addresses for spam.

If you get a worm, not only are you affected, but also every person in your address book (friends, family, and clients) also become vulnerable. Most viruses are spread via e-mail attachments.  That is why you should NEVER open any email attachment from someone you don’t know, or that looks suspicious.

Once the attachment has been opened, the computer virus will run on your computer and perform its intended function. Sometimes the computer virus is designed to delete specific files on the computer, send commands and information to other computers, or to wreak havoc on your computer in some other way.

It will also try to send copies of itself (also known as ‘spoofing’) to other email addresses that it finds in your email address book. In this way, the computer virus can spread across the Internet by way of email.

You can also get a computer virus by inserting and reading infected floppy disks and CD-ROMs or by downloading files from the Internet.  If you download music files or pictures from a peer to peer file sharing site such as KaZaa, there is good chance you’ll end up with a virus. We have regular customers at PlanetCPU who return quarterly or more because they insist on using P2P programs.

The most important thing you can do to protect your PC from viruses is to install and regularly update your virus protection software. Many software programs offer an automatic update feature that will make it far easier to keep your PC safe. PlanetCPU proudly recommends Avast! antivirus, which boasts a very powerful scanning engine and takes up a very small amount of space compared to others like McAfee or Norton.  We also provide Managed Endpoint Protection to business computers, where we provide the software and all routine maintenance to it, such as updates and System Scans, along with full Reporting and Alerting eliminating the need for each employee to perform these duties individually, IF they remember!

Threat #3: Spyware

If you spend a lot of time online, share music files or photos with other users, or if you download shareware or other Internet freebies such as emoticons, screen savers, or other “cute” programs, chances are your computer is infected with spyware.

Spyware is Internet jargon for hidden, undetected programs advertisers install on your PC to gather and report information about you and your online activities. This program is usually installed without the user’s knowledge by piggybacking on another program or file being downloaded.

While some spyware is harmless, there can be serious consequences of unidentified spyware which include spam, identity theft, corruption and slowing of your PC, and annoying pop-up ads.

These programs can also profile your shopping preferences, hijack your browser start page, and alter important system files without your knowledge or permission. Unfortunately, spyware is not illegal even though it allows a complete stranger to monitor and store information about you and your online activities.

Here are some signs that your PC is infected with Spyware:

  • You are constantly getting pop-up ads that seem to come from nowhere.
  • Your Internet start page has been changed (this is the web site that normally comes up whenever you open your browser).
  • Your search engine bar has been changed.

Some basic spyware and malware can be easily removed using a program such as Spybot’s Search & Destroy (you can download it for free at: www.safer-networking.org) or Ad-Aware (you can download it at www.lavasoftusa.com/support/download). (Please use either of these at your own risk)

However, not all malicious programs can be removed – or even detected – using the above software. Many programs integrate so deeply into the operating system that it takes a skilled technician several hours to fully diagnose and remove the malicious program. In some extreme cases, we have had no alternative but to wipe the hard disk clean by deleting all of the files on it and re-installing the operating system.

Obviously this is NOT and ideal situation and we do everything within our power to avoid it. Unfortunately there are some malicious programs that are so intelligent that there is simply no other way of removing them.

Of course you can use Spybot or Ad-Aware as a first attempt at cleaning your machine; however, if you continue to notice that your computer runs slow, if you continue to get crippling pop ups, or any other of the tell-tale signs discussed earlier, you will need to give us a call immediately before this malicious program does more damage to you and your friends, colleagues, and clients. It may not only save you money, but could save your reputation as well. Call us at 519-843-1234 or visit our Professional IT Servicing and Repair Depot today at 350 Tower Street South, Fergus.

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