Bonus: Keeping Your Computer Secure, Part II

We managed to skip a Tech Tip or two this week, so here’s a Bonus one. I’ll warn you that this one has a healthy dose of opinion in it. 😉

Everyone has some concern about keeping their computer free from threats such as viruses, malware, and hackers… And that concern is well founded if you believe even half of the stories that come out in the media about computers that have been infected or hacked into.

However… it’s my personal belief that the mechanisms we take to protect ourselves often provide a false sense of security.

For instance, if you own a Mac, you may believe that you’re covered. None of this virus and malware and hacking nonsense could get to you, right? I think that’s a myth. Statistically speaking are more viruses and malware written for PCs than for Macs? Absolutely. But Mac users are not immune, and you’re becoming less and less secure every day, as more people adopt Apple devices. That false sense of security you get from owning and operating a Mac is a very dangerous thing, because the assumption is that it could never happen to you.

How about this? You buy a “complete coverage” product. Most of the major antivirus manufacturers make one. They call them by various names, but the idea is that this software provides a better firewall than the stock Windows one, a superior antivirus than the free ones… you get the idea. Again, I think this software provides a false sense of security. When cleaning up workstations that have been infected with viruses or malware, I often find this “complete” software loaded on it, and it’s been loaded there for years. The malware still infects the system, even with the superior firewall. And often, the “complete” software slows the computer down to a crawl… much like the malware and viruses do. My opinion is that there are better ways to invest your money.

So, what do you do to protect yourselves? Here’s my advice. Again, your mileage may vary, and I’m just an IT guy with 15 years of experience. There are more experienced folks out there and people with differing opinions. So, take this advice for what it is… just advice from one guy.

  1. The Windows Firewall often doesn’t help. Neither does the one by the “complete” providers. Why not? Because firewalls are designed to stop direct hacking attacks. If your computer sits behind a home or office firewall/router device like a Linksys or a Netgear or a D-Link Wireless Router that connects to your cable or DSL modem, that firewall on your computer is redundant. Often the firewall on your computer creates problems for you instead of solving them, because you are now behind two firewalls. When it comes to figuring out where a problem is being created, the computer firewall is often the culprit. So, if you have a home router or a business firewall, turn off the Windows firewall. There’s no point to it. And you can ignore all the warnings that Windows throws at you for doing so. However, here’s an ounce of caution: If you have a laptop and you take it to a public Wifi zone, that firewall may have a benefit. When you do so, be sure to turn the firewall back on.
  2. The “complete” solutions often are not complete. Often they are completely useless. Someone once told me that “someone who is good at everything is always great at nothing and usually not good at much either”, and that’s the truth in the case of the complete solutions. The reason I often find malware and spyware on computers with the “complete” solution installed is because they are not so great a stopping the NOW threat, just at the threat that WAS yesterday. They often update once a week instead of once an hour. They often expire on their subscriptions and don’t tell you about it.
  3. Want to find the source of your malware? Look no further than your search engine or your toolbar (or both!). When I sit down at a computer to clean up the malware, I often open up a browser to go download updated versions of the tools I’m going to use to clean them up. When I do so, I find toolbars-a-plenty and the home screen goes to a search engine that isn’t one of the big three (Google, Yahoo, or MSN). Why does it matter? When you search for something using your toolbar or a search engine, the results come from somewhere. Often the results are the direct result of popularity or payment. As malware infects more PCs, the link gets more and more popular. The big three will filter out those malicious sites. The other search engines… not so much. As for toolbars… the original intent of toolbars was to give you a search engine text box and a pop up blocker. All the popular browsers have those built in now. My advice: Get rid of the toolbars and use a reputable search engine. This will solve a large portion of your malware problems.
  4. Speaking of search engines…. My favorite is Google. Is Google a huge conglomerate? Yes. But here’s what I feel sets them apart from Yahoo and MSN (or Bing)… Go visit each of their sites… in fact, here’s links to all three, that will open in new tabs for you: Yahoo  MSN  Google. Done? OK. Did you notice that Yahoo and MSN have news and ads on their search engine pages? Take a look at Google again. See what’s missing? Ads and news. Why does this matter? Well, again, lets do a test. Search on something on Google, then on MSN and Yahoo. You’ll see some ads. But again, there’s a difference here… the ads you see are Text Only, and they are provided by Google AdWords. This isn’t true for Yahoo or MSN. They get their Ads from other sources, like AdChoices. Where Google has strict requirements on what ads can appear and the type of media (ie: no images or movies), Yahoo and MSN does not. So, where does that media come from? Well, sometimes, from unreputable sources… So, you visit your search engine and POOF… Malware or Adware on your machine.
  5. Social Media Games are a haven for malware. Don’t play them. (Again, just my opinion, but……) They tend to waste time, have no real ending, and are just there to collect your information and your money.
  6. “Free” movie sites are also a haven for malware.  I’m not talking about Netflix or Hulu or YouTube here. I’m talking about the less reputable ones.
  7. “Free” software sites like Torrent sites are horrible for malware. Again, beware.
  8. Free Antivirus isn’t free. Two of my favorites from the past now come bundled with Adware in them. They have limited times on their virus definition updates, and they don’t do an especially good job of stopping viruses and malware. Again, when I visit a new customer to clean up malware, I often find a “free” solution on their computer.

So, what do you do about all of the above? Here’s my list:

  1. Get rid of toolbars and only use browser extensions you absolutely have to have! I too love Amazon and eBay, but I don’t need their browser extensions or their toolbars. Moms, the coupon toolbars or extensions are often trouble, too. If you want eBay or Amazon, bookmark them and go there when you want to. One exception you might like that is safe? AdBlock Plus. 🙂
  2. Use for searches. The page is clean and the search results are generally safe. Yes, the news isn’t on the main page, but if you want the news, they have a News link at the top of the page.
  3. For home: Look into a family filter for the internet. These will filter out malicious sites as well as a few others you don’t want Junior visiting. If you need recommendations, ask us.
  4. For business, talk to us about a commercial internet filter. It’s like the family filter, only with lots more categories and sometimes even reporting! They are customizable, sometimes down the the workstation level (ie: Marketing can get to Facebook, but Engineering cannot).
  5. Invest in a good Antivirus (but not the “complete”) solution. Again, contact us and we’ll make some recommendations. You might be surprised who we recommend, because they are often not the “big” names but they are always inexpensive and effective.
  6. Invest in a good firewall solution. We have some great ones that don’t cost a fortune and give you lots of expansion and flexibility.
  7. Invest in a good spam solution. You guessed it, we have a great one that’s inexpensive and effective!

Hopefully these helped, and be safe out there. The internet is a dangerous place!

Happy Friday!

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