Five Essentials Every Computer Needs

Whether you use your computer at home or work, some essentials are universal. Here are resources for your PC or Mac that can help you out of a crisis.

Related article: Five Essentials Every Computer Needs (The Northwest Herald)

Security

Alternate Web Browser

Easy Backups

Microsoft Office Files

PDF Creation

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Caring For Your New Computer

How can you keep your new computer running as smoothly as it did when you took it out of the box?

The very first thing you should do is install a good security program. As I’ve mentioned, the freebies are no longer enough. You need a robust software suite that includes antivirus, anti-spyware and a firewall. See here for my antivirus recommendations for Windows and Mac.

Next, make sure your computer software is updated to the latest version. Even out of the box, there may be new updates available. For Windows computers, visit update.microsoft.com. Mac users should run Software Updates under the Apple menu.

Windows users should strongly consider installing a browser other than Internet Explorer, such as Mozilla Firefox. You can still use Internet Explorer if you have to, but the alternate should be your default. This will help keep you safe from viruses and spyware.

While you’re setting up your new computer, configure backups at the same time. You can use an external hard drive (most come with automatic backup software) or choose an online option. See here for more information on backups.

Don’t forget to fill out the warranty card for your new computer. Should you buy the extended warranty? That’s up to you. Personally I don’t think it makes sense to spend a lot of money on a warranty for a computer that cost less than $500, but I’d want to protect a more expensive investment.

And, finally, have fun with your new computer!

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New AVG 2011, And How To Choose Security Software

There’s a new version of the popular AVG Internet security software available. Many people use the free version of this software to protect their Windows computers.

For a long time the free version was enough. Then I began to notice a trend. People running AVG were becoming infected with threats not detected by the free version. So I began recommending the paid version of the suite, known as AVG Internet Security. However, after testing AVG 2011, I have some qualms about this new version.

First, AVG 2011 is a memory hog. If you have an older computer it may slow you down, although this could be said of any security program. Reports of bugs in AVG 2011’s LinkScanner also give me pause. This will slow down your computer as well as your network. Not everyone has experienced this, however; PC Magazine reports that their tests showed AVG had a small effect on system performance.

On the plus side, it’s easy to use and offers solid protection. I also like the LinkScanner feature that checks your Facebook posts and marks them as safe. My hope is that AVG will resolve any issues and that AVG 2011 will continue to provide people with strong security software.

What are your alternatives? I still don’t recommend Norton or McAfee because they’re also memory hogs (especially Norton). But, I’d rather have you using one of those than nothing. What I really want is a security suite with a high detection rate and a small impact on system performance. You could try Kapersky Internet Security 2011, although its interface is not as friendly for non-technical users. Trend Micro Titanium Internet Security 2011 is good but scored weak on malware removal. Webroot Internet Security Complete 2011 is another option. The thing I don’t like about it is that its firewall constantly pops up warnings, a big turn-off for most users.

In short, there is no one right answer to security software for Windows. If you have an older computer, you’ll want a solution that doesn’t bog you down. If you have a mobile computer, you’ll want strong WiFi protection. If you don’t do much surfing, a free solution may suffice. The best way to determine your needs is to have a computer professional assess your environment and make a recommendation.

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What To Do If Your Email Account Is Hijacked

My column in today’s Northwest Herald talks about the recent uptick in hijacked email accounts. Hackers hijack your account in order to prey on your contacts by sending spam, malicious links, and outright requests for money in your name. And not just your email account… Facebook, LinkedIn, and other accounts can also be hijacked.

Here are some things you can do to protect yourself, not just from hijacked accounts but also from viruses, spyware and other Internet threats:

• Use strong passwords that are unique on every system, and change them every few months. Earlier this week I posted an article about how to create secure passwords. This is the number-one thing you can do to prevent your accounts from being hijacked.

• Use a high-quality security software suite. I used to recommend free solutions for Windows like AVG combined with Spybot or AdAware, but these days I’m finding the freebies aren’t enough to protect you. Norton and McAfee will do the job, but Norton in particular tends to take up a lot of memory which may make older machines run more slowly. I prefer AVG’s paid Internet Security Suite or Trend Micro’s Titanium Internet Security or Titanium Maximum Security. If you’re using free AVG, you can get a discount on the full AVG suite if you buy through the “upgrade from free version” option.

Whatever solution you choose, be sure it is a full suite—containing antivirus, anti-spyware, and firewall—and not just antivirus. And be sure it’s real software and not one of the many rogue security programs that are actually viruses in disguise.

Mac users, you need security software too. My personal favorite is Intego VirusBarrier or Internet Security Barrier. If you run Windows on your Mac through Apple’s Boot Camp or a program like VMWare or Parallels, try Intego’s Dual Protection options: VirusBarrier DP or Internet Security Barrier DP. These include BitDefender for Windows to protect the Windows half of your computer.

• Make sure ALL of the software on your computer is regularly updated. In one of my previous Northwest Herald columns, I talked about the dangers of old software. Here on my blog I’ve also talked specifically about the risks posed by old versions of Adobe (Acrobat) Reader and Flash.

• If you’re on Windows, use a browser other than Internet Explorer. Using Firefox or Opera instead of Internet Explorer offers you that much more protection. If you must use Internet Explorer, find out why older versions of Internet Explorer pose a greater risk of virus infection.

• Watch out for poisoned search engine results and learn how to spot bad web links.

• Never click on links or open attachments in email. Always visit the site directly. For example, if you get an email saying you have a new Facebook message, go directly to facebook.com from your Web browser instead of clicking the link in the email.

• Learn about social engineering and how hackers will do anything and everything to trick you into letting them in.

• And, finally, subscribe to the free email version of Triona’s Tech Tips for easy-to-understand tips you can use to protect yourself from the latest Internet threats.

Solve Problems By Replacing Your Old Router

routerIf your Internet connection is slow or unreliable, it may be due to an old router.

Routers that are more than a few years old predate current network technologies. While these old routers may still work, they often don’t work at peak efficiency, and may even make your connection so intermittent as to be unusable. Replacing them can be an inexpensive way to improve your Internet performance.

I have also seen this problem with old cable and DSL modems. If you contact your Internet provider they will tell you if your modem is still supported. The trick is, you have to ask; they will not be proactive in contacting you to let you know your modem is out of date, and they may not recognize the cause if you call to report problems.

A new router can also improve your network security, as the latest consumer devices now include firewall technologies previously available only on more expensive business-class models. If you have an older wireless router (wireless B or G), upgrading to a wireless N device can boost your speed. While you’re at it, you should check your network cables to make sure they’re still good quality.

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Protect Yourself From Zombie Computers

There’s a lot of talk in the news about the recent cyber attacks on U.S. and South Korean servers. Computers in both countries were disrupted through what are called “denial of service” attacks, when hackers use infected computers called zombies to slow or crash target servers. Zombie computers are often owned by small businesses or consumers who are completely unaware they are infected. I’ve mentioned zombie computers before (here and here) but it’s important to reiterate how you can protect yourself and others.

Your best protection is prevention. Be sure to run a reliable antivirus program like those below (beware of the fakes!) as well as anti-spyware software. Security suites offer a way to combine those protections with a firewall to block unwanted network probes. Regular software updates are also key to keeping your computer protected. You can learn more about these techniques in my article on cybercrime. I am teaching a class on How To Protect Yourself From Cybercrime on Monday July 20th from 9:30am-11:30am in Cary, Illinois (click here for more details and registration information).

Antivirus software for PCs:

Antispyware software for PCs:

Antivirus and anti-spyware software for Macs:

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Online Safety For Kids (And Adults)

There is a lot of discussion these days about kids and the Internet. Parents, myself included, are rightfully concerned about what our children can access, and who has access to them. Businesses are concerned about liability issues and the compromise of customer data, in the pervasively interpersonal world of instant communication.

The same techniques used to secure a corporate computer can, and should, be used to secure a personal home computer. The same policies used by corporations can be modified for a family environment. By including your kids in the process of creating a home Internet policy, you’ll be able to supervise their Internet access while allowing them the freedom to explore.

Corporations typically have an “acceptable use policy,” which governs what is allowed or prohibited on the company network. It’s part of the employee handbook, and looks like this:

This computer system is for authorized use only. By using this system, the user consents to such interception, monitoring, recording, copying, auditing, inspection, and disclosure at the discretion of authorized personnel. Unauthorized or improper use of this system may result in disciplinary action and civil and criminal penalties. By continuing to use this system you indicate your awareness of and consent to these terms and conditions of use.

Parents can create a home policy based on these ideas. This is not to say you should treat your children like little employees, but you can use the same concepts to start a family discussion about online safety. It’s up to you to keep up with the latest techno-fashions, so you know how to respond to things like MySpace accounts and multiplayer games. You’re reading this article, so you’ve already made a good start.

First things first, you have to properly protect your machine. It’s no use badgering your kids about downloading music when you don’t even have up-to-date antivirus software. We’ve been over the drill, but let’s review the “four-legged chair,” the four critical things you need to secure your computer:

 

  • Antivirus software
  • Anti-spyware software
  • A firewall, hardware or software
  • The latest updates

I presume you’ve taken care of this. If not, or you’re not sure, I can check for you on my next visit. You might also want to re-read “How To Protect From Cybercrime” and “You Could Be A Computer Criminal” from the August 2008 issue of Tech Tips, which include more detail on security protections.

Now, you need to decide what your home policies will be. Are your kids only allowed to use the Internet during certain hours, or after homework is done? What services can they use (such as email, web, and chat)? Will you use parental controls, and if so, what kind? Will you be recording their chat sessions, logging the sites they visit, counting the tunes they buy? Be open to negotiation. Nothing will alienate a kid faster than laying down the law, and they seem to view the Internet as their personal possession.

Once it’s been discussed, put your policy in writing and sign it with your kids, just like a corporate policy. Now that the rules are clear, and protections in place, you can let your kids surf. But remember, no technology can substitute for supervision. Consider locating the computer in a public area. You’ll also want to review with them the following safety tips. If they’re chatting with friends, suggest they set up a code phrase, so they can verify the human behind the screenname. Never give out personal information, such as full name, address, or school. And they should never, ever, make arrangements to meet an online friend in the real world unless they, and you, are positive of that person’s true identity.

What parental control options are available? Your Internet service may already include some; check with your provider. Otherwise you can use a software program. I’ll be reviewing your choices for “Parental Control Software” in the upcoming September 2008 issue of Tech Tips.

Finally, hand this column to your kids. This paragraph is for them:
Yes, I’m your parents’ age, but my generation came up with all that technology you’re enjoying, so take off the earbuds and listen. When you’re on the computer, use your common sense. The Internet is a public network, and anything you post can be viewed by perfect strangers, potential employers, or your parents. Be aware of how to protect yourself, and your computer. Then next time you want to go online, you won’t have to worry that your computer will crash, and your parents won’t have to worry about you.

[This article is reprinted from the March 2007 issue of Triona’s Tech Tips. More advice on kids, computers and the Internet coming in September.]

How To Protect From Cybercrime

If the cybercrime situation is so dire, what can an average person do about it? I present the four-legged chair of computer security. Without all four legs, your computer’s defenses could collapse.

  • Antivirus software
    You know this; what you may not know is that antivirus alone does not catch every threat.
  • Anti-spyware software
    Spyware is software you don’t want, similar to viruses but using different tactics. Adware, malware, keyloggers, Trojan horses, they all fit into the category of spyware.
  • Firewall
    Just like a fire door in a hospital, a firewall keeps out Internet nasties that try to sneak under the radar of antivirus and anti-spyware software.
  • Regular updates (“patches”)
    Every program has bugs, and these bugs can be used by viruses to manipulate your computer. Harden your security defenses by keeping your software up-to-date.

At home, you’re your own computer security czar. Run a full-fledged security suite, and install a firewall for extra protection. (See the sidebar, right, for suggestions.) Remember, you must purchase security software yearly, and update it every few days. And don’t forget those patches! For Windows I like a combination of Microsoft Update plus Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector. Mac users, be sure to check for new patches via Apple’s Software Updates, Adobe Updater and the other update features of your software.

If you have a company-owned computer, talk to your IT department about the protections that are installed. Find out if your corporate network prevents laptops from logging on unless the laptop has updated security. You can also explore one-time password systems, or biometric options like the fingerprint scanners now built in to most laptops.

Do you have questions about protecting yourself from cybercrime? Ask them here (click Comments below any article), and be sure to sign up for the email version of Tech Tips for bonus tips and product reviews.