8 Tips on Basic Computer Safety

Prevent viruses and malware to keep your data secure

padlock and credit cards sitting on a keyboard, depicting computer security

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Your computer holds a wealth of personal and business data. If this information falls into the wrong hands, you may become open to identity theft, fraud, and other types of cyber mischief. It's important to stay diligent about viruses, malware, phishing attacks, Trojan horses, and other online scams. Here's a review of eight basic computer safety tips to safeguard your money, identity, and personal information.

If you've been scammed online, it's not too late to bolster your system to protect against another attack and learn from the experience.

Use Antivirus Software and Keep It Up-To-Date

Antivirus software is a basic necessity in computing today and is essential to a secure system. There's no excuse for not having antivirus software installed on your system. In addition to paid applications, a host of free antivirus products work well and protect your vital data.

Antivirus software and spyware scanners look for viruses, malware, and other malicious content, scanning your computer, emails, and downloaded files. Most antivirus software can be configured to scan files automatically and to check for new definition updates daily, taking the guesswork out of protecting your system.

There are antivirus programs available for every operating system, including Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Linux.

Install Security Patches

New vulnerabilities are constantly discovered in software applications and hardware devices. Hackers take advantage of these vulnerabilities to gain access to your computer and data.

To stay ahead of the bad guys, keep your computer system updated by installing any available security patches and keeping browsers up to date. If you have a Windows system, Windows Update checks for and applies any available updates to the operating system and associated files.

Patch Tuesday, also known as Update Tuesday, refers to the day each month that Microsoft releases security and other OS patches. Look for prompts asking you to install updates.

Use a Firewall

A firewall is a layer of protection between your computer and the internet. It acts as a barrier that monitors incoming data and uses security rules to determine whether or not that data is received by your computer.

Windows has a built-in firewall that's enabled by default. There's also a host of free firewall programs that may serve your needs.

If you have a Mac, enable the built-in OS X firewall.

Never Provide Sensitive, Personal Information

It's wise to be wary of giving out your personal information. Don't reveal your mother's maiden name, your Social Security number, or your address. Also, avoid mentioning these kinds of things on social media. Identity thieves and other criminals troll social media to gather information.

Instead of providing your credit card information when you shop online, use a service such as PayPal. Your credit card and financial information are guarded on a single website, rather than on multiple sites.

Only provide Social Security or credit card numbers on secure websites. The URL for a secure site is prefaced with https:// (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure).

Take Control of Your Email

Never open an unexpected email attachment, no matter who appears to have sent it. Attackers spoof a sender’s name to fool people into opening attachments that collect personal information and forward it to the attacker. 

Malicious content also hides in email messages that use HTML or Rich Text. Read your email in plain text for added security.

Treat IMs Suspiciously

Instant messaging is a frequent target of worms and Trojans. Scammers continuously work on new ways to get personal information and gain access to personal accounts. Treat IMs just as warily as you would email.

Use Strong Passwords

Use a variety of letters, numbers, and special characters in your passwords, and the longer and more complicated, the better. Use different passwords for each account. If an account supports it, use two-factor authentication.

To get a handle on your passwords, consider using a password manager application. Many web browsers, such as Chrome and Opera, save passwords if this feature is enabled. Third-party apps, such as LastPass, are also helpful. These act as browser plug-ins that monitor password entries and save credentials for each account. All you need to remember is the single password you created for the manager program.

The best way to create a secure password is to start with a simple password and turn it into one that's more complex. For example, add numbers, special characters, and upper case letters.

Keep Abreast of Internet Scams

Don't open or click links in emails that tell sad stories, make unsolicited job offers, or promise lotto winnings. Also, beware of emails that masquerade as security concerns from your bank or another e-commerce site. These emails may contain links to malicious content. If you're not sure if an email from your bank or credit card company is legitimate, contact them directly.

The FTC keeps tabs on the latest scams. Visit its site to check out the agency's most recent alerts and to browse scams by topic.