Computer Safety Tips

9 steps to protecting your computer from viruses and other malware

Smiling man using laptop in bed
David Lees/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Achieving good computer security can seem like a daunting task. Fortunately, following the few simple steps outlined below can provide a good measure of security in very little time.

Use Antivirus Software and Keep It Up-To-Date

Check for new definition updates daily. Most antivirus software can be configured to do this automatically. If you don't know where to start, check out our rundown of the top antivirus software and spyware scanners.

Install Security Patches

Vulnerabilities in software are constantly being discovered and they don't discriminate by vendor or platform. It's not simply a matter of updating Windows; at least monthly, check for and apply updates for all software you use.

Use a Firewall

No internet connection is safe without one — it takes just moments for a non-firewalled computer to be infected. Windows operating systems ship with a built-in firewall which is turned on by default. 

Do Not Provide Sensitive, Personal Information

Don't provide your social security number or credit card information unless the website displays a secure URL, prefaced with "https" — the "s" stands for "secure." And even when you must provide credit card information or other private information, do so judiciously. Consider using PayPal, for example, to pay for goods purchased online. PayPal is widely considered safe, and using it means that your credit card and financial information is guarded on a single website, rather than on multiple sites.

Be aware of sharing too much information on social media, as well. For example, why supply your mother's maiden name or your address? Identity thieves and other criminals exploit social media accounts to gain access to information.

Take Control of Your Email

Avoid opening email attachments received unexpectedly — no matter who appears to have sent it. Remember that most worms and Trojan-laden spam try to spoof the sender's name. And make sure your email client isn't leaving you open to infection. Reading email in plain text offers important security benefits that more than offset the loss of pretty colored fonts.

Treat IM Suspiciously

Instant Messaging is a frequent target of worms and trojans. There are plenty of scammers out there constantly working on new creative ways to get your personal information or attempting to gain access to your personal accounts. Treat it just as you would email, if not even more carefully.

Use Strong Passwords

Use a variety of letters, numbers and special characters — the longer and more complicated, the better. Use different passwords for each account. If an account supports it, use two-factor authentication. Of course, it can get complicated to manage all these passwords, so consider the use of a password manager application. This type of app often acts as a browser plug-in that monitors password entry and saves your credentials for each account. All you have to actually memorize is the single password for the manager program.

Keep Abreast of Internet Scams

Criminals think of clever ways to separate you from your hard-earned cash. Don't get fooled by emails telling sad stories, or making unsolicited job offers, or promising lotto winnings. Likewise, beware of email masquerading as a security concern from your bank or another eCommerce site.

Don't Fall Victim to Virus Hoaxes

Dire-sounding email spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about non-existent threats serves only to spread needless alarm and may even cause you to delete perfectly legitimate files in response.

Remember, there's far more good than bad on the internet. The goal isn't to be paranoid. The goal is to be cautious, aware, and even suspicious. By following the tips above and becoming actively engaged in your own security, you'll not only protect yourself, but you'll also be contributing to the protection and betterment of the internet as a whole.