All the doors on my house have deadbolt locks. I use a burglar alarm. But a few years ago, despite all those precautions, a burglar used what techies would call a “brute force” attack to enter my house. He smashed his way through an all-glass door with a baseball bat.
So despite my efforts at security, the bad guy got in.
It’s the same with protecting your computer. You can do everything right and it’s still possible for the bad guys to get in. But, just as is true with my deadbolt locks and alarm system, good security can greatly reduce the chances of trouble.
Today, we’ll talk about some of the methods you should be using to protect your computer. CIA-grade hackers are a rare breed, so if you follow these tips your computer and its data should be safe.
What’s the password?
In the earliest days, it was common for hackers to attack a password to enter a computer system. That’s not as common anymore. There are easier ways. But it’s still smart to create a password that is a combination of letters and numbers. Don’t use any word that can be found in the dictionary.
My method of creating a complex password that is still easy to remember is to use the first letters from a song, poem or saying that’s familiar to me. For instance, “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer had a very shiny nose” would produce: rtrrhavsn. Then I add in — at front and back — numbers that I can remember, maybe part of the serial number for the rifle I had in the Army.
It’s also smart to change passwords every six months or so. Avoid using the same password for everything. For sites that contain little or no personal information — for instance, Web-based sites where people meet to discuss hobbies — feel free to use a simple password. Then use a different — and complex — password for sites containing personal or financial information.
A hard look at software
It should go without saying that you need anti-virus, anti-spyware protection along with using the free firewall that comes with Windows. But some people skip the obvious. Don’t be one of them.
Schemes used to breach your security sometimes try to plant a virus or spyware in your computer. These ugly little bugs can arrive from Web sites, or when you download free programs from shady websites, or as attachments to e-mail. Using good programs that stop viruses and spyware in their tracks keep those kinds of schemes from working.
Beyond the basics
It’s even more important that you pay attention to some risks that are even more likely ways to get at your data. Ever since the day the first computer was hacked, the most effective method of getting into a computer has been what many call social engineering. Instead of relying on technology to break into your computer, the bad guys use tricks that — when done right — get you to do the work of revealing your personal data.
Here’s an example. A couple of times a week I get an e-mail that seems to come from some large company or bank and I’m asked to verify my user name and password, often along with other information. Most often I’m directed to a website — one that will often look letter perfect — where I’m asked to log on and submit my information.
I’ll bet you get the same kind of e-mails. Never answer. If you worry that you might be ignoring a legitimate request you can always pick up the telephone and call the company that supposedly sent the e-mail.
Windows is actually a fairly secure operating system. But since it’s the most common of all operating system, it’s a prime target for attackers who seek out and attempt to take advantage of its flaws. It’s like looking for doors that aren’t properly secured. And, as is true with any piece of software, these flaws do exist.
When Microsoft discovers these entry points it creates what is called a patch. It’s a tiny bit of software that fixes the problem. That’s why it’s vitally important that you keep Windows updated. If you do, you’ll regularly get patches that will keep the program as safe as possible. My suggestion is to set Windows to automatically update.
Wireless routers are a convenient way to share your home Internet connection. But keep in mind that using one creates an obvious way for others to get into your computer. It’s unlikely that you’ll be hit by a neighbor or drive-by hackers. But it’s still smart to keep your home wireless network closed down tight. By simply taking advantage of every security measure offered by your router you can close those gaps. You’ll find instructions in the manual that came with it. If you’ve lost your manual, you can get an electronic version on the manufacturer’s Web.
There’s an even more likely way wireless networks can create security problems for you. Think twice about using free wireless networks at coffee shops or hotels. Often these networks have little to no security. There are various ways that hackers can intercept your data while using one. If your work or lifestyle makes the use of public wireless networks necessary, there are ways to protect yourself. One good one is to use what’s called a VPN (virtual private network). You can read about how that works here:
The other guy did it
One of the biggest dangers to your data is something that seems out of your control. Too often you’ll see stories in the newspaper about sophisticated hackers who have breached databases for large companies. Often those databases contain customer information that can include credit card data, Social Security numbers and banking information.
You can’t prevent data breaches at remote locations. But you may want to investigate services such as LifeLock (www.lifelock.com) that make it difficult if not impossible for crooks to use data obtained in that fashion.
It’s foolish to think that any security plan can be made bulletproof. I discovered that when that crook came armed with a baseball bat. But that didn’t cause me to start leaving my doors unlocked. It’s the same with computers — take every precaution you can to secure your computer and its data.