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Internet, Network, and Computing Safety has unfortunately become complex, involving a multi-layer approach to mitigate vulnerability in three key areas of computing.
The first key area involves protecting your physical computer hardware and physical connection to the Internet and other networks, disk drives, and devices.
The second area focuses on protecting computer software - programs that run on your physical computer or device - from vulnerabilities.
Lastly, we'll explain making good, informed choices when browsing the Internet, installing applications, and transmitting or storing personally sensitive information (such as bank account, credit card, store card account numbers, social security numbers, passwords, etc.). We'll also cover avoiding scams and other situations where criminals attempt to obtain information and how to deal with those threats, as well as password technology.
One of the easiest ways to protect yourself from criminals and computer viruses or other malware is to install a physical (hardware) firewall/router. These devices are your first line of defense and can be purchased at almost all major electronics retailers and local computer shops. They work by blocking incoming, unsolicited network or internet requests. For example, a virus trolling the Internet wouldn't be allowed to enter your network under its own power if a hardware firewall was in place. A firewall/router may NOT be able to block malware, however, if you [un]intentionally download it; that's where section two and the "software firewall" are covered. Expect to pay $40 to $80 for entry-level hardware firewall/router models with an adequate 3-4 year life span. More expensive models will have features such as wireless connectivity.
Networks and the Internet aren't the only place malware originates. If you have a friend with an infected computer and they burn a CD or share software with you, there is also significant physical risk. Connecting MP3 players, Cell Phones, and other devices introduce risk as well. To mitigate this risk:
If the first line of defense fails (above) or if you inadvertently find yourself in a compromising situation (explained in #3), the proper software protection can mitigate the likelihood that your computer and sensitive personal information is compromised.
Follow these steps to ensure your computer is as safe as possible:
During the past few years, criminals have been targeting users rather than our computers. They've found the average user can easily be fooled into willingly providing sensitive personal information and/or installing malware.
Viruses, Trojans, Malware, Spyware, and Phishing Explained
Malware can be classified as any type of computer code that is designed for malicious purposes. Many people refer to all malware as "viruses"; however a virus is only one type of malware. A conventional virus is computer program that is able to replicate itself and infect additional computers - like through the sharing of programs, disk drives, etc. Trojans and Spyware, on the other hand, may or may not replicate themselves, and can be caught by unknowingly downloading or installing infected software. Trojans and Viruses can be controlled remotely to stage attacks on other computers in addition for their potential to collect your personally sensitive information. Recently, criminals have been increasingly using malware to encrypt infected computers ("ransomware"). This act renders the data essentially useless until the victim pays a ransom to unlock their system.
Spyware references code that is designed to collect information about you - whether personally sensitive or not - and share that information with a third party. Some spyware might only collect information about your browsing habits (sites you visit, duration, links you click, items you shop for online, etc), and is typically deemed non-malicious (although still intrusive).
Phishing is the criminal attempt to lure you into a compromising position, often by disguising themselves as someone reputable, where you then willingly follow their directions (perhaps clicking a link) or share sensitive personal information. The most common origination of phishing is via E-mail, such as a message asking you to respond with your current credit card information as your card on file is about to expire, or perhaps luring you to a fake website where you enter the information. See Also: E-Mail Safety
Social Networking Safety
Increasingly popular among criminals is the use of social networking to spread malware. These tricky situations can be easily avoided by using a single tip: Don't click/open links sent to you in E-mail/Social Networking Messaging by friends/family if they are unsolicited, strange, and/or seem out-of-character for the sending individual. Instead, text, call, or write them back about the link - especially if they don't realize their computer and sensitive personal information or passwords may have been compromised.
In addition, avoid installing and using 'apps', 'features', 'widgets', 'plug-ins', etc. If you must use an 'app', read the terms of service first and understand the permissions it will require. What appears to be a simple enhancement may actually compromise your security, and that of your friends.
How to Determine if a Web Site is Not Reputable
If you believe the company/organization/individual is reputable but the website you are on doesn't appear so, you may be a victim of criminals that take advantage of domain name misspellings. If in question, search for the website using a popular search engine, such as "Google" and follow reputable links from there, being careful not to use links found in advertisements.
If you find yourself on a website that isn't reputable - especially if it pops up a message that your computer is infected with viruses and requires immediate attention - leave the website, or close your Internet browser and re-open it. If you cannot close the website for any reason, restart your computer immediately using any means necessary.
If you've initiated a connection to a reputable website that requires you to submit personally sensitive information (such as paying your utilities online, credit cards, tuition, etc.), make sure you are protected from potential data intercepting criminals by using these tips:
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Downloading and Installing Programs (including those required to display web sites/pages correctly)
There will come a time when you need to download a program from the internet, or a script or component to view a webpage. Before doing so, remember that viruses and spyware are most commonly transmitted using these methods.Suggestions when downloading software or accepting/allowing scripts or components to run:
Always double-guess your decision to download software or allow a script or component to run. Re-load the webpage to test that you don't need the script or component. Or, visit another a website that offers the same information. Search additional reputable websites for the same or similar downloads to ensure the download itself is reputable. Only download when you've done enough research on the program, its source, and you feel comfortable doing so.
Safely Sharing Information
Sharing Software and Files
If you'll be sharing software and/or files with someone, it's critical to know where the media has been that will be transferring this information. Ensure your computer software is up to date and you have anti-malware software installed and current, all as described in section two.
Sharing Sensitive Personal Information
If you find the need to communicate sensitive personal information to someone, the best method is in person or over the phone. E-mail may be the worst possible method and by default is in no way secure; saving information in files and transmitting them on CD's or Drives offers minimal protection. If you MUST share information, use a method such as PDF that has optional password encryption before sending files to someone else.
See Also: E-Mail Safety
Compromising your password(s) is one of the easiest ways for criminals to gain access to your sensitive personal information. When working with passwords, take the following into consideration:
If you believe your computer, or data on your computer, has potentially been compromised: