Protect Yourself from Identity Theft with Good Computer Security
Pajamadeen has a Christmas present for her readers. We’re going to teach you more about personal computer security and how to protect yourself from identity theft and other cyber-ills, often with the use of free or low-cost programs. We’ve been thinking about the recent cyber attack on the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) near Knoxville, Tennessee, which was a phishing scam originating in China asking e’mail recipients to open attachments. Amazingly, 11 employees of this nuclear facility did so. As a result, the personal information — including Social Security numbers, names and dates of birth — of anyone who visited the lab from 1990 to 2004 may have been stolen. About 12,000 letters were sent out to potential victims, notifying them of the security breach.
Now, why anyone who
works worked at a high-security facility such as ORNL would open e’mail attachments at all is a good question. We have no answer for that one. In fact, we don’t open any attachments from anyone. Not even well-meaning friends who clutter our e’mail with endless jokes. Into the trash it all goes. And we don’t click on links in e’mail, either.
We’ve been computing for over a decade and have had a relatively safe passage in the cyberworld by following a maintenance and security routine from which we don’t deviate. The purpose is to protect ourselves not only from phishing scams seeking personal identity information but also to prevent both e’mail and spurious website attacks which install keyloggers, backdoors, spyware, malware, etc.
So here, for a happier New Year, are some great free programs to keep you safe.
Firefox. You can get it here. It’s a much safer browser than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Even the Department of Homeland Security, never exactly known for being on the ball, recommends that computer users switch from Internet Explorer to Firefox. It blocks annoying pop-up windows, is more secure against spyware and viruses, and has many useful add-ons. And it’s free. Yes, it’ll take a day or two to get used to, but so what?
If you insist on using Internet Explorer, downgrade important security upgrades, which are usually released on Tuesdays. Go to Tools on your top navigation bar in Internet Explorer and click on the drop-down menu. Select Windows Update. While you’re at it, download Windows Defender, also free, which has a firewall and other anti-spyware tools in it. Configure it to run once a day, while you’re asleep.
Spybot – Search & Destroy, which is easy to install and intuitive. Its cost is zero, zip, nada. Spybot ferrets out spyware, malware and all sorts of hijackers, while making clean-up a breeze. Be sure to click the button to “immunize” your computer from their long list of known scam websites. Free updates are released every Friday.
As an adjunct to Spybot, install SpywareBlaster, which is free for personal and educational use. It blocks thousands of known scammer websites and dangerous code, which can install spyware programs on your computer without your knowledge. (Refer to Spybot above to remove carp.)
CCleaner, formerly known by the more distinctive name of CrapCleaner, is an add-on to your Recycle Bin. It quickly cleans your cache, cookies, history, log files and temporary files, which is useful if a) Your computer is running sluggishly or b) You don’t want others to see what you’ve been up to.
For more advanced users, CCleaner also has an advanced registry scanner and cleaner which removes old and unused entries including file extensions, ActiveX Controls, Uninstallers, Shared DLLS, fonts, help files, dead application paths and invalid shortcuts, among other things. You can pay Symantec/Norton Utilities a lot of money and not get better results; in fact, we don’t recommend Norton at all anymore because the program is huge and bloated and there are other, equally as good (and sometimes better!) software programs on the market.
Ad-Aware SE Personal (also known as Ad-Aware 2007 Free) is another classic in the battle against spyware. The advantage to running several of these programs is that some programs will alert to spyware, malware, etc. which other programs miss. Think of it as covering your bases, with one exception: You do not want to run two antivirus (AV) programs at the same time. Close one while running another.
AVG Free Advisor is an AV program which we have configured to run every night when we’re asleep, as we’ve noticed that it tends to slow our computer down if we run it while we’re working. It automatically updates itself as well. There are several free AV programs around, but many of them are what we call “crippleware,” because they quit working after a predetermined length of time or don’t offer the program’s full features unless a commercial version is purchased. From Grisoft and for personal use, it works with both Windows and Linux and can also be configured to scan your e’mail for infected attachments.
There are only three commercial programs which we can’t live without. Maybe if you’re extra nice to Santa, he’ll get you one or two of these, or treat yourself. Trust me. As my mother says: “It’s for your own good.”
MailWasher Pro is indispensable. This award-winning spam-fighting program, which comes with a 30-day free trial, works with multiple e’mail accounts including Hotmail, MSN and AOL. It lets you preview all your e’mail on the server, before downloading it to your computer. It marks as spam e’mail originating from known spammers and you can add your own filters as well, creating lists of friends to allow and people to disallow.
Have a pesky friend who keeps sending you e’mail with attachments, long lists of jokes and chain letters, despite being asked not to? Add their e’mail address to the filter list and when you use the preview function, you can mark the e’mails for deletion and bounce them back to the sender. They won’t know you saw the mail, and will just think you changed your e’mail address. This is also a great way to get rid of advertisers and those dreaded phishing e’mails, most often purportedly from banks. Mark them for deletion and bouncing and, thinking your e’mail address is invalid, they’ll move on.
There’s also a free version available here, but it’s less powerful and has less options. You get your money’s worth with the full-featured version, which costs $37.00.
Spyware Doctor, also a winner of many awards and developed by PC Tools, retails for $29.95 and consistently detects spyware which other programs miss. It has a 30-day, money-back guarantee and an intuitive, easy-to-use user interface.
F-Prot, the granddaddy of all AV programs. Fast and easy to use, with automatic updates and real-time protection, it consistently detects infections that Norton and McAfee miss. It’s $29 a year which, when you think about it and the other commercial programs we mentioned, is a lot less expensive than the hassle and cost of computer repair$. As is the case with MailWasher Pro, F-Prot offers excellent customer service and support.
We make desktop folders for clients named “Neglected Maintenance,” as a not-so-subtle reminder to run these programs once a week. We’re partial to performing this preventative maintenance on Friday afternoons, because all of the week’s security updates have been issued by then. We multi-task, working on other projects while these programs check our system. Place icons for all of the above programs — except MailWasher Pro and Windows Defender — in the maintenance folder. That way, the reminder is prominent. Checking for updates and running these programs on a weekly basis should keep you well protected from ne’er-do-wells.
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