5 Essential Tips to Keep Your PC Safe
It doesn't matter whether you opt for a free product like AVG Free or the new Microsoft Security Essentials, or spend the money on a commercial product like Norton Internet Security or Kaspersky Internet Security. What's important is that you get yourself some virus protection that has a few basic features -- live protection (a real-time shield that will protect whatever you're working on at the moment, not just scheduled scans), and a behavior-based detection engine that looks for software that is acting suspiciously. All quality anti-virus programs -- even the free ones -- have these essential features. Primarily what you get with a paid product is a more polished interface (the previously mentioned AVG Free is ugly as sin and sometimes confusing) and better integration with other security tools, so you don't have to run separate updates on various pieces of security software.
Once you pick an anti-virus program, make sure that it is scheduled to download updates and run a quick scan once a day. Set it to run in the middle of the night at, say, 3 a.m., so it won't interfere with your other computing activities.
Commercial options usually come as part of complete security suites, which can address our next tip....
2. Set up a firewall
Firewalls control the flow of data into and out of your PC and are essential for keeping out hackers. Most importantly, they prevent any malware (bad programs with viruses and the like) you might accidentally pick up from sending out your personal data over the Internet.
Both Windows and Mac OS X both come with a basic firewall pre-installed. You can access Windows Firewall in Vista and Windows 7 by going to Control Panel -> System and Security -> Windows Firewall, or in Windows XP by going Control Panel -> Security Center -> Windows Firewall. In Mac OS X, the firewall options are located in System Prefs -> Security -> Firewall. At the very least, make sure you have these basic firewalls turned on.
For Windows users, there are also free options like ZoneAlarm and Comodo, which are standalone packages that offer stronger protection against intrusion and more advanced options for controlling what programs are allowed to send or receive data than the aforementioned built-in Windows firewalls. Paid Internet security suites (like Norton and Kapersky) also pack firewalls that are tightly integrated into the anti-virus and other security tools, meaning there is one less piece of software to worry about updating and learning to use.
3. Install a spyware/malware removal tool
Speaking of malware, there are plenty of threats and annoyances out there besides viruses, including spyware (which tracks what you do and where you go online), adware (software that bombards you with unwanted pop-up ads and the like), key-loggers (software that logs all your keystrokes, making it easy to snag your passwords and other personal information) and more. Most anti-virus applications, especially the paid ones, include some form of malware removal, but we strongly recommend you get a dedicated tool... or two. Apps like SpyBot and MalwareBytes are much better at removing and protecting against spyware than a multi-function program, so you'll want one regardless of what other security software you have installed.
As an added bonus, some apps, such as SpyBot, are able to immunize your PC against certain malware apps permanently, and will alert you anytime something attempts to make changes to your systems registry -- one of the major ways such malware hijacks your PC. This is a feature often missing from anti-virus programs, particularly free ones.
4. Don't use an administrative account
Administrator accounts on your computer should only used when you want to make big changes to your system, or install new software. At all other times you should be using 'standard user' accounts when you're logging into and using your computer.
Luckily, Linux and OS X require a password anytime you want to make changes to the computer, and Windows 7 and Vista by default use "standard user" accounts when creating new accounts. Windows XP, on the other hand, defaults to an administrative user account, which allows unfettered access to the inner workings of the OS and makes it easier for malware and hackers to hijack your PC and steal data, or make potentially disastrous changes to your OS and files. If you're on Windows XP, make sure you create and switch over to a standard user account for all activities other than installing software.
Of course, since you need your administrative account to install stuff, then you'll need to follow or last essential tip....
5. Choose a strong password
This is one of the most important steps to take in securing your computer or other accounts. A strong password will help keep your data safe not just from hackers, but also in the unfortunate circumstance that your laptop is stolen.
We recommend you pick a password with a minimum of 12 characters, but more is even better. Your password should include capital letters, lowercase letters, punctuation, numbers, and special characters. You should also avoid dictionary words, pets names, birthdays, or any other personal info that people could easily glean from a social networking site. Also try and add some variety by using numbers in place of letters (3=E, 5=S).
If you want to be especially secure, use a different password for every account you have. Develop a formula for creating unique passwords. Here's an example:
Start with a base, just as an example we'll use "home." Swap a few letters for numbers: h0m3. Then add the first letter of the service (e-mail, IM) or site (Facebook, banks, etc) the password is for and the number of letters in the name to the front -- we'll use the generic e-mail: e5h0m3. Then tack on the middle letter of the service name and the number of letters in your last name to the end of the password: e5h0m3a6. Lastly, capitalize a couple of those letters: e5H0m3A6.
Now you have a seemingly random password that should be easy for you to remember (if you can just remember the above 'system'). Just pick a longer base word than "home." You can also use a password management program like KeePass, 1Password, or RoboForm to help you keep track of all those passwords in case you have trouble memorizing them.
Backup, backup, backup!
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a virus or other nasty piece of malware can make its way into you PC and screw everything up. Should you live in total fear? Not at all -- as long as you backup your most important data on a regular basis, then you don't have to worry about viruses ruining your whole computer (or life). See our guide on backing up your computer for how to make sure that even the worst case scenario isn't that bad. Also, follow our tips on how to clean your PC and save your data if your computer is infected by a virus.