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Eight Steps to System Security - How to Protect Your Computer from Digital Diseases on the World Wide Web - Ask the Geek Ask the Geek

Eight Steps to System Security — How to Protect Your Computer from Digital Diseases on the World Wide Web


It isn’t getting any better on The Wild, Wild Web, despite state and federal government attempts to outlaw spyware. Spyware and malware of all kinds are increasingly more stealthy and difficult to remove; spam is worse than ever despite CAN-SPAM; phishing attacks are harder to detect and more frequent. Just last week, I spent the better part of two days fighting fighting the latest outbreak of the Sober worm and cleaning up the aftermath for one of our clients. In its September 2005 issue, Consumer Reports says, “One Third Of Net Users Damaged By Malware.”

In my job as a systems engineer for Connective Computing, Inc., I deal with the effects of one or more of these digital diseases nearly every day. My two previous releases of this article, Seven Steps to System Security – 2004 and Seven Steps to System Security – 2005, listed the field-proven steps I recommend to everyone I know. But those seven steps are no longer enough; computer users must learn to modify their behavior.

  1. Repeat after me: I will NEVER, EVER click on any pop-up of any kind – NEVER, EVER. Not even on the “X” (it’s usually safe, but why take the chance?). Use the key combination Alt-F4 instead; it safely closes the current window. In the slimy world of sleaze-ware, “No” means yes, “Cancel” means yes, “Close” means yes – ANY click on a button means yes. So many times users ask, “How did I get that? I clicked ‘no’ when it asked me!” Well, sorry, but you clicked. NEVER, EVER CLICK!
  2. Although Internet Explorer has been made more secure than it was, it is still too closely tied to Windows and too big a target. Crackers are still writing malware that exploits IE security flaws. I recommend you use Firefox, Mozilla, or Opera to browse the Web. (You will still be forced to use IE to update your system, but that is the ONLY thing you should use it for.) Whatever browser you use, be sure you configure your preferences to block all unwanted pop-ups or install a pop-up killer like the Google Tool Bar. And while you’re at it, re-read #1!
  3. Patch your system, including service pack 2 on XP. I keep finding systems that are still running XP with service pack 1, probably because they turned off automatic updates. While some argue against it, I recommend you turn them on. And be sure to install any recommended security updates and patches for ALL software on your system, – especially Microsoft Office – not just Windows.
  4. Run a properly-configured, proven firewall. Don’t rely only on Windows’ built-in firewall – it blocks inbound attacks only (see this article) and it has flaws of its own (see this article). It will not stop back door trojans, adware, spyware, and the like from “phoning home” with your sensitive information. (See this article for more info.) ZoneAlarm and others offer free, personal-use-only versions of their products.
  5. Run a good anti-virus program. Choices abound. I use AntiVir Personal Edition (free); other good ones are Norton AntiVirus, Panda Software, and Grisoft’s AVG (free).
  6. Run multiple anti-spyware/anti-adware programs and keep them updated. I recommend: a. Spyware Blaster. This free program blocks adware and spyware from installing in the first place and is frequently updated; b. Ad-Aware. Scan weekly, more frequently if you are a heavy surfer; c. Spybot S&D. Run it on the same schedule as Ad-Aware; d. Microsoft AntiSpyware (Beta) is an excellent product. (See Flexbeta.net test results.) Microsoft intends to keep this program free to consumers. Configure it for real time protection and automatic updates. Go ahead and join the SpyNet spyware reporting community. One of the best commercial anti-spyware applications is Sunbelt Software’s CounterSpy. It is a PC World Best Buy award winner.
  7. Run a spam blocker to isolate junk e-mail. Most malware and all phishing attempts rely on spam. You want to isolate this stuff and delete it. NEVER, I repeat, NEVER, EVER click on a link in any e-mail you are not absolutely certain is legitimate. And to be as safe as possible, always type in the address of your bank, credit card companies, and any other site that you want to keep secure. (See #1 above and apply to principle to links, too!) One of the best programs is Open Field Software’s ella for Spam Control. It uses wizards to “train” it to your personal specifications. It’s free to use with Outlook, but you have to pay for the version that works with Outlook Express. My clients swear by it. Another good program is PC ToolsSpam Monitor.
  8. On Windows XP, set up a restricted user account and use that for routine tasks. Only log on with administrative privileges when you need to install or configure software. This will prevent rogue programs from affecting your system – they won’t be able to install. You can activate the “run as” feature so you can do administrative tasks while logged in as a restricted user. Microsoft Knowledge Base article Q294676 explains how to activate and use this feature in Win2K and XP.

While total immunity is impossible (new infections and variations on existing exploits appear daily), these eight steps will prevent, catch, or clean 98 percent of the junkware out there. As for the other two percent, or if you are already badly infected, you’ll need to hire a geek like me.

One Response

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for posting this information. You have saved me a lot of time and agony.

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