Keep Your PC Safe - Internet Security for the Home User

By: Alison Brundle

As the number of cable modems and Wi-Fi networks increases, Internet security is becoming more of an issue. You may think that your Internet connection is safe from unwelcome and unwanted intrusion by hackers, but there are some things you can do to improve your security levels to stop hackers gaining access to your personal details, bank account numbers and passwords.

The reason that Internet security is becoming more of an issue now is that people are spending longer connected to the Internet. And unless that pathway is protected by high level security, the hackers will have more opportunities to find a way in. Hijacked machines (often known as zombies and forming part of botnets) are valuable to fraudsters and spammers. The trick is to beat the hackers at their own game.

There are three aspects of home Internet protection, sometimes referred to as the 'holy trinity'.

Personal firewall/intrusion detection

These are the firewalls that often come with your operating system. In older operating systems such as Windows 95 and 98, these systems have virtually no inbuilt security. Because these systems have now been superseded by more up to date software, it is advisable that if you are still operating Win95 or 98 to upgrade to a system that is supported by a Microsoft inbuilt firewall.

All versions of Vista, XP and 2000 are still supported by Microsoft and have inclusive firewall protection. For an additional layer of security, external firewall programs can be incorporated into your operating system as simply as downloading any other piece of software. It is advisable to talk to an expert, however, as some firewalls may not be compatible with your operating system and you may encounter run conflicts that could affect other aspects of your system.

The most popular free downloadable firewall is Zone Alarm, although for comprehensive coverage, Zone Alarm Pro is probably a better option. You can also set your Internet security levels to 'high' on your operating system if you are going to be on the Internet for prolonged periods.

Anti-spyware software

Spyware is software that covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without his or her knowledge. That information is then passed to a third party (the hacker or fraudster) and suddenly your secure system isn't quite as secure as you thought it was. There are countless pieces of embedded software (often also known as 'malware') that piggyback onto downloads and install themselves into your operating system. These include BHOs (Browser Helper Objects) which hijack your browser and take it to their 'chosen' site whether you want to go there or not. Although annoying, these don't do any real damage. However, other spyware can count keystrokes and relay these back to hackers who, from this data, can uncover passwords and other information such as account numbers. Anti-spyware software stops this malware from infiltrating your computer and leaving your important information exposed.

Anti-virus software

A virus can devastate a computer. Designed to cause maximum damage to your data, viruses are created to cause mayhem and have no other purpose other than that. Anti-virus software is essential, particularly if you are using the Internet for long periods of time, and the best option is to include a package such as McAfee VirusScan in your operating system. Ensure that you update this program regularly (you will receive prompts from your computer on start-up).

No piece of anti-virus or spyware software can cover all threats, so it's a good idea to keep an eye out for updates and to combine several systems to cover your bases. There are also some things you can do for yourself when online to keep your PC and your personal details safe:

* Never open email attachments if you do not know who the email has come from, or even from friends. This is the easiest way to allow a virus to access your system.
* Avoid downloading files from sites you are not familiar with.
* Ensure that your security protocol is set to 'high' if you are going to be online for any length of time
* No bank will ever ask for your details via email. Any that do are scams and should be immediately deleted without responding and your bank notified of the scam attempt.
* If something looks suspicious (poor spelling, bad graphics), then trust your instincts - it probably is a bogus email or phishing attempt to get access to your personal details
* If you have a wireless network in your home, ensure that it is password protected.
* Never have the same password for all your sites.

With a little thought and preparation, you can keep your home PC safe from outside attacks and your details out of the hands of fraudsters.