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How To Protect Your Home Computer From Internet Outlaws

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This is our baker's dozen of mostly free and low-cost steps to protect your home computers and networks from Internet outlaws.

For an introduction to Internet security for home and SOHO end users, see our Overview page. For this week's top Internet security and privacy topics, see our Newsletter page. If you are willing to do a complete "clean install", take a look at our Installation page.

#1 Use Firewall Software. If you do not already have third-party firewall software installed, turn on the built-in Windows XP, Vista or 7 firewall until you do. Cost = Free.

#2 Use Open DNS. Go to OpenDNS and sign up for their free basic or family account, turn on the security filters [enable basic malware/botnet protection, enable phishing protection, block internal IP addresses], set up web content filtering [there are 26 options], and also consider using the advanced settings. Cost = Free.

#3 Backup Your Data.  Check to see if your Internet Service Provider (ISP) offers online storage [included in their regular charges], consider a free online storage service like Mozy Home Free, use an external USB flash drive or hard disk, or burn a CD/DVD. Cost = Varies [no or low-cost for a few GB's].

#4 Use Broadband. If you have dial-up ISP service, consider upgrading to broadband [DSL, cable, etc.] to allow for much faster downloads of security patches and updates. Cost = Varies [AT&T DSL Basic is $20 per month].

#5 Update Software.  Malware (virus, Trojan, worm, etc.) loves out-of-date software. Run Windows/Microsoft update on the second Tuesday of each month to download and install all critical updates. For other software, run a scan with the Securia Software Inspector and use their links to download critical security updates. Revisiting Secunia’s Personal Software Inspector, Krebs on Security, September 8, 2010. Cost = Free.

#6 Upgrade Windows. If you are still using Windows XP, consider an upgrade to Windows 7 if feasible with your computer (run the upgrade advisor to see). Microsoft support for XP/SP2 ended in July 2010. Be sure to set up a password protected user account for each person that will be using the computer and turn off the guest account.  Cost = $100+ [home upgrade].

#7 Upgrade Browser. Start by checking your current browser with Qualys Browser Check. If you are still using Internet Explorer 6 or 7 or any other out-of-date browser, upgrade to IE8 or Firefox 3 or Chrome 5. The newest browsers are much more secure. Whichever browser you use, make sure to take advantage of any security features that are built-in and also consider using available add-ons like NoScript or Adblock Plus for Firefox or try IE7Pro for Internet Explorer 8. Anyone still using Internet Explorer 6 needs to upgrade ASAP because of ongoing attack issues. Google Chrome now has add-on extensions too. For Internet Explorer 8, try going step-by-step with "What is involved in the Advanced Security settings in IE and how best to configure each one." Derek Melber, Window Security, January 27, 2010. Cost = Free.

#8 Protect Your Email. If your ISP offers email spam and/or antivirus filtering, use these features. If your email software offers spam and/or antivirus filtering, turn on these features. If your Internet security software includes spam and/or antivirus filtering, use these features. If no to all the foregoing, consider an online email service [gmail, hotmail and yahoo mail all include spam and virus filters] and/or use anti-spam and antivirus utility software like SpamFighter. Cost = Free [mostly].

#9 Use a Password Manager. How many different passwords do you use? How many websites do you use them for? Too many of us use too few passwords for too many websites. And the passwords we use are weak ones. The cure is a password manager which is free and highly recommended. Try LastPass or Roboform [the free version is limited to ten passwords after 30 day trial]. They are available for Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Use a built-in password generator to create and store passwords that are impossible to remember and that are much harder for outlaws to successfully attack. You only need to remember one master password (one master to rule them all... <:). Do not use sticky notes or your browser to save your pass words. Cost = Free.

#10 Use Free Internet Service Provider (ISP) Services. Consider using the security and privacy services that may be offered by your ISP at no additional cost (free) or at a discount. Comcast, for example, offers all of the following:

  • Security Suite -- Free PC Magazine editor's choice Norton 360 Security Suite for up to 7 home computers (Comcast also has a Macintosh version),

  • Parental Controls -- Free Norton Online Family,

  • Email -- Free spam and virus filtering,

  • Online Backup --Two GB free, and

  • Browser Toolbar -- Free Comcast Internet browser toolbar that includes anti-spyware and anti-phishing features.

#11 Use Free Internet Security Software. If your ISP does not offer Internet security software, you do not like the products they do offer, or there are features missing that you want, you can use free individual software products. Cost = Free.

  • Firewalls -- Try Agnitum Outpost Firewall, Checkpoint ZoneAlarm Firewall, Comodo Firewall Pro, PC Tools Firewall Plus, Privacyware PrivateFirewall, Sunbelt Personal Firewall, or Tall Emu Online Armor. For links and reviews, go to our Firewall page.

  • Antivirus -- Try avast! Free Antivirus, AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, Avira AntiVir Personal, Microsoft Security Essentials [MSE], or Panda Cloud Antivirus [PC Magazine editor's choice]. For links and reviews, go to our Antivirus page. Consumer Reports recommends Avira and MSE.

  • Password Managers -- Try LastPass or Roboform [free version limited to ten passwords after 30 day trial].

  • Internet Security Suites -- Free suites are not recommended. For pay suites, see our Internet Security Suites Software page.

#12 Use Firewall Hardware. Everyone, even a single user without a home network, should use a low-cost wireless, wired or gateway router between their modem and their computer or network. These routers will make your computer(s) less visible and more secure on the Internet using their NAT and SPI firewall features. If you use a wireless router, be sure to set up its security features; see How to Secure Your Wireless Home Network, wikiHow. Cost = $50+ [depends on features].

#13 Be Smart. In "How much security software do you really need?" Ian "Gizmo" Richards, Windows Secrets Newsletter • Issue 245 • 2010-05-27 [Paid Version] advocates for changing your behavior as a first step followed by using free security software. Cost = Free [make donation].