How do I practice Safe Computing?

WHAT'S OUT THERE?

Over the past couple years, computer users have become more and more concerned about malware. Malware is made up of several categories of software (described below). Malware destabilizes your system, degrades system performance, reduces program functionality, fills up your hard drive, and clogs Internet bandwidth. Additionally, some forms of malware can disable your system altogether. Read on for the most common types of malware:

SPYWARE

Spyware refers to small pieces of software, installed with or without your knowledge, that report your Internet browsing habits to a data harvester. Spyware usually comes bundled with "free" software like Kazaa, Morpheus, Grokster, Bearshare, iMesh, Hotbar, and Gozilla. Some of the more rampant pieces of spyware are Gator, SaveNow, New Dot Net, WebHancer, and Xupiter.

ADWARE

Adware pops up ads while you are connected to the Internet, even if you're not currently browsing. Adware also comes bundled with software programs as described above.

BACKDOORS

Backdoor programs are installed on your system by hackers and allow users to gain remote control of your system without your consent or knowledge.

VIRUSES

Most people are familiar with viruses. A virus is a program that propagates within your system, denying access to certain files and generally disrupting your computing experience. Velocity Micro offers McAfee VirusScan and a 12-month subscription on all of its systems.

TROJANS

Trojans are special backdoors disguised as useful programs (small games or utilities). When these programs are run, the trojan installs a backdoor program on your system, letting anyone access your system without your knowledge.

WORMS

You've probably already heard of some famous worms: ILOVEYOU, Melissa, Klez, Sobig.F, Blaster, Mydoom, Netsky, etc. Worms usually spread via email attachments. The user opens the email attachment and the worm is released on their system, spreading itself via the victim's address book. Worms can also install a backdoor on your system to allow remote access later. Worms are also now spreading to AOL's Instant Messenger service.

WHY THEY WANT YOU

You might say, "Why would a hacker target me? I don't have any secret government files or anything that any hacker would want." That might be true, but if you have a cable or DSL modem, you already have one thing hacker wants: an always-on, high-speed Internet connection. What could a hacker want with your Internet connection?

FILE STORAGE

Your system could potentially become a distribution center for pirated software and/or music.

DENIAL OF SERVICE

What happens when ten thousand computers continually request a single website for hours at a time? That website, unable to handle the load of all the incoming requests, crashes and is no longer available online. Using backdoors and trojans to take control of computers with high-speed Internet connections, hackers can group multiple thousands of computers together and issue a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack to any web server. Thus, your cable modem becomes a weapon against a hacker's target of choice.

WHAT TO DO

These descriptions and situations are not meant to scare you into never using your system. You should, however, be aware that malware is out there and very active. Fortunately, there are several things you do can to keep your system free of malware:

KEEP WINDOWS UPDATED

The number one vulnerability to Internet-based exploits is the Windows operating system itself. Regularly check Windows Update to see if Microsoft has issued any new patches for Windows. Select the Start menu, then All Programs, then Windows Update to connect to Microsoft's server. The website will run a small application to scan your system for vulnerabilities. If there are any, you will then be presented with a list of updates to install. Velocity Micro systems ship with the latest Windows updates installed, but new ones are released every so often, so it's important to check regularly.

USE A FIREWALL

Use a firewall. Firewalls screen incoming and outgoing Internet traffic for malicious content and let you know what programs are trying to access the Internet. Firewalls are available in hardware form (a physical box that sits between your computer and the Internet connection) and software form (a program that runs on your computer). Hardware firewalls are available from companies such as Belkin, D-Link, and Linksys. If you don't want to spend money to get a hardware firewall, you can download Zone Alarm for free. Zone Alarm is a very capable software firewall that runs in your system tray, continuously monitoring Internet traffic.

BE CAUTIOUS ABOUT OPENING EMAIL ATTACHMENTS

Email worms can "spoof" the name of someone else, fooling you into thinking the email was sent by someone you know (when in reality they had no idea they sent it). Double-check with the sender to see if they actually meant to send you a file. Beware of attached files with the following extensions: .exe, .pif, .vbs, .js, .cpl, .com, or .bat at the end. These file types are executable, meaning they are designed to run programs (and not, for example, open a Word document). Be especially aware of "combination" file names such as .doc.vbs, .jpg.exe, and so forth. If you suspect an email contains a worm attachment, DO NOT OPEN THE ATTACHMENT. Delete the email immediately and remove it from the "Deleted Items" folder.

USE SPYWARE DETECTION SOFTWARE

Programs like AdAware and Spyware Blaster scan your hard drive for malware and remove it or disable it. Malwarebytes is another popular tool. Download these programs, keep them updated, and run them often.

USE AN ANTIVIRUS PROGRAM

Today's antivirus programs can detect worms, trojans, and backdoors as well as actual viruses. Keep your program's definitions updated and scan your system regularly. Programs like Norton Antivirus (offered as an option with Velocity Micro systems) can run constantly in the background, scanning each file as it is accessed. You may also wish to review some of the free options such as Microsoft Security Essentials, AVG, or AVAST. Publishers of free versions do not provide technical support. Publishers of paid versions do.