Is there anything I can do to make my computer more secure on the internet?

Yes. First and foremost I recommend getting a hardware firewall like a router. Then you might consider a software firewall like ZoneAlarm or using OpenDNS.

How can I prevent spyware from getting on my system?

Here’s some basic tips on spyware prevention. Suggestion #2 recommends patching IE; I recommend not using it at all. No matter how much work you put into it, it’s a magnet for problems (you can probably guess that I am not a big Microsoft fan at this point!). As a Wired article once put it, “Ever since Internet Explorer toppled Netscape in 1998, browser innovation has been more or less limited to pop-up ads, spyware, and viruses. Over the past six years, IE has become a third world bus depot, the gathering point for a crush of hawkers, con artists, and pickpockets.” The best solution is to use an non-IE browser like Chrome or Firefox, at a minimum. Even better, you should additionally install a good antivirus program like Avast (free, the Pro version has a firewall), and Malwarebytes Pro to catch any spyware/malware baddies.

Be very, very wary of P2P software. AVOID filesharing programs. Lastly, just don’t click on popups or strange windows asking to install things. Ever.

If you’re pretty sure you’ve already got spyware on your system, you can request my help right here and we’ll get that taken care of ASAP!

What is “phishing”? Should I be concerned about this?

Yes; I have had several clients ensnared by this. Basically this is where somebody sends you an email or a popup claiming to be an established and legitimate enterprise (AOL, Microsoft, etc.) in an attempt to scam you into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft. Phishers mimic the look of the legit guys very well, so be very suspicious if AOL or PayPal is suddenly asking you for your password for no apparent reason. Go to your account first and see if anything is amiss–and do NOT give out your password or account information. Here’s an example of what a “phishing” email looks like, and here’s more information about phishing.

My computer just crashed, and I think I lost all my stuff. Help!

Whether or not your stuff is retrievable depends on how it crashed. If it was just a minor crash, it’s probably possible to get to it and save it. If the hard drive completely failed, however, you might be out of luck, depending on what’s wrong with it. Why does this happen? Several reasons are possible: heat, viruses, old age…and just plain bad luck. As with other computing disasters, this is another case of prevention being your best bet: invest in a external hard drive to back up your data, a cloud solution, or at least a flash drive. I do work with a local data recovery service if necessary, and data can very often be successfully recovered–but it’s not cheap.

Help! I’m getting tons of spam! How do I get rid of it?

As with spyware, the best treatment is prevention. Once you’re getting a lot of spam, sometimes the only choice you’re left with is changing your email address and being very protective of it from that point forward. Gmail is web-based email that has truly excellent spam-filtering and is completely free. I highly recommended it! If you don’twant to use web-based email, you can try an email client called Thunderbird (especially if you’re used to Outlook) for email, as it has built-in junk filters that can help. You do have to put in a little work at the beginning to train it to recognize the mail you don’t want, though.

What’s the difference between viruses, spyware, and firewalls?

Viruses are little computer programs specifically written by hackers to either A) wreck your system, B) send out valuable data (such as your credit card numbers), or C) both. Like the human version, they are quite contagious and their goal is to replicate. They used to be commonly caught by floppy disks, but now it is usually via email and malicious websites (and sometimes USB flash drives). Other forms of viruses are called Trojans and Worms–while not technically “viruses” in the strict sense of the word, they might as well be: they’re all bad for your computer. Viruses, trojans and worms have gotten extremely sneaky in recent years. They may show up in an email that really looks like it’s from your friend (who didn’t send it, his or her infected computer did so automatically), or as a funny joke with the urging to open a file or click on something. Sometimes they come in hoax emails. It’s wise to be cautious, but in additon to that you ought to have an antivirus program running to catch things automatically as they try to come in. New antivirus programs scans outgoing email for infections, so you don’t infect other machines should your computer try to send out something bad.

Spyware is, according to the Webopedia, “Any software that covertly gathers user information through the user’s Internet connection without his or her knowledge, usually for advertising purposes. Spyware is similar to a Trojan horse in that users unwittingly install the product when they install something else. A common way to become a victim of spyware is to download certain peer-to-peer file swapping products that are available today. Once installed, the spyware monitors user activity on the Internet and transmits that information in the background to someone else. Spyware can also gather information about e-mail addresses and even passwords and credit card numbers. Aside from the questions of ethics and privacy, spyware steals from the user by using the computer’s memory resources and also by eating bandwidth as it sends information back to the spyware’s home base via the user’s Internet connection. Because spyware is using memory and system resources, the applications running in the background can lead to system crashes or general system instability.”

The general term computer techs use to refer to all of the above is malware.

Firewalls are designed to prevent hackers from getting into your computer. If you have a broadband connection, a firewall isn’t a bad idea. It can be a little tricky to configure them at times, but it’s better to have one than not. Want to check your security right now? Go test your system over at GRC.com.

My computer is very old, but it’s set up the way I like. What’s wrong with Windows XP?

Nothing, really. However: it is no longer supported by anyone, including Microsoft itself. Many if not most new programs are no longer written for XP or are painfully slow/unstable on it. So what? Well, if you run into problems, you are limited in ways to fix them. Many of the programs designed to kill spyware and viruses require a newer operating system. I understand not wanting to mess with what’s “working.” I also understand you may not be interested in anything fancy. But you’ll probably find that if you give a newer operating system a try, it’s actually more user-friendly than what you’re used to (it’s also possible to mimic the look of earlier Windows versions). Windows XP also has about ten times the infection rate of newer editions of Windows.

I can’t afford Microsoft Office, but I need it for work/school. What to do?

You should check out LibreOffice! It’s an Office clone and it’s free.

I have my computer plugged directly into the wall. Is that okay?

It would really be better for your investment to be plugged into a good surge-protecting power strip. These only cost $20 – $40 (though you can get more powerful ones for more). Here’s an environmentally friendly power strip that can actually save you money, too.

What programs do you recommend?

See the resources page.

What the heck are “drivers”?

A driver is a little bit of software used to control a hardware component or peripheral device of a computer, like a modem, disk drive or printer. If you do not have the right driver for a specific hardware item (i.e. your modem), that device may not function properly or at all.

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