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How to Survive an Online Attack

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As everyone knows, it's a jungle out there on the net, but with a few simple tricks and traps, you can protect yourself from the virtual beasts that are lurking, just waiting to attack the unwary. Take the time to apply these few simple steps to protect yourself now.

You know, online security isn't just for big corporations. It's true they stand to lose more (in terms of value) than you or me, but they have sufficient reserves to be able to weather the storm, whereas the average small business or man on the street is in a much more precarious position.

Why you need to protect yourself online:

Using your credit or debit card online isn't as dangerous as it used to be, but there are other ways in which using your computer can be made difficult, even impossible. Viruses are just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many different ways your computer can be preyed on whilst you're online, and even after you've disconnected. Apart from worms, viruses, trojans, data miners, and keystroke loggers, there's spyware, adware and who knows what else out there. All of them trying to take advantage of you and/or your computer.

The slimeballs who write these products have many purposes. Very few of them are purely vindictive or disruptive. For example, many viruses which install themselves onto a computer do it no harm at all. Instead, they use the system's email program to send out spam, starting with everyone in your address book. And although everyone I know deletes spam immediately, presumably they must get some sales, or this type of virus would be pointless.

Protect your personal data, too.

It's important to be as secure as you can, because in extreme cases, even your identity can be stolen, and used in ways that will disadvantage you for a long time to come. And though this may be fairly rare, it's definitely on the increase.

There are also many viruses or trojans which disrupt the data you have on your computer, in some cases causing so much damage that you have to reformat the disk and start again (which happened to me recently). That's fine if you've kept backups, but how many of us really do back our data up?

We all know we should do this, but when was the last time you made a complete copy of all your data?

This sort of attack tends to be at the amateur end of the scale. But if you have children who surf the net, or you correspond with someone with kids who surf, you are at risk. The areas where they surf are some of the most likely sources of this type of virus. But any of us can fall victim just by a single moment of inattention when checking through our emails.

How to protect yourself and your personal data

So how can you protect yourself from all these different threats?

Get yourself a firewall. Sysoft offer a free personal firewall which is very good, and makes your computer invisible to many types of attack - the best defence possible.

If you haven't got one already, install a virus-checker, such as AVG, which is available for free download and set it to start up whenever you turn on your computer.

Schedule a daily or weekly update for your virus checker at a time when you are usually online, but not using the computer for anything requiring 100% of its resources.

Get a copy of Ad-Aware, available for free download, and run it at least once a week.

Download and install a free copy of Spyware Blaster. This will load up when you start up your computer and sit in the background, preventing access to your private data by thousands of different types of spyware. Do make sure it is regularly updated, though, or you may fall foul of a new attacker.

Run Spybot Search and Destroy once a week to check for anything missed by your other lines of defence.

When making a payment online, make sure the connection is secure. Secure sites start with https:// instead of the usual http://. On IE, a yellow lock symbol will appear in the bottom right hand corner of the screen in the status bar.
Don't make payments on public computers, such as at internet cafes, libraries and so on. You don't know how secure these are, they are very likely to be infected by keystroke recording viruses.

In addition, if you're logging onto an Instant Messenger such as Yahoo or MSN on a public computer, make sure the box to remember the password is UNCHECKED, or someone could steal your identity and send offensive material to your buddies (this happened to a friend of mine).

Finally, if practical, change your password regularly. However, don't fall into the trap of changing it so frequently that you can't remember it and have to write it down or put it in a data file. That would be a lot less secure than sticking to the same password you've always had - so long as it's not too obvious.

Watch out for snakes in your mailbox.

Even though you may have installed all these pieces of software, keep them up to date and use them religiously, it is still vital to take care with incoming emails:

If you get an email which is very short and doesn't 'sound' like the person it's supposed to be from, with an attachment, DO NOT open it. Delete it straight away. (If there's any doubt, you should still delete it, but you could just email your friend and check with them that they didn't send you anything. It's far better to suffer a tiny bit of inconvenience and be safe, than to end up trashing your hard disk.)

Take special care with emails that appear to come from banks and payment processors, like paypal. These are particularly popular targets for Phishing scams (used to collect your personal financial information, so that your account can be emptied at their leisure). Often these say that your account has been inactive for some time, and ask you to click on a link to re-confirm your details. They are almost always scams. If you feel you must respond, go to the website by your normal route,

DEFINITELY NOT by clicking on the link in the email. But my advice is to just delete them.

Finally, I have recently come across a piece of software which I liked so much that I now use it to monitor my incoming mail. It isn't free, but you do get a month's free trial. If you do decide to buy, the cost is very reasonable (I paid £18, or about $37, which includes VAT), certainly a lot less than you stand to lose without it. It doesn't just filter out possible viruses, but all sorts of spam, as well. And everything is nicely colour-coded, so you can see exactly what's what.

No excuse not to protect yourself!

Using these tools, you can protect yourself from almost any malicious program, and if you do pick up
a virus or piece of spyware, for example, you will catch it quickly, before it can do irrecoverable damage.

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