Sunday, November 1, 2009

24 quick and easy PC security tips

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It might not seem like it, but PCs have never been so secure. While Windows XP was well known for its security issues, Microsoft has at least been sensible enough to sit up and listen to the wails of woe from users. Oddly enough, people don't like outside forces hacking in and gaining access to their bank details, email accounts and photos of Aunty Edna on holiday in Bognor Regis.

Despite the impending launch of Windows 7, Windows Vista remains the most secure version of Windows to date. While there are continuing security patches, they're at a low level. However, it's important you look after your PC's security – so here are 24 top tips to stay ahead of the game.

1. Make sure you go phishing
Be aware that the Phishing Filter is turned off by default – you'll need to enable it. Go to Tools > Phishing Filter > Turn On Automatic Website Checking. The filter combines local checks with a database comparison.

2. Delete your history
Go to Tools > Internet Options and click Delete in the Browser History section to remove your history, stored passwords, cookies and form data to prevent thieves snatching log-in details.

3. Keep changing your password
Don't use the same password for everything. Try to use combinations of letters and numbers that do not form words or guessable dates.

4. Quickly check a site for phishing scams
Hit Alt and O, followed by H then C to quickly check a website using Internet Explorer 7's phishing filter (if you prefer to leave automatic checking off).

5. Never reply to spam
You'll confirm that your email address is real for scammers. Avoid clicking on links contained within emails that purport to be from your credit card provider or online stores – this could be phishing material.

6. Secure your wireless network now
Your wireless network extends a lot further than you think – on to the street and into next door's home. Keep unwanted computers away by encrypting your network connection with a password through your router. Choose WPA-level security and also change the password used to access your router while you're at it. If you don't have WPA, WEP security will do.

7. Protect children with Parental controls
One of the big advantages of Windows Vista is that it comes with built-in Parental Controls (Start > Control Panel > User Accounts and Family Safety > Parental Controls), which help you to limit access and make the internet a safer place for your children to explore. You can use the standard settings to block them from visiting certain websites or using programs, or you can create a customised list that they can choose from.

8. Create a new account for your child
Launch Control Panel, click User Accounts and Family Safety, then click User Accounts. It's a good idea to have a separate account for each family member. Click Create a New Account and enter the user's name. Give that person a standard user account – unless you want them to have the power to uninstall software and change your Windows Vista settings, that is.

9. Add a password to a User Account
Click on the new account name and then click Create a Password. Now only the person you've assigned this account to will be able to access it.

10. Turn on the parental controls
Within the User Accounts, to see the parental controls for a particular account you must click on the account name. As you should see, the parental controls for an account are switched off by default. Switching them on is simple – just click on the On, Enforce Current Settings button under Parental Controls.

11. Monitor activity
An account with active parental controls will have its Reporting on. Whenever this user is logged in, it will record what programs they've used, what games they've played and whether they've tried to do things you've blocked them from doing. The Activity Reports are a little bit too severe to use on older children though. If you're at all worried about the young ones, however, they will give you a detailed report about everything they've been doing.

12. Set time limits for computer use
It's best for your children to be online when you are around to help out if something goes wrong. If you click on Time Limits you'll see an empty grid; you can block times by colouring them in with the mouse – if the user attempts to log on to your PC during a blocked period, Windows will turn them away. While configuring the Time Limits, click inside the grid to set when your child is allowed access to your computer. Allowed hours are white, and blocked hours are blue.

13. Put a stop to programs
You can stop users launching certain programs – handy if you don't want others to see your finances in Microsoft Money. Click Allow and Block Specific Programs to see a list of the software on your PC. You now have two options: let the user launch any program, or restrict them to specific software. If you choose the latter, any programs you don't tick in the list won't be available to that user.

14. Gore-free gaming
If the box says 'Hello Kitty' but the game is really Hell Kitten, you may not know exactly what the kids have been playing – but, by using this control, your PC certainly will. From the Parental Controls menu, click on Games. You can choose to block games altogether, block or allow specific games, or limit games by age rating. Restricting games according to age rating is one of the easiest ways to ensure that children don't play inappropriate games. Click on Set Game Ratings and then choose the classification.

15. User account control will protect
UAC works in two ways. If you're logged in as the computer administrator (which, as the owner of the PC, you probably will be), system changes no longer happen silently. Instead, the UAC warning will pop up and nothing will happen if you don't click Continue.

16. Using Bitlocker and the TPM chip
BitLocker has been designed to work with PCs that include a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip, and if your PC has such hardware then you'll be able to log on normally with BitLocker. If you don't have a TPM chip you can still use BitLocker, but you'll need a USB flash drive. Your BitLocker password will be installed on this drive, and you'll need to insert the drive every time you boot your PC.

17. Enabling BitLocker on a non-TPM PC
If you don't own a TPM-enabled computer, you need to make a few changes to Windows Vista. First click on Start and type 'gpedit.msc' into the search box. Press Enter and then click the Continue button if the User Account Control dialogue box pops up. Next click on Local Computer Policy > Administrative Templates > Windows Components.

18. Discover unwanted software
The Software Explorer section of Windows Defender helps you understand which software and services are running on your computer and stops or disables 'rogue' software, including that which starts automatically and communicates over the internet – the Software Explorer lists all of these processes and helps you stop or disable potentially malicious software.

19. Automatic scanning in Defender
When you launch Windows Defender, it tells you when it last scanned your PC. If you want Windows Defender to scan automatically, click Tools in the toolbar. The system scan checks known areas for matches with the definition file; scans are scheduled for 2am, If you want to change the time, use the fields for Frequency and Approximate Time.

20. Real-time protection for your system
Real-Time Protection (on by default) checks on crucial elements of Windows and warns of attempts to change them. Only disable if using another anti-spyware package. At all stages, Windows Defender is simple to use and comes with preconfigured settings to help you set up a stable platform and then continue to stay secure. An easy user interface gives you more control over your software. Common tasks such as scanning, blocking and removing unwanted software are easier than ever to schedule.

21. Update your definitions
Spyware is constantly being developed so is an evolving threat; Windows Defender automatically makes sure it has the latest definitions before a scheduled scan, so you are better protected from new threats. Definition updates are created by Microsoft analysts with help from an active network of Windows Defender customers who submit spyware reports, which you can choose to join in with.

22. Check your firewall
The Windows Firewall is on by default. You can check its status in the Windows Security Centre, accessible via the Control Panel or you can type 'Windows Firewall' after opening the Start menu.

23. Restrict unexpected events
The Windows Firewall helps protect by restricting other operating system resources if they behave in unexpected ways – a common indicator of the presence of malware. For example, if a component of Windows that is designed to send network messages over one port on your PC tries to send messages via a different port due to an attack, Windows Firewall can stop that message leaving your PC, preventing the malware spreading to other users.

24. Watch the IE padlock
The all-new Internet Explorer Security Status Bar means you'll know exactly how safe the website you're browsing is. It cycles through various status colours to highlight if a site is very secure (green), if it appears unsafe (yellow), or if it's very unsafe (red).

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