The Internet has always been a bit of a jungle, with hackers using all kinds of tricks to gain access to and control your system. Merely keeping your anti-virus updated on your computer is not quite enough to stay totally safe. Instead, you also need to understand a bit about the threats in order to deal with them effectively.

Malicious software — what is that, exactly?

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Malicious software, commonly called malware, are programs which might be hidden in websites or emails, and which are designed to infect your computer. Most malware actually depends on you, the computer user, in order for it to work. When you open an email attachment, click on the website link, or visit a particular website, you also initiate a process by which the malware can infiltrate your computer operating system and (if it is designed to) take over your PC. Some kinds of malware will make only minor modifications and are easy to remove. Others can completely shut it down, making it inoperable.

Malware comes in many forms — viruses, trojans, adware, spyware, worms, root kits, phishing, and many more.

Viruses, trojans, worms, and root kits are the ones that do the most damage. Adware, phishing tools, and spyware are mostly designed to track where you go, what sites you visit on the internet, and what you look at — then, without your knowledge, report all this back to some other entity. The goal is usually to insert ads into the web pages you visit (and thereby make money), steal your identity, or change your computer’s configuration.

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Protecting your computer

Of course, there are other ways malware can get on your computer. It’s very hard, if not impossible to defend against all of them. However, you can defend against the most common ways using a few simple steps.

Antivirus software

Good antivirus software is crucial. These programs must be kept updated in order to work — the antivirus software manufacturer puts out “definitions lists” which allows the software to identify the newest malware.

It’s not enough to buy and download the latest in antivirus software, therefore. You must be sure you will get the latest updates, too.

Most good antivirus software will also handle adware, spyware, and phishing tools.

Watch your emails

One of the most common ways malware enters your system is via email. While your spam filter will often intercept emails that aren’t on your ‘safe sender list’ or otherwise in your address book, sometimes an email with malware attached can look like it comes from an acceptable site — or even from someone you know. (When computers get infected with malware, the malware may email itself to everyone the person has communicated with.)

Therefore, always pay attention to the spelling of any URLs in the email, and the overall grammatical quality. (Most ‘spam’ or ‘phishing’ emails contain poor spelling or grammar.) Never click on a link which seems suspicious. If you think an email contains or links to malware, mark it spam. This won’t just protect your computer, it will also ensure any future attempts to infect your computer are shunted into the spam folder.

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Avoid using outdated operating systems

Using an old version of Windows (like Windows XP or, even worse, Windows 95) is asking for trouble. These older operating systems are highly vulnerable to viruses, and in many cases they simply aren’t compatible with the modern Internet.

Use firewalls

Most PCs and Macs have firewalls built into the operating system. The default settings usually provide basic coverage, but you can configure them so they’re more secure.

Similarly, make sure your browser is set to be secure. If possible, disable things like Adobe Flash or Java, which are common ways to get infected. Make sure the pop-up blocker is turned on too, since many times malware appears in popups.

User Account Controls

User Account Controls, or UACs, allow you to tell your computer to notify you in the event that changes are made to it by outside programs. If you click a malware link which is programmed to make changes to your Windows registry or another part of the operating system, a pop-up box appears asking whether you’d like to let the program make changes to the computer. If you did not intentionally execute the program, clicking “no” will stop the program in its tracks.

Written by: Jelena

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