The downside of living in a time that allows us to connect to an infinite amount of information is that any kid with a computer can access it. Make sure your computer is up to speed with these 5 easy and free things you can do to protect yourself.
By Jesse Stern
Most people don’t want to think too much about configuring and setting up their computers. We spend enough time in front of screens these days without needing to geek out on computer maintenance. Even so, there are some things that could save you a LOT of time and money in the long run, by spending just a few short minutes every week or two. Are you ready?
1. Make Sure Your Firewall is Up and Running
What’s a firewall? Let’s say you have a safe deposit box. It’s in the bank, next to a bunch of other safe deposit boxes. Now, imagine your box doesn’t have a door. Anyone could reach in and steal, vandalize or sabotage your stuff, right? They probably won’t, because there are a thousand other boxes without doors right next to yours, but why take chances?
Think of your computer as this safe deposit box, and your firewall as the door — and lock. The firewall does two main things: It restricts programs on your computer from accessing the internet without your permission, and it “cloaks” your computer, making it less visible to hackers or evildoers.
Windows XP and later comes with a built in firewall. For most people, this is fine. If you want a better, though slightly more hands-on firewall, check out Zone Alarm. In either case, make sure that your firewall is running, and that Windows is not reporting a problem (Control Panel -> Security Center -> Windows Firewall, or something like that).
If you’re feeling hands-on, try Zone Alarm. This handy firewall comes in two versions: Zone Alarm, which is free, and Zone Alarm Pro, which is not. Download Zone Alarm, skip the offers to install Zone Alarm Pro. The first time you run it, it will play a sweet little tutorial.
ZA should configure to your internet settings automatically, then ask you every time a program wants to connect to the internet. If it’s a program you know and expect, such as your internet browser, mail program, World of Warcraft, or whatever, check the box that says always use this answer. If you’re not sure what the program is that’s trying to access the internet, click Deny and research the program. If it looks fishy, uninstall that program.
OS X: Mac users can delight that OS X comes with a built in firewall. Like most things Mac, the firewall is very user-friendly and easy to configure. Just go into System Preferences -> Network, click on the firewall tab, and hit Start. (I believe in Leopard that the firewall is always running by default.)
2. Give Your Computer a Shot of Vitamin C
A virus is a nasty little program that does nasty things to your computer. There are many ways that a virus can wind up on your computer, and just as many ways it can wreak havoc, so it’s a good idea to check for viruses periodically.
A new PC generally comes with an installed anti-virus program. The problem is that after a few months, the program expires and you are expected to buy it and/or pay for a subscription. Instead, uninstall this program (Control Panel –> Add & Remove Programs), and download AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition. It is pretty easy to use, and is normally set to update automatically. Either set it to scan every week or two (or nightly, if you leave your computer on 24/7), or run it yourself during some down time.
Extra Credit: Gibson Research Corpration (GRC) has some great, free programs that can help you stop up a few security leaks in your PC. Visit GRC, and click on the “Freeware” tab. Run D-combobulator, UnPnP, and Shoot the Messenger. If you’re curious about how well your computer is protected, also run Leak Test.
3. Become a Double Agent
Spyware is a little bit less nasty than a virus, but still just as rude. Spyware can be anything from a keystroke logger, which keeps track of everything you type (the intent being to steal your bank passwords and such), to a cookie that tracks where you go on the internet. In the latter case, the culprit is usually an internet advertising company that is collecting data. Sometimes this data is anonymously collected, other times not.
Either way, I don’t want some ad company to reap huge profits by researching me — unless they pay me for it! So, I go to lavasoft.com, and download Ad-Aware Free. Update and run this program every week or so, and the ad companies (not to mention potentially worse predators) will have to do their research on someone else’s dime.
Note: AVG (see above) also has an anti-spyware program. I’ve never used it, and have always liked Ad-Aware, but it’s probably fine. Take your pick, as long as you run something on a regular basis.
4. Junk the Unused and Unnecessary
Does your PC have a string of tiny icons along the bottom right of your screen? Those are all programs running, and chances are, some of them shouldn’t be. At the least, they use up memory and slow down your computer. At the worst, they could contain spyware or adware.
Also, to save disk space, it’s a good idea to remove programs that you don’t use anymore. Did you try a game, then got sick of it? Installed several drawing programs, then decided to stick with only one of them?
First things first, let’s take a look at all those icons. You can usually remove them from the icon tray without actually uninstalling the programs. That way, they will run only when you ask them to run, instead of running all the time. Here’s how to do it:
- Hover over each of the little icons to find out which program is running.
- If it’s something you know, like your instant messenger program, iTunes or QuickTime, decide whether you want it running all the time. Removing it from the icon tray will not uninstall the program. Right-click the icon, and go into something like Program Options, and deselect the box that says “Run (program) on startup”. (This procedure will vary, depending on the program.)
- If it’s a program you don’t know, try to find out what it is. Some programs that run all the time are important, like your volume control or the cursor control on some laptops. Others are just taking up space. Some may even be malicious.
- If you still don’t know what it is, consider uninstalling it. Go to Control Panel –> Add/Remove Programs, and scroll down the list, uninstalling programs that you don’t want anymore. A word of warning: Some programs are necessary to run on your computer. Make sure that you aren’t getting rid of something essential, like a system update or program that you use regularly. Programs containing words like “Microsoft”, “Adobe” and “System Update 081229” should generally be left alone. Programs containing words like “Ad Junkie” and “Dude, this is so coool” should be removed promptly.
5. Tune Up Every 5,000 Kilobytes
Finally, besides checking regularly for viruses and adware/spyware, there are a few things you should do every couple of weeks, to keep the computer running in tip-top shape.
Disk Cleanup: In your Start Menu -> Accessories -> System Tools, run “Disk Cleanup”. This will erase a lot of unused and temporary files on your computer. I always check all the boxes, to delete everything. If you haven’t done this regularly, or have rarely done it, it should recover several GB of disk space.
Disk Defragmenter: Also in Start Menu -> Accessories -> System Tools, run Disk Defragmenter. I will spare you the long, boring explanation of what this does, and simply tell you that it can help your computer run faster and can extend the life of your hard drive.
OS X: Mac users can once again delight that most of this disk optimization is done automatically. However, there is one thing you should do regularly. Apple suggests running Disk Utility before and after each time you install or uninstall a program. This handy little program is in your Utilities folder (/Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility). Open the program, select your system drive (Macintosh HD, or whatever you call it), and click “Verify Disk Permissions”. If there are any incorrect permissions, click “Repair Disk Permissions”. Some people skip the “verify” step, but Apple says you should do it, so I do it.
Tip of the Week: Sledgehammer
If all else fails, there’s nothing more satisfying than utterly destroying a computer. Get a big, heavy sledgehammer, the kind used to break rocks. Take your computer outside on the sidewalk, and smash away. Note that I don’t actually recommend this, because in most states it’s illegal to throw away computer parts. But it really is satisfying.