CLEVELAND, Ohio — Computer consultant Earl Nittskoff has a saying when it comes to malware: “The problem is in the chair, not the computer.”
We non-geeks fail to take the steps we should to protect our computers from malware and viruses. We click on social media links that promise us a bit of juicy gossip or a photo that will make us LOL.
And sometimes, when we try to protect ourselves, we blindly guess, with disastrous results.
Just last week, a reader reported that he paid for a firewall that turned out to be a fake. Many others have confessed falling for the “Microsoft” computer tech scam call, in which callers posing as Microsoft techs scare people into buying suspect products and services to clean up what they claim is malware but actually is just a normal computer error log.
I asked some local computer pros to share their best tips to help us less computer-savvy types avoid malware and find reliable software to keep it at bay.
- Update your security programs whenever you get a prompt.
“Everybody thinks these updates are to make the computer run better. They’re not,” says Nittskoff, who runs V V E Computer Consulting in South Euclid. When software makers find a weak spot in their anti-virus and other security programs, they issue a patch.
Many of us find them annoying or choose the “remind me later” option, but that’s a big mistake. Bad guys get the patches, too – and they quickly design attacks that exploit computers that don’t have the fix.
Installing anti-virus and anti-malware and keeping it updated is the most important thing you can do to protect your computer.
- Be wary of zip files and emailed links. “Most malware attackers will put their item in a zip file in order to try to circumvent anti-virus programs. If you receive a zip file from a friend, call that person to make sure that you got a legitimate email from them,” says Greg Kelley, a digital forensics expert at Vestige Ltd. in Medina.
- Protect tablets and mobile phones, too. “There is a major shift in virus writing – from PC’s to Android-based mobile devices. Android malware is outnumbering PC-based malware so far this year,” says Steven Sundermeier of Medina-based ThirtySeven4, which develops anti-virus and anti-malware products.
So protect those with software, but be careful about what you load onto them.
Recently, the maker of the popular game Flappy Birds announced he was discontinuing the game. Bad guys immediately launched malware-laden Flappy Birds clones, and hoards of consumers unwittingly downloaded them onto their mobile devices.
- Change your passwords often. It’s a pain, but find an easy-to-remember system that works for you. Norm Beznoska of Enterprise Security Partners recommends changing your passwords every 60 days. The ideal password is at least six to eight characters long, he says, and includes capital and lower-case letters, numbers and special characters. “Do not,” he warns, “use your social media (Linked In, Facebook) passwords for your PC or at work.”
Don’t pick passwords that are easy to guess (your birthday or anniversary), but to help yourself remember, you might try finding something meaningful to you (something that you don’t post on Facebook) and then spicing it up by replacing certain letters with symbols or numbers.
So what should you do if you think you goofed?
Stop shopping, banking or checking into password protected accounts until you make sure your device is safe.
Scan your computer for bugs, but don’t just blunder around on the Internet looking for free virus scans. Spoof sites can appear high in search results, and many of these sites specialize in infecting visitors’ computers through “drive-by” downloads of malware. (Set your browser’s security settings high enough to detect unauthorized downloads.)
StaySafeOnline.org posts links to a number of reliable, free programs that will scan your computer for spyware and malware.
Windows users may want to try the free scans and malware removal tools offered by the Microsoft Security and Safety Center.
By the way, back up your files regularly. That way if you do get a bug and have to do a clean install – have your computer wiped and software re-installed – you won’t lose all your work.
Finding good security software
Free anti-virus and anti-malware programs are available, but the security pros say paid versions often provide better protection and automatic updates.
Still, some free software gets good ratings, and if you want to use a free product to tide you over until you can figure out what to buy, at least two of the security consultants I checked in with liked the free anti-virus offered by Avast and AVG.
Jim Evans of the Greater Cleveland PC Users Group lists free anti-virus software and other helpful information on the group’s site.
Nittskoff says security software can fluctuate in effectiveness. A version that’s good one year may lag another, so look for current product reviews.
Kelley, who investigates breaches, recommends sites like cnet.com for “vendor-neutral” product reviews.
Check the Better Business Bureau (http://www.bbb.org/council/) ratings for vendors.
You can also put vendor or product names in a Google search with the word “complaint” to see if there are persistent problems.
Good general resources
- OnGuardOnline.gov (https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0038-onguardonline) has good information on securing computers and mobile devices, including links to tutorials. The site also links to helpful info from the Federal Trade Commission about what to think about when you’re using a mobile device and considering downloading apps.
- StaySafeOnline.org has good basic info on steps you need to take to secure your computer and mobile devices and simple explanations of threats like viruses and bots. The site also has a links to trustworthy security blogs that will help you keep updated on threats. Check out the Blog Roll at http://staysafeonline.org/blog/.
The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, OH | Plain Dealing
By Sheryl Harris