Security essentials

Are you safe?

By reading through the list below, you'll be able to get an idea of how well your computer is configured for optimum security.

If you do not understand or have questions about any of the sections or terminology, we strongly recommend you follow the links given below for more information.

1) Use a firewall to protect your computer from hackers

How do they work?

The Internet is simply a network of computers that talk to each other. A firewall allows you to decide which connections between your computer and other computers are allowed and which are denied. So how does it do this?

  • When the firewall identifies someone or something, not previously authorised by you, attempting to access your computer it will alert you to the fact
  • The alert will ask you if you wish to allow access or block access. If you select allow it will become a trusted source and unhindered access will be allowed in the future. If you select block it will prevent access both now and in the future

Things to remember

At the point you decide whether to allow access or not it is important to remember that there are lots of wolves in sheep's clothing out there. Clever people with criminal intentions or simply just too much time on their hands can disguise their computer to look like a legitimate source.

  • If you allow access to your computer from a new source you could leave it wide open to attack
  • Unless you are 100% sure that the requesting computer is legitimate it would be wise to deny
  • If you deny access you can always reverse this decision if you subsequently find it to be ok
  • Reinstating access will be a lot easier than sorting out the mess after your PC has been compromised

Getting a firewall

You can get hold of firewalls direct from the Internet or from your local high street PC supplier.

  • There are a number of free firewall products available on the Internet that will allow you to protect your home computer
  • It is also worth looking at commercial versions which usually come with loads more features and facilities in order to determine which best suits your needs
  • Whatever your choice, once you have a firewall, you must keep it up to date
  • Manufacturers of firewalls will issue periodic updates to maintain and improve the performance of their products so it would be wise to check the manufacturer's site at least once a month for any downloads they may have

2) Set up your system so that the operating system, browsers and software get automatic updates when they are released.

Your browser is the program on your PC that allows you to locate and display web pages. Two of the most popular browsers are Internet Explorer and Firefox.

Why do I need to keep my browser up to date?

  • The browser program can be vulnerable to browser hijack programs that change the default settings
  • For example, if you set as your homepage but every time you click on your browser you are automatically directed to a different homepage then your browser may have been hijacked

How do I keep my browser up to date?

  • Similarly to your operating system you should keep your browser up to date and check with your browser supplier regularly for updates and patches

3) Use an anti-virus software

4) Run an anti-virus scan weekly

5) Regularly update your anti-virus software

What is a virus?

  • In its least unpleasant form the virus may be a simple prank that pops up a message on screen out of the blue
  • More often than not it can cause your PC to crash or be a potential threat to personal information you may hold or input to your PC
  • There are a number of ways your PC could get infected
  • Viruses are usually hidden, sometimes behind images or music you may download, sometimes embedded in Internet sites and sometimes as attachments to e-mails sent to you
  • Because there are so many ways you could get infected, you need up to date anti-virus software so similarly to firewall software it would be wise to check the manufacturer's site for any updates they may have and this should be done at least once a week

How does anti-virus software work?

  • Anti-virus software protects you in two ways,
  • Firstly it identifies malicious programs when they try to infect your PC
  • Secondly it will periodically search your PC for these programs (e.g. when you turn your PC on or when you request a search) when a malicious program is found it isolates it and then deletes it before it can do any harm

Where to get anti-virus software

There are many anti-virus software vendors in the market, many of them will provide you with a free check, some with free versions. Whatever make of anti-virus software you choose it is vital that you do two things:

  • Keep your software up to date. New viruses come out on a daily basis and you need to ensure your anti-virus software is able to identify & deal with them. Updates are usually provided online direct from the vendor. You should check your vendor site at least weekly & preferably more often
  • Scan your PC regularly. You should be able to schedule a regular scan of your PC e.g. 5pm in the evening or each time you switch your PC on. Your vendor will provide you with information on the options available to you and how to set it up (it's normally fairly straightforward)

It would be wise to note that nothing is 100% foolproof and there are a few things you should do in addition to acquiring anti-virus software:

  • Firstly, check out the what to do if… section on this site for useful hints
  • Secondly, make sure you have contact/support numbers for your anti-virus supplier
  • Thirdly, keep back-ups of important files and documents on floppy disc/CD/DVD, but scan your PC before you do this to prevent infected files from being saved

6) Scan your system for spyware or adware on a regular basis

Spyware is a program that secretly gathers information about what you do on your PC and quite often it does this without your knowledge.

  • In its least dangerous form it is known as Adware and it collects information about your Internet habits on behalf of companies
  • The more annoying adware can pop up adverts as you surf

How does spyware and adware work?

  • In its more dangerous form it can act like a 'Trojan', a particularly dangerous program that captures your passwords, credit card numbers and other sensitive information as you type them
  • It will send this information to criminal gangs who will try to use it to defraud you
  • You do not have to be connected to the Internet to be spied upon, but once on the Internet any information gathered can be sent to the person(s)/organisation spying on you
  • Spyware removers search out these programs in the same way as anti-virus and can also block those annoying pop-up adverts

7) Scan all e-mail attachments for viruses

8) Ignore e-mail requesting personal details (such as passwords, account numbers etc)

E-mail formats

There are two standard formats you can accept e-mails in – HTML and Plain text.

  • When e-mail is sent in HTML format you are in fact being sent a web page. Web pages can be manipulated to hide viruses. By opening a mail in this format you could be leaving your PC wide open to attack
  • To prevent this you should only open HTML e-mails when you are sure they are from a trusted source
  • E-mails received in plain text could still harbour a virus in an attached file. Please see e-mail attachments for guidance on what to do
  • If you do choose to accept HTML formatted mails then only accept them from a trusted source
  • Also make sure you have all the latest versions of your operating system, mail reader and anti-virus installed

E-mail attachments

E-mail attachments are the files attached to an e-mail that you have to click to open. Many of the most common computer viruses