Stay Safe Online in 2012

 Just a reminder to everyone to stay safe online this year. The internet is a fabulous place, but it can also cause a lot of grief.  Based on problems people have come to me with over the last 12 months, here’s a few reminders and suggestions that I hope you will find useful:

 1 – E-mail and phone calls

Don’t fall for any e-mail scams.

a) If it sounds too good to be true it almost certainly is. You have NOT won any lotteries you don’t remember going in for and no-one needs your help laundering some dodgy money.

b) Your bank, credit card company etc. will NEVER send you e-mails telling you that you need to update your security details and offer you a link to click on. NEVER click links you are unsure of in an e-mail. If you hover your mouse over the link you can usually see the destination in the status bar at the bottom of the e-mail screen. A link that says ‘MyBank Credit Department’ may when you hover the mouse over it turn out to be going to … hquick.php or some equally unlikely address. Only access online banking etc. through your web browser, never from e-mail links.

c) Don’t forward virus warnings, chain letters etc. to all the contacts in your address book. These things are essentially manually transmitted viruses, clogging up the internet and wasting everybody’s time. In addition they usually expose all the addresses in your address book to everyone else in your address book – not a good idea as it compromises everyone’s privacy. (See d) below)

d) If you DO decide to send an e-mail to all your contacts use BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) instead of CC – this way no-one can see the entire contents of your address book.

e) Just because an e-mail seems to come from someone you know doesn’t mean it has. Their e-mail account may have been hacked. This is particularly common with web-based e-mail accounts such as Hotmail. There has been a spate recently of e-mails purporting to come from someone you know who is stranded abroad with no money/credit cards etc. Don’t whatever you do answer these.

f) If your own Hotmail or other web-based e-mail account is hacked you should IMMEDIATELY change the password.

g) Don’t open e-mail attachments unless you are sure what they are. Your anti-virus programme should be set to scan attachments automatically anyway, but be careful. In particular do not open .zip files or Word or Excel files from unknown sources without scanning them first. pictures – .jpg, .bmp, .gif or .png – are usually OK.

h) Microsoft will NEVER phone you to discuss security issues on your computer. This is a common scam. NEVER, EVER give a stranger on the phone remote access to your computer.

i) SNOPES is your friend. Snopes is a website that lists the vast majority of common scams. If you are unsure of something it is worth checking Snopes out.


 2 – Viruses and malware

a) Make sure your antivirus protection is up to date. I am currently recommending Microsoft Security Essentials as the best free antivirus solution – but remember that you can only have one antivirus programme installed at once, so do uninstall your current AV programme if you are installing a new one, or there may be trouble ahead . . .

b)If (heaven forbid) your copy of Windows won’t pass the ‘Windows Genuine Advantage’ test then you will not be able to install Microsoft Security Essentials. In this case I would recommend Avast.

c) Check that your antivirus programme is automatically downloading and installing the latest updates. If it isn’t then make sure you update it manually. If you got a free 3-month trial of Norton, Macafee or some other ‘big’ antivirus programme when you bought your PC you will need to pay when the trial period expires or it will stop working. This is an ideal time to uninstall the costly, resource-hungry monster and install MSE instead.

d) If you are installing an antivirus programme make sure you do it either through the programme’s own uninstall routine or via the Uninstall option in the Control Panel. Just deleting files will not do it and will cause problems.

e) Antivirus programmes will not necessarily catch all nasties – to stay completely safe I recommend installing the paid-for version of Malwarebytes’ Anrti-Malware, whcih gives real-time protection. This programme will co-exist happily with your antivirus programme. It costs £20. There is a free version which is very good at finding and detecting malware when you instigate a manual scan with it, but the free version does not provide real-time protection.

f) A lot of particularly nasty viruses will pose as anti-virus programmes themselves. If you suddenly get a pop-up window saying your computer is infected make very sure that it is from your own AV programme before you take any action. If it is a new type of window or warning then do not click anything – switch the machine off then reboot in safe mode and run Malwarebytes (see below)

g) If your computer does catch a virus or become infected with malware then switch it off immediately, start it in Safe Mode (repeatedly press F8 while booting up and select Safe Mode with Networking initially). Run Malwarebytes. (You may be unable to download it as many viruses and worms block access to antivirus and antimalware sites. It is handy to already have the last the free version of Malwarebytes installed on your PC for a rainy day). This is often enough to fix the problem. Other options include using System Restore to go back to a time before the problem occurred.

h) If after trying the above you are still infected then don’t keep trying the same old things or constantly restarting your computer in the hope that it has miraculously fixed itself as the problem may become worse. Contact someone with more knowledge than yourself.

i) Filesharing websites (sometimes called Torrent sites) are a rich source of infection. Only use them if you are very sure of what you are doing – and check for other people using your computer (esp. teenagers!) using these sites.


3 – Back-ups and other common sense stuff

 a) Computers can and will go wrong. Sometimes they can be fixed, but if the hard drive – where all your documents, photos etc are stored – becomes damage you can lose everything. Back up anything you cannot afford to lose or would not like to lose

 b) The built-in Windows backup is not great and is not easy to use, especially in older versions of Windows.  The easiest way to back stuff up is to drag and drop the relevant files onto some external medium. The best thing to use these days is a USB stick (also known as a Flash drive or memory stick). These are cheap. Get one big enough for your files (8Gb is usually plenty) and use it regularly to store a back-up of anything you create or upload to your computer that you want to keep safe.

c) If your e-mail is important to you and it is stored on your computer (i.e. if you use Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Thunderbird etc) then you might want to keep a backup of this as well. To do this you need to find out where your mail is stored then copy that whole folder onto the memory stick. You can usually find where your mail is stored from one of the menus in the e-mail programme, otherwise use Google.

d) You might also want to back up your Favourites.

e) Don’t let friends or relatives install anything on your computer or change your settings without your permission, and if you give that permission make sure you know what they have done and why. People seem to think they have a god-given right to mess with other people’s’ computers because they know a little more than the hapless owner, but this is very much an area where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Messing with your computer and its settings without your permission is no more acceptable than going through your underwear drawer, so just firmly but politely tell them to leave everything exactly as they found it.

Have a safe 2012 online! 😀

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