12 tips to keep your computer virus-free
By Dana Dratch • Bankrate.com

These simple steps can hold off most computer bugs. If one does slip through, they'll also help you survive the infection without losing time, money, clients or your sanity.

1. Keep installation copies of all of your software where you can access it quickly, preferably with the backup copies of your data files.

2. Install and regularly update anti-virus software. New viruses appear every day and old anti-virus software is as useful as a flat spare tire. You are buying a subscription with the software manufacturer. Use it. If you share the computer or are on a network, make sure others are using the anti-virus software, too.

3. Set up a personal firewall and understand how it works. This is a relatively cheap way to protect your network, data and customer information. You often can buy a firewall with your anti-virus software. It's especially important if you have a laptop, cable modem, DSL connection or spend a lot of time on the Internet.

4. Implement a regular maintenance routine. Update your virus software, back up files and clean out temporary files weekly. If you have more than one computer on your network, train other users in the routine.

5. Turn off your computer when you're not using it. You know that wonderful access you get from a DSL or cable modem? It's a two-way street. If you don't want something nasty coming through your computer door, close it.

6. Go into your computer's control panel and deactivate unnecessary services. If you run a one-person office, why do you need file or printer sharing? For a hacker, such features are the keys to your kingdom. Other hacker helpers include disk sharing (without a password), script hosting and even instant messaging. The simpler you keep your system, the easier it is to protect.

7. Don't open unexpected attachments. Even a joke from a friend could be the result of his infected computer reaching out to taint your machine. If you receive an attachment you're unsure about, call and check before opening it.

8. Don't use default passwords. If you're utilizing a program that requires a password, use a unique password.

9. Turn off the "hide file extensions" feature and beware of any file with a double extension. This is a big tip-off that the file contains something malicious, and that the creator is trying to conceal that fact. Everyone knows not to open an .exe file for fear of a malevolent program, but files tagged .vbs, .vbe, .shs, and .sbs are potential problems, too. Hackers also have dreamed up ways to cram viruses and worms into all kinds of formerly safe file types, including those ending with .doc, .bat, .txt, .pif, .lnk and .pdf. And if a Word, Excel or PowerPoint document contains macros, they could be used to hide malicious programming, says Chris Wysopal, director of research and development for @stake, Inc., a digital security consulting company based in Cambridge, Mass.

10. Be careful about where you go on the Internet. X-rated Internet sites are notorious breeding grounds for computer diseases. But common sense should tell you that if a site makes a promise that's too good to be true, such as a $300 piece of Microsoft software for free, it's probably a nightmare waiting to happen. Foresight, along with a firewall and some good anti-virus software, should keep your computer up and running for a long time.

11. Make friends early with an expert. Getting help when a virus hits is like trying to get the air conditioner repairman out to the house during a heat wave. The time to cultivate a relationship with a local computer professional is before a virus strikes so you will be on the priority list, says Michael Erbschloe, vice president of research for Computer Economics, Inc., a research firm headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif. Finding a good service is easy. Check with computer stores or get referrals from friends and business associates.

12. Stay informed. Visit virus-protection Web sites regularly and bookmark a couple you really like. Stay on top of what viruses are out there and how you can protect your computer in advance. Since many viruses exploit the design of certain types of software, check the manufacturers sites frequently for free downloads of fixes or "patches." The best way to fight a virus, says Erbschloe, is not to catch it in the first place.

Dana Dratch is a free-lance writer based in Georgia.

Posted: Sept. 10, 2001 







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