Some tips for staying safe online


Hi everyone,

Well, with the excitement at the end of last year/beginning of this year, I thought I would take a few moments to give some tips on how to stay safe online. This doesn’t only apply to surfing the web or reading e-mails though. It also applies to chatting, using newsgroups (also known as Usenet), and it applies to just having a broadband connection (sometimes referred to as an “always-on” connection).
Most of my tips, you can find in other places. And, most of my tips will seem like common-sense advice to a lot of people. But, you’d be surprised at how many people who say “That’s common-sense, everyone should know that…” will actually fall for some of the pitfalls without even thinking. I’ve done it in the past. I have friends who have done it in the past. In fact, I’ve been woke up at 4:00 a.m., because a friend of mine clicked on an e-mail which took her to PayPal (after going through their password catcher), and she realized after the fact that she had been phished.
I’ll be dividing this into sub-categories. Antivirus/Firewalls/Antispyware, Chatting, Surfing, and E-mails. At the end of this post, I will provide links to more information and also to various products. So, let’s get started….

Antivirus/Firewall/Antispyware…

Any more, you can’t surf online without some type of antivirus or firewall protecting you. Some people will claim that they surf without an antivirus, and they only use “Windows Firewall” and have no problems. The key to their success is, they only surf websites that they know and trust. The other key is that they only surf (and run their computer) using a ‘limited’ account. While this is the preferred practice, and is the best method to follow, most people don’t follow it. I don’t even follow it. So, what do you need to have, in order to stay protected?
The first and foremost item that you need is an antivirus program. There are a lot of these online. So, how do you decide which one is right for you? Well, if you have a newer computer, then you were given one by the manufacturer. The sound advice is this. If you have been using the antivirus that they provided you, and you don’t have any issues with it, continue to use it. Even if it requires you to pay for a new subscription. It’s cheaper to pay $20.00 or $40.00 to continue a subscription, then it is to pay a computer repair shop to remove and repair the damage caused by a virus.
However, if you don’t have a newer computer, don’t want to continue using the antivirus that was provided by your manufacturer, or don’t want to pay for one, there are options available to you. Avast!, AVG (Grisoft) and a few other companies provide ‘free’ versions of their antivirus programs for non-commercial use. Other companies, like Symantec, Trend Micro, Panda Security, McAffee and Computer Associates provide limited-trial versions of their antivirus program.
The most important things to remember, regardless of whether you have an antivirus program or want to switch (or get one, if you don’t have one) are these. 1) Never, ever, run more then one antivirus program on your computer at the same time. There are people who will say you can have more then one installed, but you shouldn’t run them at the same time. It’s simpler to have one permanently installed, and use online virus scanners for backup. 2) If you are switching to another antivirus, make sure that you have completely removed the current one first. 3) This is probably more important then the other two.. Keep your antivirus program updated all the time. If you’re on dialup, stay online long enough for the update to complete. If you’re on broadband, then let it run on it’s normal schedule. And, make sure that it will update regularly. I have my antivirus set to check hourly for updates. Normally, they come once or twice a day. But, you never know WHEN in that day.
Ok, I’ve talked about antiviruses but what about firewalls. What is a firewall anyhow, and why should you have one? Like an antivirus, you shouldn’t have more then one of these installed on your computer at the same time. A firewall acts like a traffic cop and also like a ring of invisibility for your computer. This is an over-simplified explanation. Your computer is like a building with potentially 65,532 doors in it. The doors are called “ports” and they require an application to open them from the inside. Without a firewall, from the outside, people will see “Open” and “Closed” ports. The open ones are easy for them to get into your computer on, and the closed ones only mean that an application isn’t currently holding the door open. That doesn’t mean they can’t force their way in through them though. It’s just a lot harder to do so.
A firewall hides those ports from the outside. It will only show “Open” for the ports that it’s told to show. It will show “Closed” for ports that are not currently active, but it’s told to allow traffic in on. The rest of the ports will show “Blocked.” For the average user, they will probably have Port 80 open. You’re using Port 80 to read this website. It’s the port that ‘HTTP’ uses to bring pages to your browser. So, this hiding of the ports is how the firewall acts like a ring of invisibility.
The firewall acts like a traffic cop, in that if an application tries to open a port, it prompts you for permission. Likewise, if something from the outside tries to open a port, you’re prompted as well. Usually, you’ll have four options. Allow this time, Deny this time, Allow permanently (or “Don’t ask me again”) and Block Permanently (“Don’t ask me again”). Your decision is based on whether it’s a program that you are currently using, or whether you know what the program is and why it is going online. If you don’t know what the program is, your best bet is to either use the “More Info” link (if provided by the firewall) or block once and then search for information about it.
As for Antispyware programs, you need at least one of these. An antispyware program will help remove the popups that you may be seeing. It also removes certain programs which are designed to track your online activities. Unlike antivirus and firewalls, you can have more then one installed at the same time. Although, if they provide “Resident” or “always on” protection, you should only have one of them running at one time. This is because they can conflict with each other, and also detect each other as malicious. BEWARE of pop-up ads that give you the option to download (or buy) their antispyware program. The ones that are worth your time and money, don’t have to resort to this method of getting your attention. They know that you will find them. The ones that are served up via a popup are more then likely to be spyware. Or, at the very least, they are more then likely to have false-positives, not remove everything, or even install some spyware in order to remove it (making you think they are worth the money).

Ok, so you have an antivirus program and a firewall. And, you have an antispyware program protecting you. Are you secure? Yes and no. Now we’ll look at some ‘best practices’ to ensure your safety.

Chatting online…

Chatting online is one of the more popular uses of the Internet today. It comprises different methods. Instant Messaging, and chat rooms are a few. But, you also have blogging (which you’re reading right now), online dating, IRC (which is another form of chat room), and even newsgroups or communities. And there are others which fall into different categories. So, what do you need to do to ‘chat’ online safely? Well, some of the things are obvious and others aren’t as obvious. I’ll break them down into sub-points for you with explanations.

  1. Never, ever, give out personal information online. This includes your name, address, credit card information, passwords, or descriptions of yourself and your family. This should be clarified a little more to say “Don’t give it out until you feel comfortable.” But, even when you’re comfortable with the person, be wary of what you give out. If you’re a teenager or a younger child, then the “comfortable” rule doesn’t apply to you. You should NEVER give the information out, without your parent’s permission.
  2. Be wary of accepting files from people online. If you request the file, then it’s safer to accept it, provided that your antivirus doesn’t trigger. But, if they offer the file to you, be wary. Ask them what it does BEFORE you accept it. Certain viruses will initiate a conversation with you in Instant Messenger, or will inject themselves into a conversation with you without the other person knowing it.
    If you are going to send a file through Instant Messenger or other means, rename the file and add the .safe extension to the end of the file. For example, a picture file like mypicture.jpg should be renamed to mypicture.jpg.safe. Likewise a program should be renamed to myprogram.exe.safe. This tells the person that you’ve scanned the file, and it doesn’t have any viruses. Also, it fools file-blockers that are present in some Instant Messagers into allowing the file transfer. However, even if you receive a file marked as .safe, you should still scan it prior to opening it.
  3. If the person you are chatting with makes you uncomfortable, stop chatting with them. Also, if what they are telling you sounds “Too good to be true.” it probably is. In the few ‘online relationships’ that I’ve had, they NEVER started out as relationships. They’ve started out as friendships, or at the very least, they’ve started out as just chatting about a common interest. Neither one of us was openly looking for a relationship. If the person you’re chatting with tries to get you into some type of relationship from the very beginning, then be wary about it. They are probably not looking out for your best interests, if anything, they are only trying to further their own interests. Obviously this doesn’t apply so much to online dating sites, or chatrooms that are openly promoting relationships.
  4. Along with #3, if you and the person you’re chatting with decide to meet, tell someone else about it. If the person doesn’t want you to tell anyone, don’t meet them. I can’t stress that enough. If you’re a teenager or younger, then make sure your parents know about the meeting. If the person you are meeting cares about your best interests, they will want you to be open and honest about the meeting, and they will be open to your parents conditions on the meeting. If you’re a teenager or younger, and your parents say “NO”, they are doing so for your protection. So, don’t go behind their backs. “NO” means “NO”, and it always SHOULD be that way. Regardless of whether you are an adult or a child, let someone else know the plans. If the plans change for any reason, make sure that you tell someone.
  5. Along with accepting files from people in Instant Messenger, be wary of links that they give you. If you are talking about a subject, and they provide you a link to information on it, that’s one thing. However, if they suddenly say “Hey, check this out.”, be wary. You should always ask what the link is, if you don’t recognize it. If they aren’t willing to tell you exactly what the link does, don’t open it. This boils down to trust. But, it also boils down to preserving your safety. I’ve received a couple of viruses from clicking links that “friends” gave me. Will I click a link that they give me tomorrow? Yes, but only after finding out what it is first.

Surfing the Internet…

Surfing the Internet is fun, and it’s also a way of getting information about subjects that you want to know more about. Anymore today, it’s almost a requirement of life. Very few people or businesses don’t have an online presence today, and more are going to an ‘online-only’ presence. But, you have to take the good with the bad. Surfing the Internet is not a time to look at things with “rose colored glasses.” The latest round of security issues (the WMF vulnerability) is a perfect example of this. Simply by going to a site that had one of those infected pictures would have gotten you.
I’m not saying don’t go to Porn sites. I’m also not saying don’t go to sites unless you know exactly what they are. What I am saying is, if you are going to sites that you aren’t absolutely sure about (or Porn sites), then be careful. Make sure your browser is set up to block malicious scripts and pop-ups. If you get a dialog box that says you need to install something to view the site, try it without installing the thing first. Some noteable exceptions to this are Macromedia’s Flash, Shockwave (which is another word for Macromedia’s Flash), or Java (http://www.sun.com). Also, if you are going to an antivirus or security-related site, you may have to download an ActiveX control in order for them to scan your computer. To an extent, the theory of “If you aren’t going there for them to do something on your computer, then don’t let them download something to your computer.” applies.
Most browsers come with Popup blockers and some, most noteably Firefox, come with the ability to selectively allow or block Javascript and other controls. If your browser has the ability, put it to use. You can have a browser that triple-checks everything and only allows perfectly safe content to come through, but it’s only good if you use the feature.

E-mail…

E-mail is probably more a requirement of life then surfing the web now. It’s a cheap way of keeping in touch with family and friends. Also, it’s a method of providing you with a hard-copy of correspondence with companies and people that you do business with. Like websites, very few companies or people do not have an e-mail account. And like websites, some companies and people will only deal with you via e-mail. But, because this is becoming a fact of life, people with malicious intents are taking advantage of it as well. So, how can you be safe with e-mail? Here are some steps to protect you…

  1. If your e-mail client (Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird or others) has a Preview Pane, shut this off. With the preview pane off, the client will show you the subject and the first few words in the e-mail. This will protect you from the possibility of an image or script running as soon as the e-mail is opened in the pane. Remember that most scripts and viruses have to be opened in order to run, and you have to “Open” the e-mail in order to see it in the preview pane.
  2. Make sure that your antivirus is configured to either scan your e-mails before you read them, or at the very least, provide you with real-time scanning, so that any files you try to open or download from the e-mail will be checked.
    An argument has been made that “e-mail scanning” is not necessary, because your antivirus will scan the file when you save it. But, I prefer the “layered approach” to security. E-mail scanning, while it may not be ‘necessary’ provides one more layer for your security. So, if your antivirus provides it, use it. If not, then make sure that your antrivirus provides you with on-demand scanning, and real-time scanning (which are essentially the same thing).
  3. If you’re reading this, then you probably have heard of (or have actually received) SPAM in your inbox. SPAM is unwanted e-mails soliciting you to buy a product, visit a website, or even invest in a stock. It can also contain viruses or malicious scripts. The easiest way to protect yourself from SPAM is if your e-mail client provides you with a junk mail filter, use it. Also, there are third party filters that you can install. Most of these will be ‘trainable’ which means that you can report things it doesn’t catch, and also report things that it caught but shouldn’t have. Like your antivirus, firewall, and antispyware, you need to keep your antispam filters updated regularly. This will help you to reduce the chances of getting ‘false positives’ and also of it missing something.

So, by following this advice and doing some research to find out other ways of protecting yourself, you should have a better chance of staying safe online. Remember to always practice ‘due dilligence.’ I’ve only touched on the things that you need to do and use to be safe online. There are many other things that I haven’t discussed here, and many other ways to protect yourself. Use whatever means that you have at your disposal to keep yourself and your family safe. As promised, here are some links for more information as well as some products.

http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security and http://www.microsoft.com/security/default.mspx (Microsoft’s sites for Protecting yourself online).
http://www.microsoft.com/security/malwareremove/default.mspx (Microsoft’s Malware Removal Tool)

http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/default.mspx Microsoft Antispyware Beta
http://www.lavasoft.nu Ad-Aware SE (antispyware)
http://www.safer-networking.org SpyBot S&D (antispyware)
http://www.trend-micro.com PC-Cillin and Trend Micro AntiSpam
http://www.symantec.com Norton’s Antivirus and Norton’s Internet Security
http://www.pandasecurity.com Panda Internet Security and their Free Online Scanner
http://housecall.antivirus.com/housecall/start_corp.asp Trend-Micro’s Online Scanner

http://www.sunbelt-software.com/kerio Kerio Personal Firewall
http://www.agmitum.com Outpost Personal Firewall
http://www.zonelabs.com ZoneAlarm Firewall

Good luck everyone. Remember, these are my personal opinions here. Other people have their opinions as well. I can’t say that they are right or wrong, and I won’t try to imply whether they are right or wrong. All I can say is that these are the practices that I follow, and they work for me. It’s up to you to read everyone’s suggestions, and use the ones that work for you. As always, any comments and suggestions about things I’ve said or should have said are welcome.

Patrick.

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