10 Security Tips for the Holidays
December 24, 2004

I love Christmas.  It is a special time of the year for our family.  A time of remembrance and sharing, a time of gift giving and being thankful for what you have been blessed with.

However, there always seem to be someone that is out to ruin a good thing.  In that vein of thought, it has been said that this is the busiest time of the year for hackers.  Many families purchase a new computer for Christmas.  After being unwrapped, there is the excitement of setting it up and getting connected to the Internet.  Many times this is done without a clear understanding of the precautions that should be taken - this is what the hackers have been waiting for.   

Like a den of thieves, they lay in wait for your shiny new system to blissfully connect to the Internet.  Once connected, they pounce with their electronic infections of viruses, spyware, email viruses, adware, worms, malware, trojan horses, scumware, and more.  These forms of electronic infections can damage your computer and be spread to others.  

Before you connect your news system to the Internet, let me suggest a few precautions and security implementations.  This advice has been compiled from several internationally recognized security organizations, such as anti-virus manufactures, Government departments, and public partnerships, like the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA).

  •  Use “anti-virus software” and keep it up to date.
    Viruses can
    damage your computer and be spread to others.  Make sure you have anti-virus software on your computer!  Anti-virus software is designed to protect your computer against known viruses so you don’t have to worry.  But with new viruses emerging daily, anti-virus programs need regular updates, like annual flu shots, to recognize these new viruses.  Be sure to update your anti-virus software regularly!  The more often you keep it updated, say once a week, the better.  Some products can be configured to auto-update when you connect to the Internet.  Check with the web site of your anti-virus software company to see some sample descriptions of viruses and to get regular updates for your software.

  • Use “Anti-spyware” software and keep it up to date.
    The consequences of spyware and adware infections can include banking and identity theft, unusual computer problems, slow Internet access, changed browser homepage, search pages or favorites, and excessive numbers of adware generated adverts such as pop-ups.  Make sure you have anti-spyware software on your computer!  Anti-spyware software is designed to protect you and your computer against known spyware, adware, malware, scumware and more.  But with new spyware emerging daily, anti-spyware programs need regular updates.  Some products can be configured to auto-update when you connect to the Internet.  Be sure to update your anti-spyware software regularly!  The more often you keep it updated, say once a week, the better.  Check with the web site of your anti-spyware software company to learn more about new privacy threats and to get the most recent updates for your software.
  • Protect your computer from Internet intruders – use “firewalls.”
    Equip your computer with a firewall!  Firewalls create a protective wall between your computer and the outside world.  They come in two forms, software firewalls that run on your personal computer and hardware firewalls that protect a number of computers at the same time.  They work by filtering out unauthorized or potentially dangerous types of data from the Internet, while still allowing other (good) data to reach your computer.  Firewalls also ensure that unauthorized persons can’t gain access to your computer while you’re connected to the Internet.  You can find firewall hardware and software at most computer stores and in some operating systems.  Don’t let intruders in!

  • Regularly download security updates and “patches” for operating systems and other software.
    Most major software companies today release updates and patches to close newly discovered vulnerabilities in their software.  Sometimes bugs are discovered in a program that may allow a criminal hacker to attack your computer.  Before most of these attacks occur, the software companies or vendors create free patches for you that they post on their web sites.  You need to be sure you download and install the patches!  Check your software vendors’ web sites regularly for new security patches or use the automated patching features that some companies offer.  Ensure that you are getting patches from the correct patch update site.  Many systems have been compromised this past year by installing patches obtained from bogus update sites or emails that appear to be from a vendor that provides links to those bogus sites.  

    Older computer systems, such as Windows 98 or 95, should be replaced with Windows XP Professional, which is more robust and secure. Microsoft Windows security updates are downloadable at http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com   While you are there sign up for Microsoft Security Update, a free e-mail alert service that tells you when to take action and what software to download.
  • Don’t open emails or attachments from unknown sources.  
    Be suspicious of any unexpected email attachments even if they appear to be from someone you know.  A simple rule of thumb is that if you don't know the person who is sending you an email, be very careful about opening the email and any file attached to it. Should you receive a suspicious email, the best thing to do is to delete the entire message, including any attachment.  If you are determined to open a file from an unknown source, save it first and run your virus checker on that file, but also understand that there is still a risk.  If the mail appears to be from someone you know, still treat it with caution if it has a suspicious subject line (e.g. “Iloveyou” or “Anna Kounikova”) or if it otherwise seems suspicious (e.g., it was sent in the middle of the night).  Also be careful if you receive many copies of the same message from either known or unknown sources. Finally, remember that even friends and family may accidentally send you a virus or the e-mail may have been sent from their machines without their knowledge.  Such was the case with the "I Love You" virus that spread to millions of people in 2001.  When in doubt, delete!  If you receive an email from a trusted vendor or organization, be careful of phishing, a high-tech scam used to deceive consumers into providing personal data, including credit card numbers, etc.  For information about “phishing” go to the FTC document titled “How Not to Get Hooked By a Phishing Scam”, http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/phishingalrt.pdf.  The best way to make sure you’re dealing with a merchant you trust, and not a fraudster, is to initiate the contact yourself.  Type the merchant’s address into your Internet browser instead of clicking on a link in an e-mail.
  • Use hard-to-guess passwords.
    Mix upper case, lower case, numbers, or other characters not easy to find in a dictionary, and make sure they are at least eight characters long.  Passwords will only keep outsiders out if they are difficult to guess!  Don’t share your password, and don’t use the same password in more than one place.  If someone should happen to guess one of your passwords, you don’t want them to be able to use it in other places.  The golden rules of passwords are: (1) A password should have a minimum of 8 characters, be as meaningless as possible, and use uppercase letters, lowercase letters, symbols and numbers, e.g., xk2&LP97.  (2) Change passwords regularly, at least every 90 days.  (3) Do not give out your password to anyone!  For enhanced security, use some form of two-factor authentication.  Two-factor authentication is a way to gain access by combining something you know (PIN) with something you have (token or smart card).
  • Disconnect from the Internet when not in use.
    Remember that the Digital Highway is a two-way road. You send and receive information on it.  Disconnecting your computer from the Internet when you’re not online lessens the chance that someone will be able to access your computer.  And if you haven’t kept your anti-virus software up-to-date, or don’t have a firewall in place, someone could infect your computer or use it to harm someone else on the Internet and help protect others: disconnect!
  • Back-up your computer data on disks or CDs regularly.
    Experienced computer users know that there are two types of people: those who have already lost data and those who are going to experience the pain of losing data in the future. Back up small amounts of data on floppy disks and larger amounts on CDs, removable hard drives, or flash memory.  If you have access to a network, save copies of your data on another computer in the network.  Many people make weekly backups of all their important data. And make sure you have your original software start-up disks handy and available in the event your computer system files get damaged. Be prepared!

  • Check your security on a regular basis.  When you change your clocks for daylight-savings time, reevaluate your computer security.
    The programs and operating system on your computer have many valuable features that make your life easier, but can also leave you vulnerable to hackers and viruses.  You should evaluate your computer security at least twice a year – do it when you change the clocks for daylight-savings!  Look at the settings on applications that you have on your computer.  Your browser software, for example, typically has a security setting in its preferences area.  Check what settings you have and make sure you have the security level appropriate for you.  Set a high bar for yourself!
  • Make sure your family members and/or your employees know what to do if your computer becomes infected.
    It’s important that everyone who uses a computer be aware of proper security practices. People should know how to update virus protection software, how to download security patches from software vendors and how to create a proper password. Make sure they know these tips too!

Of course, Stratagem Technical Services offers you assistance with implementing these precautions.  We offer professional, cost-effective computer service and support for the personal, small business, and larger corporate communities.  Visit our website at http://www.stratagemtech.com

We wish you peace, prosperity, and happiness during this holiday season and throughout the coming year.

Troy Van Marter
(203) 304-2074



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