Top 5 hacking and virus protection tips

Hacking and viruses. No, it's not cold season. We're talking about the all-too-common ailments that plague your computers at home and work. From infected e-mails, to faceless crooks coming after your private information, it's one technological nightmare after another. But fear not, there are five simple steps you can take to protect your computer against a hack attack.

It's hard to believe, but there was a time when hackers were actually the good guys. In the days when the first systems were being developed, "good" hackers went into each other's computers and tested how things worked, according to Paul Millis, education director of policy development and education at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.

"There was a ladies and gentlemen's hackers code of ethics," Millis says. "But as things have gotten easier, we've gotten cyber-punks that cause problems."

Over time, as young people learn about computers, a few of them compete with each other by creating malicious viruses, explains Roger Nebel, executive vice president of iDefense, an Internet risk management company based in Alexandria, Va. "It's a club kind of thing," he adds. "Sixteen and 17-year-olds can go to the meetings and brag to each other about what they did."

Nebel explains that 90 percent of the people causing these problems are socially disaffected and don't fit the mold of success, having lost their jobs or being unable to find employment. They are also clever with math. The other 10 percent are cyber-brats who don't even need to be smart to cause trouble. Instead, they download viruses and pass them along. Folks in the computer industry call them "script kiddies" or "ankle biters."Of the younger hackers, Nebel says, "It takes far less technical skill than most realize. "They are like kids that go to stores and buy spray paint to do graffiti

So what can the folks with a small business, home office or just sitting at home surfing the Net do to protect themselves against these creeps? Try the following five simple steps. If you are interested in the technical nut-and-bolts behind this computer stuff, check out Webopedia, an online dictionary and search engine for computer and Internet technology.

Step 1: Turn off your computer

"More and more users, small business owners and home offices are using cable hook-ups to get connected to the Internet at a much faster speed," Nebel says.

Your computer is sitting there just making it available to hackers. If you turn it off when you're not using it, these punks can't hack in.

Step 2: Use anti-virus software

Load anti-virus software onto your computer to prevent a headache later. Anti-virus software can detect if a virus is present in an e-mail or in a file and even clean up the mess before it causes problems. Depending on the software you buy, you can get free updates that will keep you abreast of the latest bugs being sent and squash them in advance.

Norton Anti-virus, which lists for $34.95, is one of the more common programs, and you can download McAfee anti-virus software with updates for $29.95 a year. Other programs range in price from $35 to $528 on cyber superstores such as

Step 3: Don't run unknown executables or programs

Executables are those clever little programs attached to e-mails, such as the dancing babies or the latest version of the "Wassssup!" commercial. Unless you know where it came from, it's best to delete an executable file without opening it. If it's coming from a friend, you're probably OK.

If you get a rotten e-mail that's got a virus, rather than opening it and trying to clean it up yourself, get in touch with the person who sent it to you and have them send you a safe version of it. If you don't fix the problem, you could pass it along to your friends through e-mail. Then you look like a creep.

Step 4: Use a personal firewall

If you're constantly connected to the Internet, invest in personal firewall protection. The bad guys have their computers scan the Internet to find helpless computers they can hack into for personal information, such as Social Security numbers and credit card numbers.

Hackers can also take over your machine as a "zombie" and use it to attack big companies. Then the hacker is harder to trace, and your name plays into a breakdown at eBay or E*Trade.

A firewall will prevent inbound connections from occurring and will keep your computer and your vital information protected. Nebel says personal firewalls, such as Black Ice can be downloaded from the Internet for $39.95.

Step 5: Shop around for an Internet Service Provider

When deciding which company to dial into, ask about the firewall protections that they have installed to protect you. Nebel says that most ISPs have firewalls to filter inbound and outbound problems, so it never hurts to ask what precautions they have taken.

Additionally, if your computer has been hacked, alert your ISP and they look into it. If they won't take action, find yourself a new ISP.


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