By Kelly Guimont
Special to Nonstop
Viruses. You’ve heard a lot about them and about what software to install to protect from them. Sure there are a number of fine software packages that will guard your machine against malware and viruses, but there are some basic, free things you can do to prevent from having to wade through scans and quarantined files.
First, the basics: What’s a virus? Well, it’s a form of something called malware, which is software (usually unknowingly) installed on your computer that can damage your files or use your Internet connection to send spam messages or do some other malicious action. Odds are you wouldn’t opt to make your computer part of a network that sends spam, and there are easy ways to protect from this sort of software ever invading your machine.
A good way to think of a computer virus is as a physical virus like the common cold. To keep your body healthy, there are obvious ways to minimize your contact with germs. Similarly, here are ways to keep your computer infection-free.
First, you can do easy things like install block pop-up windows in your web browser. It’s usually just a preference set in your browser. Here are links on how to set it up in Firefox, Chrome and Safari. Sometimes these are “pop-under” windows, which means they come up behind your main window and make it easy to inadvertently click them if you don’t expect them to be on your screen when you minimize or close your browser window.
Another common way malware is distributed is through email attachments. To minimize this, try to get less email. That’s an entire article in itself, but for now, we’ll go over some other ways.
• Make sure you aren’t opted-in to every place that wants your email address, and don’t display your email as plain text online. If you make your email address more difficult to find, it can keep the unscrupulous away. This can be as simple as listing your email address in plain text. For example you could list it as “my first name at the address for this website.” By doing this, automated processes that go looking for email addresses will skip over it.
• You can also protect yourself by deleting email from people you don’t know. And it comes from someone you do know, check the attachment to make sure it’s something you’d expect or normally receive from that person. For example, I often get pictures and movies of my niece via email, so if I get a message from her mom with a video or image attachment, I feel comfortable opening it. If there’s description or it’s an .exe or some other file, I would be suspicious. Don’t be afraid to reply to someone or even call them to make sure they meant to send you something.
• One last thing that can sometimes protect from malware is to avoid using Outlook or Outlook Express as your email client. If you’re currently using Outlook, you might want to consider switching to something like Thunderbird from Mozilla, who makes Firefox, or just move everything to a web-based service such as Gmail, Yahoo!, or even the webmail your ISP provides (if they have one; most do). This way, the only time you’ll actually downloaded something to your machine is when you click on it; nothing will just appear on your computer, which goes a long way toward keeping you safe from shady attachments.
Certainly there are specific things you can do to keep your operating system safe, but those are very different articles depending on the OS you are running. These are more general tips that work for everyone, no matter what configuration you have. Minimizing exposure is a lot easier to keep your system healthy and happy.
Kelly Guimont has been a technology fan for most of her life. While she does remember a time before the Internet, she does not prefer it. She can occasionally be heard hosting the TUAW Talkcast at tuaw.com. She also helps organize community events with a decidedly geeky flavor.