Safeguarding your Windows Computer
It's important to safeguard your computer to protect your personal information against hackers and unexpected disasters. The following steps will help ensure that your computer and your important information are well protected.
- Use the latest operating system version and keep it up-to-date.
As a PC user you need to be running Windows 7. If you are running Vista or XP, you need to upgrade now. Before you purchase an upgrade, test your system first to ensure it will be compatible. A Windows 7 upgrade copy can cost $100, and if you buy a computer it will be included in the price, so you may be better served by buying a new computer. By default Windows 7 will keep itself up-to-date, so as long as you don't intentionally disable the automatic update feature, you should be in good shape.
- Keep your other software up-to-date.
Use the Secunia Personal Software Inspector. It's a free and simple tool that will tell you when you need to update your software, and gives you links to download and install the updates.
- Use full-featured anti-virus software.
If you are a novice PC user, use McAfee Total Protection or Symantec Norton 360. If you are an advanced user, I recommend Kasperksy Total Internet Security.
- Buy an encrypted USB thumb drive to store your very sensitive files.
Buy an IronKey and store all your most sensitive information on this device, such as QuickBooks and TurboTax files. When you aren't using the files, remove the device and store it in a safe place. Hackers won't be able to get to the files if the device isn't connected to your computer, and the encryption will prevent anyone from accessing the files if you were to accidentally lose it.
- Use a password manager to store complex and unique passwords and password recovery answers.
Always use a unique password for every website you use, so use a password manager such as KeePass to keep track of them. I also strongly recommend choosing odd answers or responses to the password recovery questions you answer on websites, and keep track of these in the password manager application. Never accept the option to allow your Internet browser to save or store your passwords for you.
- Buy an external USB hard disk drive and back up your computer and encrypted USB thumb drive every month.
Buy an external USB hard disk drive at least one-and-a-half times larger than the hard drive you have in your computer. Use Acronis True Image Home and make an image copy of your hard drive, and drag-and-drop the files from your IronKey, once a month. Make sure you disconnect the backup hard drive from your computer after your backup is finished. For added protection, store your backup hard drive at another location, such as a relative's house.
- Secure your wireless network.
If you have a wireless network, make sure you turn on encryption so that people outside your house can't join in to your network, use your Internet connection and hack at your computer. Turn on "WPA2" encryption on your wireless router and create a unique network key. You'll need to re-join and supply that same key on all the laptops and other wireless devices that are accessing your network. If your device doesn't support "WPA2" but does support "WPA", use that. If it doesn't support either one, replace it with one that does.
It is still possible for your computer to be infected after applying the steps above, as criminals are always inventing new viruses to infect computers and it takes time for anti-virus vendors to update their detection patterns. If you suspect your computer has been infected with a virus, you should always completely re-image your computer. Today's malicious software buries and hides itself so deep that once it's on your computer, it is virtually impossible to find and clean it. Your anti-virus software will no longer be effective at this point. You will need to restore from the backup image you created with Acronis True Image Home and your external hard disk drive. That's why this software and image is so important to have.
Frequently Asked Questions
- I'm using Windows XP with the latest service pack and updates. Do I still need to upgrade to Windows 7?
- Yes! Microsoft is no longer supporting Windows XP. Vulnerabilities will not be patched, and you can't use the latest Internet Explorer web browser which exposes you to even more software vulnerabilities.
- You didn't mention anything about Windows 95, 98 or ME. Do I need to upgrade to Windows 7 from those as well?
- Yikes! If you're still using any of these operating systems, your software is so old and so full of vulnerabilities that it is highly unlikely that you have not already been infected with malicious software! Burn your important documents, pictures and other files (but not programs) from that computer to a CD-ROM. Buy a new computer with Windows 7, follow all of the above steps, and then copy the files from the CD-ROM to your new computer. Your anti-virus scanner will check those files for viruses as they are being copied.
- There are several versions of Windows 7. Which one do I need?
- Windows 7 Home Premium is the standard version and is what I recommend. The other versions are more expensive and have additional features that are more appropriate for very advanced users. But there's another factor. There are two versions of Windows 7 Home Premium, a 32-bit version and a 64-bit version, and you need to buy the right one. Here's a basic rule of thumb. If your computer shipped with Windows XP, you need to get the 32-bit version. If your computer shipped with Vista, click on Start, right-click on My Computer, click Properties, and look for the field that says "System Type". It will tell you right there if Vista is the 32-bit or 64-bit version, and get the same for Windows 7.
- There are lots of different types of anti-virus software. Why did you recommend those?
- While feature sets do vary between these products, for the most part the differentiators are how well they detect viruses and their ease of use. Independent testing lab AV Comparatives tests the major vendors' products by throwing viruses at them to see how many are detected. The vendor rankings change from year to year. Kaspersky historically has been at or near the top of the pack, and it has a solid feature set, and is my personal preference as a security professional. However, Kaspersky is not very user friendly. If a novice can't make heads or tails of what the software is telling them or doing, it's not going to be effective. Based upon my experience, it's better to have slightly less detection capability for improved ease-of-use.
- Symantec Norton 360 includes a backup program. Can't I use that and save some money by not buying Acronis True Image Home?
- Symantec Norton 360 can't backup hard drive "images", only files and folders. The difference is that with an image, you can restore your entire system with one backup back to exactly the way it was before. With a file and folder backup, you would need to reformat your hard drive, re-install Windows 7, then download all the hundreds of Windows 7 updates, rebooting in between them, manually reinstall all of your applications, and then copy back your files and folders. Symantec also sells a product that will create a backup image called Norton Ghost. Norton Ghost is used more often by IT departments but is not as user-friendly as Acronis True Image Home.
- I looked at the IronKey and it's much more expensive than other options. Is this one worth the money?
- Yes. Many of the other encrypted USB flash drives have been hacked and can be decrypted with a program you can download off the Internet without needing to know the password. The IronKey uses high-grade encryption built into hardware, not software. It is also a physically durable device as well. For example, an IronKey would likely survive going through the laundry based upon its water-resistant design.