Protect Yourself From Attacks: A How-To Guide For Beginners
This article will cover basic, cheap and effective methods for protecting yourself and your home computer or small network from malicious attacks. This article assumes that you are a Windows user and that your internet service is provided by a phone or cable provider. We will first cover your behavior and habits that can get you into trouble... and then we will cover some actual hardware and software products and settings that you can use to help prevent security problems.
#1 - Behavior: A large portion of your security depends upon your internet and computer usage habits. Modifying your behavior is the first step in securing your home computer. Here are a few things to try and remember at all times.
a. Someone or something may be potentially watching your every move: Whether it’s a hacker, a piece of software on your computer that is either malicious or built-in (e.g.: Microsoft Products) and even your ISP or a government agency… you should be aware that all of your online activity may be logged and/or tracked. You should still use the internet with confidence in your privacy, paranoia is not warranted, just keep in mind that the potential exists.
b. Be careful of where you go: Just like you may not want to be seen on the street walking into a porn shop or into a crack dealers house, the same rules apply online. There are certain places online that warrant discretion both because of the attention you may attract and the dangers that exist within such as malicious software that could potentially end up on your computer. On the short list of places to avoid are; porn, warez (sites offering retail software for free, often with cracked serial or activation keys), music, movies and other media sharing, P2P and Torrents (Limewire, BitTorrent and others), gaming cheats websites, and hacking related websites (with the exception of HackThisSite.org)
c. Download and install with care: Don't assume that your anti-virus or anti-spyware will catch everything. Know what you are downloading and where it is coming from. Review the additional "checkboxes" that come along with a download or an update. Even the more respectable providers of software often try and "hook" you with add-ons and plugins. Avoid the following types of software downloads as they are often backdoors for more malicious programs; screensavers, toolbars, search assistants, weather applications, pc and/or internet performance boosters, and anti-virus and anti-spyware from an untrusted source.
d. Know what's real and what's not real and how to get out fast: The most common trap for users of any level is the malicious website. What is strikingly surprising is that the malicious website may even be one you commonly use. Criminals have found ways to use Google Banner Advertising and Facebook Applications among many others in order "trick" you into downloading malicious software. One often seen method is the "You Are Infected!" Pop-up. It is designed to look real and official, and frighten you into thinking you must "Click Here Now To Protect Your Computer!" which would be a terrible mistake, because you are in fact about to install a trojan. Many of you know this, and you then go to close the window, or click the "cancel" button... and what happens? The software begins installing anyway, or you are barraged with more pop-ups. There are two quick ways to get out fast. Using the keyboard shortcut ALT + F4 will close your active windows and is common quick way to get out of this scenario. The other option is the keyboard shortcut CTRL + ALT + DEL which will bring up your windows security panel, at which point you can access the task manager and close your browser completely.
e. Beware the Phishing: You get an e-mail saying its the yearly required time to update or verify your Paypal account information.. "Click Here To Login". So you click, you enter your username and password to login... something funky happens and the login page comes up again so maybe you continue on thinking you typed it in wrong the first time. No... you've just been phished and someone know has your username and password. Get in the habit of checking the URL of every website you are on, especially when it comes to PayPal, Ebay, Online Banking and other websites where you would have an account to login to. Phishing sites look remarkably like the official websites... even their URL's may look very much like the official site URL. So check in your address bar ALWAYS, before hitting that LOGIN button. Know that www.paypal.hcku.com is not the same as www.paypal.com! If you get a phishing e-mail or find a phishing website, you can often report it directly to the company it offends.. for example with paypal, simply forward phishing e-mail or report sites to email@example.com. If you think you may have been phished change your passwords... and all of them if you, like 95% of the general public tend to do, using the same password for your e-mail, your bank, your paypal and ebay. Which leads us to the final behavior... passwords:
f. Password management: This subject is deserving of an article all by itself but here are the key concepts to passwords. 1 - Don't use the same password across all your various accounts and devices. 2 - Choose long, complex passwords that make use of numbers, upper and lower case letters, and special characters if available.. and no PassWord01 is not acceptable, avoid real words if possible. 3 - Don't save your passwords to keep track of them, either on your computer or on paper. If you find you must save your passwords, use a small ledger or notebook but lock the damn thing away somewhere. A snooping roommate, parent or spouse can be just as dangerous as any hacker when it comes to your privacy and the protection of your computer. 4 - Don't allow your browser to save or autocomplete username and password fields. Another good policy is to set your browser to clear history and cookies every time it is closed. This will prevent anyone who may have access to you computer getting into your Facebook account and finding out that you've been cheating on them.
A quick rundown of safety habits:
- Be aware that risks are out there and your are not immune.
- Avoid certain websites like you avoid certain parts of town.
- Use strong passwords and don't use the same passwords in multiple places.
- Don't ever store your information anywhere besides in your head, and always clear history and cookies.
- Always look to see where you are, the location bar on your browser is there for a reason.
- Install as little software as possible. The more software you have, the more doors that are opened.
Now that we've covered behavior and you've likely dismissed 90% of that information because you're too lazy properly manage your passwords, you love free software and who in their right mind would give up porn... we have to look at physical methods of covering your ass online and the bottom line, protection of your home computer against potential attacks.
#2 - Hardware: Know your connected devices, what they do and how to manage them properly. Most users have a computer or two and just assume that the Internet Service Provider came into their house, waved a magic wand and ta-da they have internet.
a. ISP Provided Modem/Router: Your cable or DSL provider has likely installed a modem in your house. Many modems will dual function as your router, and many today have wireless support as well. The modem is the main line of entry to and from the internet at your location. A connection is established through your modem to the internet provider's gateway, which in turn allows you to access the internet, and conversely the internet access to you through which attacks can be generated. The modem is your first line of defense as well. Your internet provider's technical staff is as dumb as a box of rocks, and they will pretend that the modem is a magical box from which the world will end if you do anything with it. Sadly, most ISP's install your modem and leave it setup with the basic settings. Often a default username and password combination of admin:admin is all that it takes to access your modem. Luckily most are generally default set to deny remote, wide area network (WAN) login attempts and you can generally only access it from the local area network (LAN) using the IP address of 192.168.1.1 or 192.168.254.254 via your web browser. You should learn how to access your modem and how to manage it as well as setting a strong password for it.
b. Firewall/Router: Regardless of whether or not your ISP provides a Modem/Router, you might consider installing your own to handle home networking including multiple computers, wireless and other network connected devices. At the time of this writing, the LinkSys E-Series Wireless-N Routers, provide great function at a reasonable price, with decent security settings for both wired and wireless connection sharing. There are a number of firewall/routers on the market and this could cover an entire article easily enough, so I may suggest a Google search for the term for "Home Router Firewall" or "SOHO Firewall" (SOHO is an acronym for Small Office/Home Office). If you want save yourself a lot of time and hassle in protecting your home computer and network, and are willing to spend a few bucks... this is how you do it.
c. Connected Devices: Including your PC, cameras, printers and even cell phones... all of these devices can potentially communicate and thus be reached from the internet. You should account for and manage all of the connected devices on your home network. Consider drawing a small schematic in order to keep track. Check your makes/models of network connected devices and read-up on if there are any vulnerabilities that may need to be covered. For instance some network printers use TCP ports like 515, 631 and HP in particular likes 9100.
d. Your Computer: When not in use, consider turning it off. A device that is not powered on is one that can't be attacked. You will also help the environment by not using energy and that will give you warm fuzzies.
#3 - Software: If you protect yourself with a hardware firewall device, a software firewall is not necessary and in fact may be counterproductive. Anti-virus and anti-malware programs are still resounding must have. Consider installing and using programs with real-time and active scans, that scan upon file access, the monitor e-mail, P2P Programs such as Limewire and Torrents, and even IM scans. Also make sure that you keep your operating system up to date, along with browsers like Internet Explorer and Firefox and any plug-ins associated with them especially Flash and PDF Readers. Alot of what you choose to do with software goes back the part 1 of this article, and that is behavior. Potentially, programs that you install on your computer are your primary vulnerability. Additionally, software designed to protect your computer is only as good as how you've managed to install and set up that software. Windows firewall is rendered useless if you go about granted exemptions to every piece of software that requires access to a communications port.
a. Anti-Virus: An absolute must with a number of great sources to choose from. Whether paid systems like Symantec or McAfee, or equally effective free counterparts; AVG, Avast, Avira... The use of Anti-Virus software is essential. If you ignore this step then you deserve have problems.
b. Anti-spyware/malware: Some anti-virus are packaged with protection against adware, spyware and other potential risks, and some provide it as a feature upgrade. It would be a good idea to use this. A free, but non-realtime scanning option would be
Malwarebyte's Anti-Malware (MBAM) although you can get the paid version which features real-time scanning. I find that the free version is sufficient for a weekly scan to pick up anything anti-virus may have missed.
c. Backups: If you are particularly concerned about your data and the potential loss of it, you should invest in actual backups. And by this I am NOT referring to system restore... in fact, if you want to protect yourself, System Restore should always be OFF! The reason for this is that many malicious programs use system restore as a convenient way to re-introduce themselves to your computer after your anti-virus cleans them out. Windows does have a built in backup tool and there are several freeware backup tools available as well. Do note that if you are attacked or get a virus that your backup may potentially be infected. Always store your backup on a separate or spare drive as well.
What I hope that you will take away from this article is that your protection is 90% directly in your hands by your actions and habits. The other 10% involves simple and easy to setup technology. Being lazy and/or unaware is the greatest risk.