Nerds on Call: N3rds Rule and hackers lurk, so make sure your computer is protected

As we venture into 2012, let’s resolve to ditch bad computing habits.

Resolve to stay free of viruses and spyware. Every day, frustrated computer users call about slow systems that are bogged down with pop-up ads, redirecting them on the Internet, generating error messages or preventing booting up. The most common culprits are viruses and spyware or malware.

Let me repeat my mantra: Install a free anti-virus and anti-spyware program such as Microsoft Security Essentials, and set it to automatically download and install updates. If you haven’t done this yet, make a post-holiday gift of anti-virus to your computer.

While you’re at it, resolve not to open email attachments from unknown senders — even if it most recently came from your sister. Don’t click on pop-up ads (especially those professing that your computer is infected) or download programs or files from questionable sources. Trust me: The torrent site from which you’re considering a download hasn’t vetted the content to confirm that you’d really get a desired video or music file, free of viruses or spyware. Is that new Justin Bieber song really worth the risk?

Resolve to password protect: One of the easiest lines of defense in today’s online world is to beef up your passwords. Instead of using a word found in the dictionary, consider using a phrase in which you replace some letters with numbers or symbols. For example, “N3rds Rule” is going to be far safer than your child’s name or birthday. When setting up your password or security questions, steer clear of using any information easily found on your Facebook profile.

Instead of constantly changing passwords, you’re better off having different passwords at different sites. One easy option is to make all your online retailer login and passwords different from your financial logins and those different from your email password. Remembering three passwords based on category is easier than remembering a constantly changing single password.

Resolve to protect your personal data: When it comes to identity theft and credit card fraud, thieves look for the easiest targets. Though there’s no way to guarantee that you won’t be a victim, you can make yourself more challenging than the majority of people making risky mistakes.

Resist the impulse to respond to unsolicited emails or phone calls, allegedly from your bank or credit card company, that want to confirm your personal information or credit card number. When in doubt, call the number on the back of your credit card to confirm the request is legitimate.

Create some “cyber distance” between your banking and online shopping, social media or news subscriptions by setting up a separate, secure email for your bank logins.

When creating an account at an online retailer, uncheck any boxes offering to save your data. If that website’s server is compromised, you want to limit the personal information that a hacker can get and potentially link back to your other accounts.

For more tips on how to keep yourself safe and your computer happy in the new year, drop me a note for more of what I’ve learned from years of making mistakes.

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