Hacking, malware, Trojan horses, viruses, and ransomware should be on the mind of everyone who owns a computer. With an increasingly connected world, all your personal information can be up for grabs to any fiend with enough know-how to get at it. Furthermore, you can easily be attacked by hackers who will then force you to pay to have your data returned to you. The WannaCry virus is just the latest in large-scale viral attacks that can affect anyone who is unwary, but there’s several ways you can protect yourself.
To most of us, guarding our computers against these attacks is a matter of anti-virus software which we load up and then forget about, but that is just one of the few ways to safeguard your machines and your precious data from those who wish you harm. As with any piece of technology, the biggest flaw isn’t based in software but in human error. Making your machine better is about making yourself smarter about how to use it. Which is why we’ve compiled a list of 14 helpful ways you can fortify your computer against potential problems. Even better, most of them are completely free.
Keep Everything Updated
WannaCry and other viruses prey on older or outdated software because those have security holes that haven’t been plugged. Whenever you are asked to update your Anti-Virus software or your operating system, you should do so, or have automatic updates turned on so it won’t require you to do it manually. This includes internet browsers such as Chrome, FireFox, Midori, Tor, or Edge.
Stop Using Popular Operating Systems
Windows is far and away the most popular operating system in the world, which makes it the most vulnerable to attacks. The reason for this is simple, hackers and virus architects want to hit the most machines possible. Since most machines have some version of Windows on them, they program their viruses to aim at these. Mac users tend to have fewer issues in this regard because there’s less viruses being written for them.
If you really want to stay safe, get yourself a version of Linux called a Linux Distro. There’s a bit of a learning curve if you’re used to a Windows-based system, but once you get the hang of Linux, it offers more power, more control, and much better security than anything out there. The reason for this is there’s hundreds of variations of Linux, each with their own particular set of code. Virus programmers rarely try to target these because each of these distros is different, so an attack on one won’t work on another, meaning only a tiny, tiny fraction of computers can be affected.
Linux is free to download, free to use, and nearly bulletproof when it comes to viral attacks. You can often use it without even loading anti-virus software, since viruses will just pass you by.
Don’t Trust Email
One of the major ways that many computers end up being infected is by users receiving links via email that take them into dangerous territory. If an email comes from a suspicious source, ignore it, especially if it promises you riches, work from home opportunities, or anything else that seems too good to be true. That’s the bait on the hook.
Since many email-dependent viruses often use your own address book against you, you also should be leery of any email from friends or family that entices you to click on a link. These could very easily be the result of an infection that the person didn’t even know they had gotten.
Get The Best Free Anti-Virus Software
The market for anti-virus software is deep and rich, with loads of options for high-quality protection that don’t cost you anything. Avast, Avira, Bitdefender, AVG, and Panda all have free choices that are exceptional for personal use. You load them up, keep them updated, and let them do their work. Don’t trust your operating system alone to handle the task, make sure you have these guard dogs in place. Currently the best on the market in both our and Tom’s Guide’s opinion is Avira or Bitdefender, but having anything is better than nothing at all.
Back Everything Up
External hard drives are fairly cheap and can give you a huge storage solution where you can put all your data. You can program your computer to automatically back everything up onto a separate drive so even if your computer is attacked, you can wipe your hard drive and restore it from the backup saves.
This is a smart way to go even if you don’t fear viruses, since there’s precious information stored on your machine(s) that could be lost to basic hard drive failure.
Get a Password Manager
Strong passwords help you stay safe all across the internet, but no one has the ability to keep all of them in their head. You should use automatically generated passwords that have capital letters, numbers, and special characters mixed in with a completely random setup. These can all be handled by a password manager that can be accessed by simply remembering a single password. These will also provide different passwords for every site you visit and every account you have, so even if a hacker gets one password through a phishing webpage, they won’t be able to crack into anything else.
Have a Firewall
Operating systems come with built-in firewall protection, but you need to make sure it’s enabled to give you an added layer of protection that works in conjunction with your anti-virus software.
Look for Security
In your browser’s address bar, where it tells you what .com, .org, .edu, or .whatever you’re at, there’s also a little code to notice: https. Website addresses that begin with https rather than just http or www are secure connections from prying eyes. These are specifically to allow you to transfer payment information that is encrypted. Before you type in a credit card number or authorize payment, glance up to see if you’re on a secure site or not. If not, you’re opening yourself up to identity theft as well as illicit virus, malware, or hacking.
Most pop-ups are harmless, but all it takes is one to cut your legs out from under you. Put a reputable blocker into your browser of choice and let it keep those at bay.
Adjust Browser Security Settings
Every browser has security built into it which you can change to more or less secure. Typically the medium security settings are all you need. Your browser will then alert you if you’re headed into a website that’s dangerous or could potentially be harmful. It’s not foolproof, but if your browser is telling you something isn’t safe, don’t go forward unless you like being robbed and recovering from a system crash.
Secure Your Wireless Network
This is a dual-fold system. You should have a secure password to access your WiFi, but you also should have a password that protects your modem or router from being hacked. Most modems or routers come with an administrative password that is the same right out of the box, which allows anyone in range of your WiFi to access it, even if you have it password protected. Make sure you’ve changed your admin settings as well as added WEP, WPA, or some other password-security protocol.
Use a Browsing Protector
Absolutely necessary if you have children in the home, using NetNanny or similar protective layers to your browser stops children and anyone else from accessing not only adult content such as pornography, but from visiting dangerous or unsecured sites. These will cost money, but that’s payment for peace of mind.
Avoid Open WiFi
If an internet connection doesn’t have password protection, anyone can see anything you do on it. Don’t use it, or, if you must, don’t use it for anything sensitive or personal. It gives anyone on that network a straight pipeline into your computer, tablet, or phone, making it dangerous as hell.
Use a VPN
If you’re like those of us who are really paranoid, having a Virtual Private Network (VPN) encrypts your data and then throws it away so that no one can see where you’ve been, what you’re doing, or get their claws on your passwords or other personal data. With congress and the FCC refusing to protect your information, this is the best way to hide from hackers while online.