Wednesday, October 1, 2008

5 Steps to Maximizing Windows Security For Free

With the rise in identity theft, and with spyware and viruses flodding the internet, PC security is more critical than ever. Arguably, Linux is the most secure PC operating system, followed close behind by Mac OS which is based on Linux's predecessor, Unix. Windows comes in at the bottom of the list. Windows security is so bad that the head of Symantec's Norton Antivirus, one of the most popular commercial anti-virus programs for Windows, uses a Mac!

This article is intended to instruct the average Windows user on how to manage their computer's security without having to purchase any products or buy services of any kind. If you are concerned that free software should not be trusted with such a critical task, and that high profile commercial products are more trustworthy, let me be the one to tell you this is absolutely not the case. In fact the opposite is often true, the most obvious example being the explosion in popularity of the free Firefox Web Browser.

A few points before going on to the five steps. Microsoft stopped supporting Windows 98 so I don't suggest using it. Lack of support means it's not going to get any better and any security exploits won't be fixed. If you really want to keep using your old PC try installing Xubuntu Linux on it. If you prefer to stay with Windows, a better choice than Windows 98 for an older PC is Windows 2000. It's more secure and will run great on computers that don't have the system recourses to handle XP or Vista. Windows Millennium Edition is preferable to Windows 98 but still not as good as 2000. I don't recommend Windows Vista but that's a whole other topic I won't go into here. Whatever version of Windows you choose to run, the steps in this article will help enhance it's security.

The 5 Steps:

1. Use the Right Antivirus Software:
In my experience the best antivirus software for Windows is Avast! Home Edition. If you are using Norton or McAfee I recommend you remove the software and replace it with Avast. It won't slow down your PC as much as they will and Avast is better at catching and removing viruses. Avast also has the boot-time scanner that is indispensable for removal of persistent, reoccurring viruses. Scan your PC for viruses once every week or two. Avast will automatically keep itself updated without you needing you to do anything.

2. Protect You PC From Spyware:
If you don't currently have any anti-spyware software installed and you have an Internet connection chances are you have spyware on your PC now. There are two anti-spyware programs that when used together will offer the best defense against spyware, as well as give you the best removal tools: Microsoft Windows Defender and Ad-Aware. Microsoft Defender has a real-time spyware scanner that runs in the background protecting you PC, and Ad-Aware can be used to scan your PC periodically to catch whatever Defender misses. Windows Defender will keep itself updated, but when using Ad-Aware remember to click the 'Update' button before you scan your PC.

3. Use Firefox Instead of Internet Explorer:
Surfing the Internet with Internet Explorer, the default web browser for Windows, is the biggest security risk. Install Firefox web browser to replace Internet Explorer for web surfing. There are some web sites that still require Internet Explorer, so you'll need to use it once in a while. The idea is to use Firefox whenever possible. This will go a long way toward improving your Windows security and Firefox runs noticeably faster as well. Firefox also has many add-ons you can install, some of which offer ways to further enhance your security such as NoScript and McAfee Site Advisor. To access Firefox add-ons: in the 'Tools' menu, select 'Add-ons'. In the lower right corner of the ad-ons dialog box click on 'Get Add-ons'.

4. Do Not Use Administrator Account For Regular PC Use (Windows XP and 2000):
If you use Windows XP or 2000 by default when you log on to your user account you will be in administrator mode, meaning you have total access to the system. This means your system will be more vulnerable to viruses and other security risks. To solve this, add your user account the power users group. Limiting your user account this way still allows you to do routine tasks like installing and removing some programs, but it limits the harm that viruses can do to your system should they get in. When you need administrative privileges to perform a task you can temporarily log in as an administrator, then switch back when you are done.

5. Keep Your Software Up to Date:
It is critical that you keep your software as up to date as possible. Make sure you have the latest security updates for Windows by going to the Start Menu, then All Programs>Windows Update. After you've updated Windows, go to the control panel and click on Security Center. From there you can turn on automatic updates which automates the Windows updating process. All other software on your PC should also be kept as up to date as possible. Learn what you need to do to keep any such installed software updated and do it. If you don't have documentation or help files for a program and aren't sure how to tell if it's up to date, Google search is always a good place to start.

Unfortunately no method or combinations of methods will work 100% of the time so you can never achieve perfect security no matter what you do. However, If you follow these steps you will maximize your Windows PC's security and potentially avoid major computer problems. By doing it yourself you learn a valuable new skill while avoiding the cost and inconvenience of bringing it to the PC repair shop. If you follow my recommendations you also save money by avoiding unnecessary software fees.

Questions or comments welcome here.


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