Commentary: Broadband Internet: How safe is it?

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It used to be that turning on your computer was not a cause for concern that your identity would be robbed, your bank accounts pilfered or your sensitive files stolen. Unfortunately, those happy days are far behind us. Computer crime, in particular identity theft, is one of the most popular and growing forms of consumer fraud according to the Federal Trade Commission. ID thieves stole nearly $100 million from financial institutions last year, or an average of $6,767 per victim.

It is especially those people and businesses who have “always on” broadband connections such as Internet cable or DSL who have the most to be concerned with. These connections give you a semi-constant address on the Internet, as opposed to a dial-up connection in which your address changed each time you dialed up. This constant connection and address makes it much easier for hackers to mount attacks against your computer, to either vandalize, rob or take over control of it.

Don’t let this state of events scare you from enjoying the benefits of high speed Internet, however. Just like making sure that your house has locks, lights and deadbolts, you can safely surf the Internet if you take some precautions before you make that high speed connection.

These precautions include:

1. An up-to-date and active antivirus program. A surprising number of people believe that they are protected when in fact their antivirus software is not activated, does not have current virus definitions or is technically out of date. In addition, not all antivirus programs are the same – just because it is popular or came with your computer does not mean it is the most effective.

2. A software or hardware firewall. This is one of the most critical components besides an antivirus program, because it helps defend against hackers breaking directly into your computer. There are a variety of options available that depend on whether you have a network of computers or a single computer as well as your budget. Though firewalls have improved greatly in terms of user friendliness, they are still somewhat sophisticated tools and you can inadvertently open yourself to hackers if you are not careful.

3. Windows 2000 or XP. If you have not upgraded to these latest versions of Windows Operating Systems, do so now. They have much stronger internal protection (though that is not saying a lot considering), than Windows ME, 98 or 95. Once installed, they need to be updated on a regular basis with patches that come out from Microsoft to repair security holes that have been discovered – on average about two a week. Check first to make sure your existing computer equipment has sufficient processing power, disc space and memory to install these upgrades. In many cases it is cheaper to just buy a whole new computer rather than try and upgrade an older one, especially if it is more than two years old.

4. A backup program and a schedule for using it. Whether you decide on tape, external hard disc, CDs or some other method, the most important aspect of backups is that you make them on a regular basis. The backup you need is always the one you never made.

5. Turning your computer off when you are not using it. I’ve yet to hear of a case where a computer has been hacked remotely when it was not turned on.

While there are many other aspects to consider if you are a heavy Internet user or a laptop user, such as local data encryption, e-mail security, privacy, content filtering and anti-spam, taking the precautions above will go a long way toward ensuring that you will not be robbed or mugged in cyberspace. Just like physical protection of your home, you want to make your computer hard enough to break into that hackers will move on to easier targets.

Michael Lines is the principal security consultant for PC-Help.Net, a local company specializing in the setup and support of secure and reliable computing environments for small businesses, nonprofit organizations and individuals. He can be reached at mlines@pc-help.net or 866/384-7271. PC-Help.Net also holds free seminars on internet security – write or call for current schedule.