Tips for Keeping Your Computer Safe from Spyware

Spyware is a term that can have more than one meaning. It often refers to software that tracks an individual's Web surfing habits for marketing purposes, and many legitimate companies use a form of spyware, known as adware, for this entirely commercial purpose.

The term spyware can, however, also harbor a more insidious implication. It can just as easily refer to software that tracks a user's Internet habits for illegal purposes such as stealing an individual's identity and/or hijacking his/her personal accounts.

Keeping our computers free of spyware is one critical way of keeping our privacy intact and our personal information safe and secure. The following tips can help you ensure that your PC is safe from the prying, spying, eyes of those who would attempt to access your computer's data without your consent.

1. Use a firewall to protect your computer from contracting spyware while you're surfing or downloading something from the Web. Your operating system or Internet provider likely already provides a firewall. If not, free firewalls, such as Zone Alarm, are available online. Check to make sure you have a firewall and that it's turned on. Every so often, double-check just to be certain it's still on. Some malicious software has been programmed to not only trick the unsuspecting user into downloading it, but also to disable or turn off your firewall and other anti-malware programs once it's been downloaded.

2. Be careful what you download! If a window suddenly pops up while you're online and tells you to update one of your programs, such as Java, don't do it! A great deal of malware is downloaded this way. Instead, go directly to the website of the company that provides the program, check to see whether an update is available, and if given the option, choose "offline installation" when downloading it. Close other programs while downloading, and wait to install the update until after you've closed your Internet connection.

3. Download as many well-known and respected anti-spyware programs as you can—preferably directly from their official websites—and use them. Many such programs are free. If you're unsure about the security of a particular program, do a little online research. Look for reviews on well-respected technology websites or blogs or visit anti-malware forums such as Bleeping Computer that use computer experts to help people rid their PCs of malware. Some respected programs that can protect your computer from malware are Avast! or AVG antivirus, Ad-Aware, Spybot Search and Destroy, Windows Defender, and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. These programs will detect and remove malicious software and/or viruses from your PC.

4. Keep resident (aka, real-time) protection turned on. This will help prevent spyware from being downloaded to your computer in the first place. Whereas resident protection should only be active in one anti-virus program at a time, several anti-spyware programs may generally run real-time protection simultaneously without causing a problem.

5. Schedule periodic boot-time scans to protect your computer's startup files from infiltration by spyware. Once a malicious program has inserted itself into your startup list, it will reload every time you boot up your PC.

6. Schedule regular quick and full scans of your computer. Quick scans should generally be your default setting, with scans scheduled once daily. Anytime spyware has been detected, it's always wise to institute a full scan. In addition to daily quick scans, full scans should be run every week or two, even if no spyware has been found, just to be on the safe side.

7. Before initiating a scan, be sure that any available updates to your anti-spyware program's database have been downloaded. Some programs download updates automatically and others require manual downloading.

8. Always make sure the websites from which you download anything are trustworthy. If necessary, research them online, including checking the Better Business Bureau website for any complaints against them, as well as whether or not they are BBB members. If you aren't sure, wait on the download, saving the link until you can find more information about the site.

9. Use safe e-mail practices. If your e-mail provider offers a secure connection option, use it. Never click a link in an e-mail unless you know it's from a credible source, and never open attachments from strangers or even from family or friends if they seem out of place and haven't been mentioned in the body of the e-mail. If necessary, check with the person who sent the e-mail to find out whether an attachment was included. And always remember: If an e-mail or website offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is!

10. Use good judgment when visiting social media sites such as Facebook, which can sometimes compromise the security of your PC. Use strong passwords and change them periodically to prevent hackers from accessing your account. If you even suspect that your security may have been compromised, change your password immediately. Check your account security settings, and set reasonable limits on who can access your posts. If your browser gives you a warning message about the security of a Facebook (or other) link you're attempting to visit, don't proceed! That warning is intended for your protection.

With the many excellent anti-spyware programs available today, a little Internet savvy, and a lot of caution, there's no reason for your computer to be unprotected.

Visit The Tech Herald security section for anti-spyware and anti-virus software reviews.

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