There was a time, not that long ago, when computers … computed. They could perform arithmetic calculations at a speed the human brain could only marvel at. Before long, some of those human brains began to divine more exotic uses for those astonishing electronic ones, and that’s when horizons started to open up — for ordinary, honest, everyday people and for the ones with mayhem on their minds. That latter group quickly picked up everything the former ones knew and expanded and exploited until, today, they pose a constant, unseen danger to everybody who has a computer — which is just about everybody.
As anyone reading this knows, computers have done more to change the world’s access to knowledge in every area faster than anything before it. Virtually anything available in a book is now at your fingertips hovering above a computer keyboard. And instantly. Small children use computers. Very old people use them. And everyone in between.
But, while that is the greatest boon in history for the accumulation and transfer of information, it also presents thieves with an unprecedented roster of potential victims. Electronic interaction between people in the worlds of commerce, industry, banking, entertainment and everything else provides resourceful thieves unlimited opportunities to intrude and steal in the comfort of their living rooms. These geometric advances in electronic theft have made computers at the same time the most wondrous and the most feared development the human mind has ever conceived. Your personal information, your money, your communications — just about everything about you — is available to resourceful crooks who can prey on the unwary computer user.
But you still have the advantage, if you take steps to protect yourself. The vast horizons the computer presents to you are still yours to use and enjoy so long as you get into the habit of taking fundamental steps to foil those prospective intruders.
Here are some standard precautions experts advise to spare yourself the miseries and losses computer hackers would love to impose on you:
- Always make sure your firewall is turned on. A firewall is a software program or piece of hardware that aims to screen out hackers, viruses and other malignant influences that try to get into your computer from the Internet. Computers with Windows or Mac operating systems both have built-in firewalls that are proven effective.
- Update computer operating systems as necessary. With Microsoft or Apple, this can happen automatically if you enable it.
- Use complex passwords. Don’t make it easy for hackers to guess keys you might pick. The more complicated you can make your passwords, the better. They should contain various combinations of letters (some uppercase and some lower), numbers and symbols. And never reuse them. Authorities report that a shocking number of people still use “12345” and “letmein,” which are probably the first stabs hackers take. Use a different password for each account. If a password gets discovered as linked to your name in one account, it could enable hackers to gain entry into your other accounts, as well.
- Install a filter designed to ensure that the emails that get into your computer don’t intend you any malice.
- Use anti-malware and anti-virus programs, but don’t rely on any one solely. A virus is a form of malware, but it’s safest to use both “antis.” They are not perfect, but they are designed to prevent or rout incoming threats to your system.
- Download and use only software programs you know to be trustworthy. Don’t take lightly the harm you can create for yourself by taking a chance on any program you haven’t vetted thoroughly.
- Avoid pirated software, which is not only illegal but can't be upgraded and offers no support. Plus, you shouldn't trust the distributor to wish you no harm.
- Be especially wary of unsecured Wi-Fi sites. Save sensitive transactions for home, office or places where you know your computer is protected. You don’t have to make financial transactions, for example, in a restaurant or café.
- Don’t disclose sensitive information online. Phishing attacks are the computer equivalent of someone contacting you by phone purporting to represent your credit union and asking for key data, such as your Social Security number. That is something your credit union would never do. Nor would it do the same thing by computer. Always have the antennae up for suspicious behavior such as this. If you receive this kind of request by email and wonder if it has any credibility, call the credit union or whoever is initiating the contact and ask. Don’t click onto a link in the email.
- Turn your computer off when you’re done. Can hackers get into your computer if it’s left alone but left on? Who knows? Can they get into it if it’s off? Never.
This is not a complete list of all safeguards every expert in the world would recommend for computer safety. Such a list would undoubtedly be so long as to defy completion. But, if you follow these steps faithfully, you will thwart virtually all attempts at keeping your computer safe from illegal intruders. In the meantime, however, never stop investigating new paths would-be hackers are exploring to find their way in. Read up on the latest developments in all types of electronic shenanigans. With care and common sense, a computer can be your best friend; without them, it can become your worst enemy.