Staying safe online - Protecting your PC

Having sorted yourself out with a new fast broadband connection the threat of viruses, worms and phishing attacks await the unprotected. Make sure you are not a victim with our guide to staying safe online.

Securing your Ports

A lot of hack attacks, worms, and sometimes viruses, get onto a PC by gaining access to open ports on a computer. These ports are not the USB or serial ports present on the back of your PC but software ports - these are numbered connections that allow network traffic to be distinguished from one type to another. If these ports are left open they can provide a route for hackers and malicious software to communicate with your PC in an attempt to gain entry.

We will talk exclusively about securing your Windows PC here, Windows is the most used operating system and historically hacks have been relatively easy to find on this operating system. If you use Mac OS or Linux on your PC then simply by using these operating systems you have vastly reduced your chances of being hacked. You may still want to read the section on Phishing below to make sure you do not give away passwords and personal data though.

Until Service Pack 1 of Windows XP was released the port closing system was not activated by default, this left a lot of computers open to hack attacks and this led to the mass of virus alerts and outbreaks that we saw a year or two ago. All network connections and connections to the Internet now have Windows Firewall automatically applied to them as long as the latest XP updates are installed.

Firstly let's check whether your network and internet connections are firewalled or not. From your start menu click 'My Network Places' and in the window that opens click on the left hand side there should be a list of 'Network Tasks', from here click on 'View network connections'. In this window you will now see all of the network and internet connections, to the right of each connection will be a Status column, the connections should have a status of 'Connected, Firewalled' or 'Disconnected, Firewalled' - either way make sure Firewalled is in there somewhere.

If the connection status does not say firewalled then click your right mouse button over the connection and choose 'Properties', click the 'Advanced' tab and click the 'Settings' button at the top of the page, on this screen you will be able to enable your Windows firewall.

Enabling this firewall should negate the need to run third party firewall software such as Zone Alarm or Norton Internet Security, too many firewall programs can cause conflicts so if you have odd connection problems one thing to check is how many firewalls you have running on your PC.

If you have more than one PC at home or want to utilise wireless networking you may have purchased an ADSL or Cable modem router. These often come with their own Firewall built in and give great protection against open port attacks.

You can test your PCs safety status with several online tools, recommended ones are:
Shields Up! - half way down the page click 'Shields Up!' and on the next page click proceed at the bottom of the page. You can also try the Symantec Security Check - click the 'Go' button if the new window does not automatically open and then click the 'START' button under the 'Security Scan' section.

Anti Virus
Installing an Anti Virus program is a must on a Windows PC, there are many programs out there, the most popular are Norton Anti Virus, McAfee Anti Virus and Kaspersky. These products now tend to come with yearly subscription costs to make sure you have the most up-to-date anti virus protection but this is a small price to pay to make sure your PC stays virus free, if you get caught out the loss of productivity, costs to fix and possible loss of data is worth the subscription.

A lot of viruses still tend to come in via email so some basic rules of safety are to never open files that have been sent to you by people you do not know, don't rely on your anti virus software to save you as sometimes viruses are released before the anti virus companies have time to issue patches for their software. If in doubt delete it!


Like emails containing viruses all manner of scams and fakes emails may be sent to you in an attempt to get you to part with cash or even give away personal information such as web site logins or passwords.

The most common of these are false emails from banks, Ebay and PayPal. None of these companies will ever mail you to say that they need you to reset a password, to alert you that your account has been compromised or that you need to supply and personal information. In fact banks and the sites named will rarely contact you at all so treat any emails from these institutions with caution and if in doubt call or forward the email on to them - never reply to these emails, find their contact details by going to the site using Google or a bookmark, clicking links in these mails will often take you to false sites.

This type of email is often sent to many thousands of people in the hope that one or two will be silly enough to enter personal information that will allow the scammers to breach your online bank accounts or purchase high value goods or sell non-existent goods in your name.

Also beware of emails from friendly Nigerians or more recently Iraqi's who have happened upon large amounts of money and need you, trusted friend, to help them get the cash out of the country for a slice of the pie.

Stay up to date

Once you have installed your anti virus program and made sure your PC is closed to remote attacks it is important to keep your PC and software up-to-date to make sure you stay protected. Windows will often alert you when new patches are released but just in case this feature is disabled you can click on your start menu, click on 'All Programs' and at the top of the list you should see 'Windows Update', click the icon and you will be taken to the Windows site where your PC will be checked to make sure you are safe.

As a freelancer you will not have the backup of a team of geeks to help you should things go wrong, PC repair can be expensive so a little time spent securing your PC and updating your software may save you hundreds, if not thousands of pounds when time and lost data are taken into account.

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