Computers and even data networks are an increasingly common occurrence in the modern home.  Computers and home networks provide powerful tools for performing many functions that can include learning; communicating with friends, family or the workplace; handling finances; or just playing games.  Unfortunately, the benefits of home computing also come with some risks. Some of the most serious problems facing home computer users include:

Viruses and worms:  Usually designed to take control of, or damage the files on a computer

Spyware:  Usually designed to gather personal information from a computer

Hackers: People attempting to remotely break into a computer or network without the knowledge or permission of the owner

Inappropriate content:  Many sites on the internet provide content that may not be suitable for children

Loss of data through system failure:  A hardware or software failure may result in complete loss of electronic documents or equipment damaged beyond repair

Phishing:  Usually taking the form of a illicit email that is designed to look legitimate, phishing is an attempt to trick a victim into providing information by responding to the illicit message

Spam:  Unwanted, “junk” email that is sent in bulk to huge numbers of email accounts.  A large percentage of spam is actually sent out through home computers that have been taken over by hackers.

Protecting Your Home Computer Against Threats

While there is no way to completely eliminate all risk to your computer, you can help dramatically reduce your exposure to these threats by taking some fairly simple steps that include:

Use anti-virus software:  By installing anti-virus, keeping it up-to-date, and regularly scanning your computer for viruses you can greatly reduced the chance of  your computer being infected by viruses and worms.

Use anti-spyware software:  As with anti-virus software, you should install anti-spyware software, keep it up-to-date, and regularly scan your computer for spyware.

Use a firewall:  A firewall keeps your computer “invisible” to the outside world and greatly reduces the chances of a hacker breaking into your computer or network.  Firewalls come in the form of dedicated appliances or software that can be installed on your computer.

Update your operating system and programs:  Viruses often take advantage of flaws in the design of a computer’s operating system.  Software vendors regularly release security patches to remove those vulnerabilities as they are discovered.  Keeping your system up-to-date with security patches will reduce your chance of falling victim to a virus or a hacker.

Use content filtering software:  Content filtering software allows for implementing “parental controls” on which types of websites computer users can visit. Content filters are very  useful in preventing children from being exposed to inappropriate websites on the Internet.

Use a UPS battery backup:  UPS stands for Uninterruptible Power Supply.  A UPS will provide excellent protection to equipment through power surges, sags, and even sudden power losses, extending the life and improving the reliability of electronic equipment.  Make sure the power output of the UPS meets the needs of your computer equipment.

Backup your important data:  Hardware can fail and files can accidentally get deleted.  Regularly backing up your important files will allow you to quickly restore those files with a minimum of frustration.

Treat email with caution:  It is estimated that between 80 to 90 percent of all email is either unsolicited bulk mail and/or contains a virus or some other malicious code.  To help reduce the amount of spam you receive, avoid giving out your email address whenever possible.  It is also good practice to never respond to unsolicited email.  Be cautious about opening emails and email attachments from unknown senders.

Additional Tips for Wireless Networks

While home wireless networks are becoming increasingly popular due to their convenience and flexibility, they introduce additional risks as your computer’s communications are broadcast through the air and can easily be picked up and read by others in the vicinity of your network.  Wireless networks also much more vulnerable to hackers.

Below is a list of some basic steps you can perform to greatly reduce the chance of your wireless home network being attacked or exploited:

Change the default password:  Most home users fail to change the default factory password for the wireless access point.  This makes it easy for hackers to take control of your home network and possibly the computers on it.  Make sure you change the administrator password to the access point.

Disable the broadcast SSID:  The Service Set Identifier is what broadcasts the presence of your wireless network.  Disabling the SSID broadcast on your wireless access point will make it difficult for unauthorized users to gain access to your wireless network.

Enable encryption:  Enabling encryption makes it much harder for unauthorized users to “listen” to your wireless traffic as the signal transmits through the air.

Place access points carefully:  If possible, try to place the wireless access point near the center of your house, and away from windows or doorways.  A wireless access point in a window presents an target that is visible to the eye and which can transmit a signal well outside the walls of the house or structure.

Since the various vendors and products will differ on exactly how these steps can be implemented you will need to consult your equipment’s documentation for guidance on how to perform the above actions.

For additional information on computer and Internet safety visit staysafeonline.org

The tips on this page are provided as a community service.  If you are experiencing problems with your computer or wireless network, please contact a local computer professional for assistance.