A question I am often asked is "why do people write viruses, malware, spyware, etc?" I suppose there are many motivations, some folks are trying to highlight system vulnerabilities, others are likely doing it because they can (what better feeling for a "hack" than to feel they have out programmed the professionals), but as with most anything, I expect the single biggest motivator is money. I recently read an article about coding which would run unattended on a victims workstation, looking for banking information then without any human intervention, it would log into the users account and set up a wire transfer. While I don't know how this could work on a wide scale I can see how it could work on a few of the mega-banks. This does suggest there are active vulnerabilities for which we all need to be on watch for.
Before we pull the plug on the computer, throw our hands in the air, go back to using paper accounting journals and postal mail, let's take some simple things which have a high return on safety. Just like in the days of paper journals, you didn't leave them out on your kitchen counter and you didn't send cash in the mail. These were lessons we learned and similarly, there are equally simple lessons we can learn about technology which really pay off.
I have discussed, password security in a previous entry and this is the single most important step you can take to protect yourself. If you do anything today, read this short article and put it into action. When you have done that, come back here and let's talk about a couple other things you can do to protect you, your computer and your family.
First, let's talk about an easy solution which you should implement today: When you are cruising unfamiliar sites on the web, wouldn't it be good to know if that site is known to be trouble before you go to it? There is a free tool which you can install in your browser (IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, etc.). This tool (available from www.myWOT.com) will display a green traffic light style icon for sites which have been rated with excellent reliability, yellow for unsatisfactory reliability and red for sites which people have marked as poor reliability. While this doesn't guarantee that a site will be safe, it will certainly help you steer clear of sites which are known to be unreliable. This is a simple free add-in which is well worth having to help protect you. This solution is designed to educate and assist you, but does not provide any direct protection.
Next, there is a solution which will help protect you from ever visiting a site which is known for phishing and other threats. It does this by displaying an alternate web page and preventing you from being able to access the site. You can also set it up to block other types of sites which you don't want accessed on your home network such as porn, gambling or advertisements. This service is available from www.openDNS.com and is available for free with some basic features, or you can upgrade to a family package for $20/year. I personally use the free version and have been very happy with it since 2006. This offers a great deal of protection, but it can also become more difficult to manage and maintain. If you are comfortable with tinkering with the settings and enjoy tyring things out, you should definitely look into this!
Although I haven't mentioned it specifically here, you should have a good anti virus / anti malware program on your computer. If you are using Windows XP or newer, I would suggest that you download install Microsoft Security Essentials. I have been using this for a couple years now and have been very happy with it. There are other free and pay applications like McAfee, Norton, AVG and more. They all have their own selling points and anything is better than nothing. I like MSE because of its integration into the operating system (not unlike the others), but it updates with Windows Update making it seamless for the end user. I have also found that it doesn't take a lot of computer power to run it. Oh, and did I mention, it's FREE! :-)