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Abort-Retry-Fail: Keeping your computer secure

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By Bill Gregory

We have all read, or heard, the horror stories from people that have had a major virus infection on their computer. Today, with easy access to the Internet from anywhere in the world, the virus threat continues to increase. But there are steps you can take to keep your computer (and your data) secure.

The first, and most obvious, is to make sure you have up-to-date anti-virus software running on your computer. Nearly every computer sold in this country today comes with some anti-virus software installed at the factory. This may be Norton Anti-Virus from Symantec, McAfee Anti-Virus or some other software. The only problem with these products is that after a certain time period, usually around 90 days, the software will no longer function unless you purchase a subscription for it.

There are alternatives, however.

One free anti-virus that many people use is AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition from Grisoft. This is a good solution to the virus threat but there is a higher-rated free software, according to PC World. That would be avast! Home Edition from Alwil Software. This software works with Windows XP and Windows Vista and automatically updates itself from the company's server. With avast! Running on your computer you are constantly protected against virus intrusions from any source, including email attachments. You can download avast! at http://avast.com/eng/avast_4_home.html and you can download AVG Anti-Virus at http://free.grisoft.com/doc/download-free-anti-virus/us/frt/0.

Once you have your computer protected against viruses, you will want to make sure you are protected against hackers and other intruders. With Windows XP and Vista you have a built-in firewall to protect against such attacks. The only problem is that it isn't all that great. I would suggest you get ZoneAlarm from Check Point Software Technologies, Ltd.

ZoneAlarm is a great way to get full firewall protection, both inbound and outbound, for free. You will have to get used to the occasional "pop-ups" in the lower right corner of your screen advising that some program is trying to access the Internet or is trying to act as a server. For instance, after you install ZoneAlarm, the first time you run Internet Explorer, the message will be that "Internet Explorer is trying to access the Trusted Zone." You simply put a check mark in the box that states "Remember this answer" then click the "Allow" button and you won't be bothered by that program's access to the Internet again.

ZoneAlarm also has a very complete help section and a complete user guide in .pdf format. You can download ZoneAlarm at http://www.zonealarm.com/store/content/catalog/products/sku_list_za.jsp.

In addition to viruses, every computer user should be aware of adware and spyware. These are virus-like programs that generally do not cause damage to the user's computer and do not self-replicate, as a virus does. Adware usually causes annoying pop-up ads to appear on the user's screen. Adware is often unknowingly downloaded when the user visits a particular website. A pretty malicious practice, don't you think?

Spyware is designed to track your movements over the Internet and report that information to some central website. That information is then sold to customers to use as a marketing tool.

A good tool to check for and remove adware and spyware is Spybot Search and Destroy, which can be downloaded at http://www.safer-networking.org/en/download/index.html. This is one of the best spyware/adware removal tools around. The interface is easy and intuitive and easy to update. The update function is not automatic, though.

Another spyware/adware solution is AdAware from Lavasoft, which can be downloaded from http://www.lavasoftusa.com/products/ad_aware_free.php. AdAware does not run constantly in the background, checking for adware and spyware. You must run it occasionally to check your system. When you start up AdAware, the program will first check for an update and ask if you want to download and install the update. After downloading and installing the update you can configure AdAware or run it in the default mode. (I recommend the default mode.)

If you have a computer-related problem or question that you would like answered in this column, please send it to the Cedar Key Beacon by email at editor@cedarkeybeacon or PCTech@islandcity.net.