By Jackie Dove, Contributing Writer
When the glossy sheen of the World Wide Web started to dull – sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s – computer users were beginning to witness the downside of connectivity, and they did not like what they saw.
Tons of spam washed over every email account, and computer viruses wreaked havoc on business networks. A terrifying criminal element emerged that extended the definition of thievery to include infiltrating your computer, stealing personal information, tricking you into revealing private data, and using that data to steal and extort everything from your business secrets and bank account to your identity.
Despite that, most businesses large and small rely on the internet to track their financials, order and maintain inventory, conduct marketing and PR campaigns, connect with customers, engage in social media, and perform other critical operations. Yet, with startling frequency, we hear about massive computer breaches at even the top companies.
Small businesses are responsible for preventing these crimes from harming company property and stealing consumer information. Here are some steps you can take to protect your company's computer integrity.
1. Use a firewall.
The two major computer operating systems have built-in firewalls, software designed to create a barrier between your information and the outside world. Firewalls prevent unauthorized access to your business network and alert you of any intrusion attempts.
The first thing to do with a new computer (or the computer you now use) is to make sure the firewall is enabled before you go online. However, you can also purchase a hardware firewall from companies like Cisco, Sophos or Fortinet, depending on your broadband router, which also has a built-in firewall that protects your network. If you have a larger business, you can purchase an additional business networking firewall.
2. Install antivirus software.
Computer viruses, keyloggers and Trojans are everywhere. Antivirus programs such as Bitdefender, Panda Cloud Antivirus, Malwarebytes and Avast immunize your computer against unauthorized code or software that threatens your operating system. Viruses have various effects that may be easy to spot: They might slow your computer to a halt or delete key files.
Antivirus software plays a major role in protecting your system by detecting real-time threats to ensure your data is safe. Some advanced antivirus programs provide automatic updates, further protecting your machine from the new viruses that generate every day. After you install an antivirus program, don't forget to use it. Run or schedule regular virus scans to keep your computer virus-free.
3. Install an anti-spyware package.
Spyware is a special kind of software that secretly monitors and collects personal or organizational information. It is designed to be hard to detect and difficult to remove, and tends to serve up unwanted ads or search results to direct you to certain websites.
Some spyware records every keystroke to gain access to passwords and other financial information. Anti-spyware concentrates exclusively on this part of the nuisance spectrum but is often included in major antivirus packages like Webroot, McAfee and Norton. Anti-spyware packages provide real-time protection by scanning all incoming information and blocking threats.
4. Use complex passwords.
Using secure passwords is the most important way to prevent illegal intrusions onto your computer network. The more secure your passwords, the harder it is for a hacker to invade your system.
More secure often means longer and more complex: Use a password that has at least eight characters and a combination of numbers, upper- and lowercase letters, and computer symbols. Hackers have an arsenal of tools to break short, easy passwords in minutes.
Don't use recognizable words or combinations that represent birthdays or other information that can be connected to you. Don't reuse passwords either; if you have too many passwords to remember, consider using a password manager like Dashlane, Sticky Password, LastPass or Password Boss.
5. Keep your OS, apps and browser up to date.
Always install new updates to your operating systems. Most updates include security fixes that prevent hackers from accessing and exploiting your data.
The same goes for your favorite apps. Today's web browsers are increasingly sophisticated, especially in privacy and security. Be sure to review your browser security settings in addition to installing all new updates. For example, you can use your browser to prevent websites from tracking your movements, which increases your online privacy.
6. Ignore spam.
Beware of email messages from unknown parties, and never click on links or open attachments that accompany them. Spam-catchers have upped their game in recent years and become pretty good at catching the most egregious spam. But phishing emails that mimic your friends, associates and trusted businesses like your bank have proliferated, so keep your antenna tuned to anything that looks or sounds phishy.
7. Back up your computer.
If your business is not already backing up your hard drive, then you need to go back to B-school. Backing up your information is critical in case disaster strikes and hackers do get through and trash your system.
Always be sure you can rebuild as quickly as possible after suffering any data breach or loss. Backup utilities built into the Mac (Time Machine) and Windows (File History) are good places to start. Purchasing an external backup hard drive from places like Western Digital, Seagate and CalDigit assure there is enough space for these utilities to operate properly.
8. Shut it down.
Many businesses, especially those operating a web server, are "all systems go" all the time. If you're not operating a complex internet-based company, however, switch off your machine overnight or during long stretches of time when you're not working. Always being on makes your computer a more visible and available target for hackers. Shutting down breaks the connection a hacker may have established with your network and disrupts any possible mischief.
9. Use virtualization.
Not everyone needs to take this route, but if you frequent sketchy websites, expect to be bombarded with spyware and viruses. While the best way to avoid browser-derived intrusions is to steer clear of unsafe sites, virtualization allows you to run your browser in a virtual environment like Parallels or VMware Fusion that sidesteps your operating system to keep it safer.
10. Secure your network.
If you've got a new router, chances are it comes with no set security. Always log in to the router and set a password using a secure, encrypted setup. This prevents intruders from infiltrating your network and messing with your settings.
11. Use two-factor authentication.
Passwords are the first line of defense against computer hackers, but a second layer boosts protection. Major online companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft let you enable two-factor authentication, which requires you to type in a numerical code in addition to your password when logging in. This hardens your account to the outside world.
12. Use encryption.
Even if someone is able to steal your data or monitor your internet connection, encryption can prevent hackers from accessing any of that information. You can encrypt your Windows or macOS hard drive with BitLocker or FileVault, encrypt any USB flash drive that contains sensitive information, and use a VPN to encrypt your web traffic. Only shop at encrypted websites – you can spot them immediately by the "https" in the address bar accompanied by a closed padlock icon.
If only internet thieves used their creative talents to earn an honest living, we wouldn't have to take so many precautions to lock down and harden our computer systems. Until that happens – at which time pigs will fly and snowballs will survive hellfire – a combination of hardware and software defenses, as well as best computing practices, will remain the barrier between you and online predators.
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