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Staying safe online is about more than buying security

You may not need security software. Or, to be accurate, you may not need to buy extra security software. It's possible you already have all the defences you need.

If you are computer savvy, sceptical and careful you should be fine. In theory modern operating systems include enough protection for advanced users.

Staying safe means keeping up-to-date with software upgrades. It helps to watch for new risks, so you aren't blindsided. Most of all, you need to stay alert.

Who needs to buy security software?

If you are not confident or can't keep your guard up all the time, third-party security software1 helps. It fills the gaps and monitors incoming risks.

You might also consider if you are a high risk. Perhaps you use computers to run a business or handle large sums of money. Maybe you have a high-profile and would be an exciting trophy for a hacker. These are good enough reasons to spend a few dollars a month on extra protection.

Security software helps. It won't make your computer completely safe. That's down to you.

Not only you. Other, people might use your computer. You may share a house and a local network with others. You may manage people who use work computers.

In all these cases, you can't be sure others know or care enough to keep themselves and everyone else safe. More to the point, they can put you at risk.

Path of least resistance

Installing security software is easy. It is less stressful than nagging people who have less incentive to worry about security. And it's less expensive than dealing with the aftermath of a security lapse.

You need to be careful though. Security software can lure you into a false sense of, well, security.

That's because the biggest threats aren't always the things security programs catch. When scammers pretending to work for Microsoft call, software is not going to help.

Criminals know the best way to steal from you is not hacking your computer but hacking your brain. They call this social engineering. It boils down to manipulation. They talk you in to giving them your passwords or otherwise let them past your defences.

Where to start

The first step to being safer is to own a more modern computer with up-to-date software. Older operating systems have more security holes for criminals to exploit. If for no other reason than they've had longer to find the holes.2

Most serious attacks involve finding holes, computer security people call them vulnerabilities. In most cases Microsoft, Apple or Linux developers plugged those holes a long time ago.3

Your first and most important security step is to turn on software auto-updates. Microsoft releases fresh security updates for Windows every month. If a serious vulnerability appears between releases it rushes out a patch.

Applications too

Upgrading the operating system is important, but applications can also be vulnerable. Again you need to make sure these are up-to-date. Where possible, turn on auto-updating. If you get notification about an update, install it as soon as you can.

Browsers are the most vulnerable software. They are a route into your computer from outside. The same advice applies. Make sure your browser is up-to-date. Take care with browser plug-ins.

If you can, find a reputable online site to check your browser for vulnerabilities. The results of these tests can be unnerving the first time you run them.

It's a good idea to uninstall little-used applications if you think you won't use them soon. Something that hasn't run in a while could be a ticking time bomb.

Get rid of Java unless it is necessary for an important application. Likewise get rid of programmes like Adobe Flash and Shockwave. They are accidents waiting to happen.

One other important piece of advice. Crime rates are higher down at the grungy end of town. They same applies online. Going near illegal software downloads, serious pornography or anything else shady, increases the chances of nasty software turning up on your computer.

Use built-in security tools

Modern operating systems include security tools. Use them, you've already paid for them. If you run Windows then Microsoft Security Essentials or Windows Defender is a good start. Find your operating system's firewall and make sure that it is turned on.

Online apps often have two-factor authentication as an option. Use it.

Everything mentioned above will be enough for many, but not all, readers. Criminals go for low-hanging fruit. There are enough careless people who are easy meat. Just paying attention to the basics will lift you above the pack.

The next step up involves buying third-party security software. There are plenty of choices. Look for recent reviews to see which might best suit you. Also check for news reports in case one has been compromised.

There's more you can do depending on how you see the risks and how much time or effort you want to spend on safety. It's worth using external scanners to monitor your ports. You could explore running your browser with reduced privileges. More extreme protection comes from a technique called sandboxing.

  1. I'm reviewing Norton Security Premium. It's one of the most popular packages. The review will be online soon.

  2. Old computers are not insecure in themselves. The problem is they may not be able to run up to date operating systems.

  3. As a rule MacOS and Linux are safer than Windows. Android is usually the least safe, that's a whole different story.

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