Lock Down Your PC

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Kill Viruses Before They Get You

Of all the threats to your PC's security, viruses (and their kin, Trojan horses and worms) seem the scariest. Using an up-to-date antivirus program will prevent many virus attacks, but if a virus hits before you update, you can still get infected and spread that infection to others. To protect yourself from unknown attacks, you need to anticipate the hackers and know how to lock down the part of your computer where the next virus will strike--before the attack happens. Here are a few ways to do just that.

Back it up: The MyDoom worm wiggled onto hundreds of thousands of computers, but fortunately it didn't destroy or steal files. If it had, you would have been really glad that you backed up your important data before it struck. The next worm may not be so benign. See "Backing Up to Happiness," part of the February issue's "The Trouble-Free PC," for a review of reliable backup utilities.

Install all critical updates ASAP: The Blaster worm hit only people who hadn't installed a patch issued months earlier. Setting Windows and your applications to update automatically is best for most people (see "Auto-update key software"). To be really thorough, however, glance at Microsoft's Security Bulletins once a week--patches sometimes show up there days (and occasionally weeks or months) before they get into Windows Update. Programs that lack automatic updating may still offer menu commands that check for updates.

Sign up for e-mail alerts: The United States government's Computer Emergency Readiness Team sends out missives the instant it hears about serious threats to the nation's computers. You don't have to be a systems administrator to understand them. You can browse the alert list at your leisure, or sign up to get e-mail notification the minute the CERT learns of new viruses, hack attacks, online scams, or other Net threats.

Test for flaws: Once you've rigged your PC for battle, check its readiness by using one or more free security scanners. Microsoft's Baseline Security Scanner probes for missing security updates and service packs, weak passwords, and misconfigured security zone settings in Microsoft Office, Outlook, and Internet Explorer. Steve Gibson's Shields Up site scans your PC for open network ports and running services, looks for browser vulnerabilities, and determines whether Windows XP's spam-prone Messenger service is running.

Scott Spanbauer is a contributing editor for PC World, and writes the monthly Internet Tips column.
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