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How to Protect your PC

Computer Security Tips: How to Protect your PC

Arthur Smalley
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Unfortunately for the rest of us, there has never been a better time to be a cybercriminal.
Computer security must become part of our daily routines. Over the last 30 years, society has shifted to digital solutions, and we now run much of our lives through websites and online applications. The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated this process.
Without face-to-face interactions, companies and consumers had to quickly transition and learn how to operate online. Unfortunately, this increased the opportunity for hackers to exploit users' sensitive information.
Many of these newer online users tend to be less tech-savvy, previously only utilizing in-person or postal services. Unfortunately, newer users are ideal targets for cybercriminals, often making mistakes online that compromise computer security and privacy.

US cybercrime statistics

The rapid digital acceleration over recent years has brought a surge in cybercrime. Data from 2021 shows the US has the second-highest cybercrime rate in the world, with 1,494 victims per million people.
North America overall has the highest breach rate in the world, with 1-in-2 internet users experiencing a breach in 2021 - three times higher than the global average, according to Surfshark.
Given the growing likelihood of online crimes, computer security is more important now than ever. However, the overwhelming majority of cybercriminals are looking for low-hanging fruit. They're targeting people with poor PC security habits to maximize their impact while minimizing their efforts.
Following a relatively short list of computer security and privacy tips can go a long way toward protecting yourself online.

Today's top computer security threats

top computer security threats
Before we go into tips for PC security, let's first look at the types of threats we are all exposed to by just being online.

Malware

Malware refers to malicious software designed to infiltrate computers or networks of computers, causing harm and exploiting them for the hacker's gain. Malware is a catch-all term that covers many types of cyber attacks, including:
  • Viruses
  • Worms
  • Spyware
  • Adware
  • Ransomware
  • Trojan viruses
The malware allows unauthorized users to access and extract private data to be leveraged for profit. This data could be financial information, healthcare records, or login information (i.e., passwords/usernames) to access other more valuable accounts, such as an employer's network.
Malware can infiltrate the security of computers using multiple delivery mechanisms, the most common of which is phishing.

Phishing

Phishing emails are something most of us will have experienced. They appear to be from a trusted sender (e.g., company, friend, colleague, government authority, etc.) and direct the recipient to click a link or download an attachment.
However, these emails are fake, sent by bad actors to trick victims into downloading malware onto their computers or offering up their log in information. This could be an attached file or a link to a fake or compromised website where any sensitive information entered is retrieved by the cybercriminal.
Generally, phishing is part of a wider attack. It acts as the delivery mechanism, getting around computer security systems the next stage of the attack occurs.

Social engineering attacks

Security Software
While the most common, phishing is one of many when it comes to social engineering attacks. Social engineering refers to cyberattacks that use manipulation and deception instead of technical computing knowledge or so-called "hacking."
Generally, it is much easier to fool people into disclosing their personal information than it is to break down the security of computers. Other than phishing, social engineering attacks include:
Spear phishing: A more advanced form of phishing where the attacker takes greater care to produce more authentic-looking correspondence. Think of phishing as spamming low-effort emails to reach as many people as possible. Spear phishing is a more targeted strategy, selecting similar individuals and producing tailored messages to increase the chances of deception.
Scareware: Using fear to trick people into acting quickly and downloading new software (that is malware) on their computers. Scareware typically uses emails or online pop-ups to inform a user their computer is infected with malware and that they need to install software to remove it. The original message is actually fake, and the software they install is the actual malware.
Baiting: Setting up traps that exploit users' curiosity or their eye for value. This could be online advertising for a great new deal or a real-world approach. Bad actors have started leaving physical media, such as USB sticks, in popular locations. People finding these USB sticks lying around end up plugging them into their computers to see what is on them. Perhaps to find information that can return it to the original owner. However, the USB stick contains malware that infiltrates their computer once plugged in.

Other security threats to your PC

Computer password manager
Other computer security and privacy threats to be aware of include:
Ransomware: Once a computer system is infiltrated, the attacker encrypts critical files, preventing access and holding them for ransom until a fee is paid. While ransomware more commonly goes after businesses, it can also target computers and laptops for personal use.
Third-party exposure: Any legitimate software used on your computer may have potential vulnerabilities that sophisticated cybercriminals can exploit.
IoT: Connecting new devices to the internet for remote use has led to many vulnerabilities for bad actors to target.
Stalkerware: Monitoring software used to spy on or stalk someone. Stalkerware is often implemented by partners, friends, or family close to the victim, and they can access their personal devices to install discrete stalkerware.
Weak Passwords: Often, the biggest threat to your computer is using common or weak passwords that hackers can easily crack.

Top 5 computer security tips

So how can you go about maintaining security systems for laptops and computers? Here are five computer security and privacy tips to help you keep your data safe.

1. Use a password manager

Once hackers access your login information for a specific online account, the next logical step is to try them on other websites. While frustrating, someone having access to your social media account doesn't automatically mean they can start extracting value from you.
But if those same login details give them access to your banking accounts or e-commerce websites (e.g., Amazon, etc.), they can quickly access funds or spend your money.
The best approach to password computer security and privacy is to have separate logins for each account. However, this is often impractical, given how many we all have nowadays. So the real solution is to use a password manager.
Password managers apps allow you to automatically create unique, strong passwords for every account you have. Typically, users add a plugin for their browser or an app on their phone, allowing the password manager to provide the login information from a stored list quickly.
The only password you need to remember is a single, strong password that unlocks the password manager.

2. Two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication
Another great way to secure your online accounts is using two-factor authentication (2-FA). While this can slow you down when logging in online, it lets you know when anyone is trying to gain access to an online account.
Also, 2-FA adds another layer of authentication to your accounts beyond just a password. This could be some form of biometrics (e.g., fingerprint, facial recognition) or a notification/code sent to your phone when using your laptop or PC.
Especially for your most important accounts (e.g., banking, Google, Apple, Dropbox, etc.), 2-FA is critical to ensuring only you get access.

3. Security software

While good practices and user behavior helps, ultimately, you will also need software on your side to protect your PC's security. Many computer security systems are available that do a great job of keeping bad actors out.
These packages include antivirus software that protects a computer from internal attacks and firewalls that scan online traffic as you browse the web.

4. Keep all software up-to-date

Keep all software up-to-date
One of the most important factors for computer security and privacy is updating all software. Hackers are constantly testing software to see if they are exploitable, finding tiny mistakes in the code that allow them to circumvent protections or trick the software into offering up the information it shouldn't.
When a vulnerability is found, a manufacturer can update the software and protect its customers. Therefore, software updates can be the quick fix to protect your PC security before online attackers can make the most of a new vulnerability.

5. VPNs

Finally, VPNs are a great way of protecting your devices when connecting to public WiFi networks. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and while it can slow down your internet connection, it also encrypts your internet traffic and hides your IP address by routing it through a separate server.
When you sit at a coffee shop or log into public transport WiFi, you have no idea how secure that connection truly is. Unfortunately, cybercriminals often exploit WiFi networks to infiltrate unsuspecting users. VPNs are critical to prevent this and maintain your computer security and privacy.

Summary

With growing cybercrime rates, the security of computers is more important now than ever. While the threat is genuine, by following good PC security practices, you can ensure the security systems for your computer are strong enough to keep yourself protected.

About the Author

Arthur Smalley is a science and technology writer based in the UK.

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