How to keep your computer safe from hackers

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By
Emily Mason
5
 mins

Why is it that every Hollywood-depicted computer hacker has a pet snake and hangs out in dark, graffiti-plastered alleys? (That might be a stereotype, but the vibe is bang on.) The internet can feel like a scary place, with predators around every corner waiting to steal your personal information. To others, cybersecurity might not have crossed your mind until you're a victim of an attack.

But however you landed here, we’ve got your back. Here are six tips for keeping your computer safe from hackers.

1. Keep your software updated

It’s tempting to click “Remind me later” when that pop up appears in the corner of your screen, but keeping your computer software updated is important. Most updates include security fixes that help prevent hackers from accessing your data. If you put off updating for too long, you leave your computer vulnerable.

Stay up-to-date by setting your computer to “allow” updates to install automatically. This way, the computer will do the work for you and will keep itself in tip-top shape.

But “updating” also applies to your browsers and apps. Make sure to be diligent about checking that you have the latest version of each program you use.


2. Use a firewall

Firewalls are programs that prevent hackers from entering and using your computer. Most computers come with built-in firewalls; Windows has their Windows Defender Firewall, and Apple has OS X Firewall.

If your device does not have a firewall, you could buy one from a third party like McAfee or Symantec.

 

3. Install antivirus software

Firewalls protects your computer from people trying to get in. But antivirus software helps protect your computer from malicious files and downloads. Downloading a virus disguised as a file is the most common way hackers gain access to your personal information. Despite common belief, computer viruses are not always obvious. By downloading antivirus software, you can have an extra set of eyes looking out for you.

There are many companies that offer antivirus software, including McAfee, AVG and Norton.


4. Choose your passwords carefully

Although it may seem convenient, you should not use the same password for everything. A hacker could easily access all your information when they only have one password to crack.

When creating your passwords, the more complex, the better. In each password, try to include:

  • At least 8 characters 
  • Numbers
  • Uppercase and lowercase letters
  • Symbols (like an exclamation point, asterisk or ampersand)

Including acronyms is also a great way to make your passwords more effective. As a rule, avoid any recognizable words or combinations such as birthdays or street names. For example, instead of “ILoveToDraw60” it would be safer to use a password like “ILTD!556” or “Love2Draw-556” instead.

Of course, using a different password for everything can get very confusing. To help you remember them all, you can use a password manager— a secure app that stores them all in a digital safe. Some of the most used password managers are 1Password, KeePass and LastPass.

 

5. Screen your emails

Emails are one of the main gateways that hackers use to get into computers.

Although an email may look like it’s from someone you know, it's a good idea to check the email address to confirm it’s a match. If you’re ever unsure, you can always ask the person about it in, you know, real life. There’s no harm in being cautious.

It is also important to be wary of links or suspicious attachments in emails. Clicking on the wrong thing can invite all kinds of trouble into your computer. Double-checking can be as simple as hovering over the link to see the URL. If it’s not from a reliable source, or you’re unfamiliar with the website, it’s best not to click on it. One trick to help you determine if the link is safe is to check its spelling. Try not to click anything from Googley.com.

One more tip for the road: if you receive an email about winning a free trip to Hawaii but never entered the contest, the link to “Claim your prize!” is a no-no. 


6. Use the web safely

Being careful about what you click on is also important to practice outside of your email inbox. It’s always best to avoid sites that are not trusted by your browser. (Many browsers have built-in bullsh*t detectors that will tell you if they think you’re headed to an untrustworthy website.)

Following these tips doesn’t take tons of time or energy, and can save you a whole lot of trouble in the long-run. I actually received a notification for an update while writing this article, so I’m going to close my laptop to update the system.

But, before I go, I’ll leave you with this final thought: not everyone who owns a snake is a hacker. That was rude.



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