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Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Posted on June 9, 2009

      I'm very experienced when it comes to getting in trouble. I started early in life and refined my skills through the years.

      At various times and places I've fallen down the stairs while carrying a jug of hydrochloric acid, played chicken with an Army 2 1/2 ton truck and lost and learned firsthand why bald guys look silly wearing a $29 wig.

      Luckily, my record for staying out of trouble is better when it comes to computer security. Today, we'll look at ways to enjoy the online world without waking up one morning to discover that your bank account has moved to Fiji.

Security is the word

      Let's start with passwords. I've seen some really dumb ones in my time: The name of a pet, and even a guy who used "password" as his password. Your password should combine both letters and numbers. It should not contain a word that can be found in a dictionary. It should be changed every few months. In the case of critical passwords for banking, bill paying and the like, separate passwords should be used for each site.

      How do you remember passwords that aren't obvious? I make that easier by using the first letters from the words of a poem or song. Then I tack on a couple of digits from a very old telephone number or old street address. That makes it easy for me. As an example: Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer had a shiny nose and 712 Elm St. become rtrrhasn712.

Unbelievable help

      The next tip means taking a tip from good newspaper reporters. Be skeptical. Learn to ignore e-mails that seem to come from your bank or a merchant and that earnestly explain that you need to click on a link included in the e-mail to change your account settings.

      This kind of a scam has been around for a long time, but it still works all too often. No matter how authentic things look, ignore the e-mail. If you just can't stand that, telephone the bank or merchant and ask if the e-mail is real. But honestly, you're going to find that banks and merchants just don't do business that way.

Stay out of hot water

      You're especially vulnerable to hackers when using a wireless hotspot. I've sampled the risks while sitting in a coffee shop with a computer security expert. With a few programs available free on the Internet he was able to watch passwords, lists of Web sites and even e-mail messages roll by on his laptop. It's often that easy.

      There's also a second risk. Hackers have been known to create wireless networks within range of networks operated for the public by hotels and coffee shops. That means hapless users can connect to these hacker networks and believe they're using the real thing.

      Make it a rule to avoid exposing important information - credit card numbers, user names for banking and the like - if you must use one of these networks. Also consider using programs that add to your wireless security. Here's an example of one program that can help shield your connection.

      My rule of thumb is to avoid doing critical business on a public wireless network.

Trouble at home

      You're also at risk even when using a wired connection at home. It should go without saying - but I'm saying it anyway - that you need a good anti-virus program, a program to protect against spyware/adware, and a working firewall. Recent versions of Windows include a basic firewall. If you aren't sure how to turn it on, simply type the word firewall into the search box for Windows Help.

      I wish I could tell you that covers everything needed to protect your home computer. But I've just scratched the surface. You need to do much more to be really safe. That's why I'm pointing you to a Web site that offers more information.

      Meanwhile, stay out of trouble.

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