11 Basic Steps You Should Take To Keep Your Computer Safe

hackathon laptop computer typing

Photo: Flickr/Dr. Papillon and Hoedic

It’s easy to forget about computer security. Unfortunately, by the time you realise there’s a problem with your computer, you could be in deep trouble.Most users recycle the same passwords, never update their computer’s software, and, worst of all, don’t back up.

Take a few minutes out of your day and educate yourself on how a firewall works, what Java is and how to disable it, and a few other measures you can take to increase your computer’s security.

We’ve put together a few basic tips you can use to make sure you’re protected.

And if you’re a sophisticated user, you may already have done most of our list. If you have, good for you—now send this to your friends and relatives who ask you for computer help!

Turn off Java now.

Java is software which runs interactive functions on some Web pages. It's mostly been replaced by newer technologies like Flash and HTML5. Unless you're running some really arcane Web software, you probably don't need it.

Earlier this year more than 700,000 Apple computers were infected with malware called the Flashback Trojan. All of these Macs had one thing in common: They were all running out-of-date versions of an add-on which let their Web browsers run Java.

To disable Java in Safari, the default Mac Web browser:

  • First, head to Preferences
  • Next, click on the security tab
  • Finally, uncheck, 'Disable Java'

Google Chrome:

Type 'about:plugins' into Google Chrome's address bar and disable the Java plugin.

Firefox:

In Firefox, visit Add-ons under Tools and click the Plugins tab. Disable the Java Applet Plug-in.

And if you have a PC, follow these directions from Oracle, the software company behind Java.

Source: Cult of Mac

Always keep your computer up to date with software updates.

If you haven't checked for updates in the past two weeks, check now.

Automatic updates ensure that your computer will always have the latest bug fixes and patches. Often computer makers will issue these updates after they identify problems. Have the latest software will ensure that your computer is safe.

Macs have a system called Software Update and PCs have Windows Update.

Set your computer to lock when it wakes from sleep.

This may seem like a pain, but entering a password each time your computer wakes from sleep only takes a few seconds.

Making sure your computer locks when it sleeps can help protect it from unwanted eyes.

Imagine what could happen if you misplaced your computer. If it's not password-protected, then someone could access all your personal files and information.

Change your password right now, and then change it once a month.

Make sure you have a strong password to get into your computer. Using the same password for everything is a bad idea.

Using simple passwords like your birthday or 'password' make you an easy target for hackers.

Google suggests users:

  • use a unique password for all your important accounts
  • use a password with a mix of letters, numbers, and symbols
  • create a password that's hard for others to guess
  • keep passwords in a secret place that isn't easily visible

When you're not using your computer, turn it off.

Turning your computer off when it's not in use is one of the best ways to ensure its safety. In addition to saving you money on electricity, powering your computer down when it isn't in use will make sure that there is no access to the Internet.

The only downside: If you have an automatic backup program, it can't run if your computer's off.

Use an antivirus program and always keep it up to date.

This is a simple tip if you use a PC. Install an antivirus program to monitor your system for threats and make sure that you keep the software up to date. PC Magazine gave Norton, McAfee, and Webroot its top ratings.

Always watch what you're downloading.

Mac OS X Mountain Lion has a new feature which only lets you download items from the Mac App Store or trusted sources.

If you use a Mac we suggest you enable this feature by heading to System Preferences:

  • Click on Security and Privacy
  • Under the 'Allow applications downloaded from' section, select 'Mac App Store and identified developers'

On a PC, users should be more vigilant and check their downloaded files folder occasionally, to ensure that things are not downloading automatically. Windows 8, an upcoming operating system, has an 'application reputation' system to warn of malicious apps.

Mac users: Make sure you are taking advantage of Mountain Lion's built-in Gatekeeper feature.

Mountain Lion users have a security advantage over users of older Apple operating systems. There are a lot of security features built in to Apple's new system.

Mountain Lion takes advantage of FileVault 2, which encrypts your data automatically. FileVault 2 encrypts the entire drive on your Mac, protecting your data with XTS-AES 128 encryption. FileVault 2 ensures that even if your computer falls into the wrong hands your data will still be secure.

For added protection turn this feature on by heading to System Preferences.

  • Next head to Security & Privacy
  • At the top select the FileVault Option
  • In the bottom left corner, click the lock and enter your password.
  • Turn FileVault on.

Windows has a similar system called BitLocker.

Manage your firewall.

Take advantage of your firewall, right now.

A firewall is software system that prevents unwanted data connections. Macs and Windows machines come with built-in firewall software.

Wired put together an excellent guide on how to easily use a firewall. The guide explains how to restrict or give access to certain ports, here's how:

On Mac OS X

  1. Open 'System Preferences'
  2. Under 'Personal,' select 'Security'
  3. Select the 'Firewall' pane (it should say 'Firewall On' in the top left; if not, click the 'Start' button)
  4. If you've password-protected your computer, unlock first to make changes
  5. If the service you want to enable is in the list, click on the check box to allow it
  6. If the service is grayed out, select the 'Services' pane and enable the service from there
  7. If you need to enable a different service or a specific port number, click the 'New ...' button and follow the instructions

On Windows:

  1. Under 'My Computer,' go to 'Control Panel' (Vista: open Start Menu, then 'Control Panel')
  2. Select 'Security centre,' then under 'Manage Security Settings for ...,' select 'Windows Firewall' (Vista: just select 'Windows Firewall')
  3. On the 'General' tab, make sure the firewall is turned 'On' and the 'Don't allow exceptions' box is NOT checked
  4. Select the 'Exceptions' tab
  5. If the program you want to allow is in the list, click on the check box to allow it
  6. If the program is not in the list, click the 'Add Program ...' button and follow the instructions
  7. If you need to enable a specific port number, click the 'Add Port ...' button and follow the instructions

Back up your computer often. If you have time, back up right now.

The average user doesn't think of backing up until a disaster happens. Backing your computer up is a key precaution that could save you from a future headache.

Backing up doesn't have to be an ordeal. It can be quite simple--or can cover complex scenarios, if you want to do the extra work.

For some, backing up could just mean moving important files to a flash drive or external hard drive. We recommend a full system backup occasionally just in case.

Make sure to back up your computer at least once a week so that your files will always be saved in another location. In the event of a computer crash or hack, having a copy of everything is vital.

There are a ton of online-backup offerings, which typically cost $50 or more a year.

In addition to protecting your physical computer if you use cloud storage champion Dropbox, make sure you secure that as well.

If you use a cloud storage service like Dropbox, you don't even have to worry about backups, since your files are stored on Dropbox's servers.

But you'll want to make sure you're taking advantage of a feature called two-factor authentication to keep those files safe.

Two-factor authentication, also called two-step verification, means you're using another factor besides your password to secure your account. This can be a code you receive via text message to your mobile phone--which proves to Dropbox that you're you--or a special app which generates random codes.

Here's how to set it up:

  1. Head to www.dropbox.com and sign into the website.
  2. Click on your name in the upper-right to open your account menu.
  3. Next, click Settings from the account menu and select the Security tab.
  4. Under the Account sign in section, next to Two-step verification, turn the feature on.
  5. Make sure to save the 16-digit backup code. Without it, if something goes wrong (say, you lose your phone), you won't be able to get into your Dropbox account.
  6. Follow the instructions to get your special code to authenticate your account by phone or app.

Now that you're feeling safe, become an iPhone power user ...

NOW WATCH: Tech Insider videos

Want to read a more in-depth view on the trends influencing Australian business and the global economy? BI / Research is designed to help executives and industry leaders understand the major challenges and opportunities for industry, technology, strategy and the economy in the future. Sign up for free at research.businessinsider.com.au.