Web Browsers and Computer Security RisksCourtney Macavinta
Gayle Trent, a writer and mother who lives in Virginia, remembers well the day when her computer was taken over by a virus. She was the victim of what’s known as a browser redirect virus, which is a computer virus that spreads through fake security alerts or pop-ups you encounter while you’re surfing the Web.
"It was awful -- like gremlins had taken over my keystrokes,” she says. “When I turned on the computer, I would type in a URL to a search engine, but the browser would take me to another site. I knew that was not the address I typed in. When pornographic images started randomly popping up on the screen, I knew for certain the computer was infected and I turned it off.”
A neighbor, who happened to be a computer technician, helped Trent scrub her computer clean of viruses. But Trent’s experience is all too common. While Web browsers give you access to the Internet, they can also leave a door open to your home. That open door can let viruses and other malicious programs wreak havoc on your computer. It can also allow hackers to steal your personal information or use your PC in the commission of other cybercrimes. The results could include identity theft, data loss or financial theft. To protect your browser, experts say you can take the following steps to surf more safely:
1. Don’t click on pop-ups or virus warnings.
Browser vulnerabilities tend to come through three channels: the browser itself, browser add-ons, plug-ins or extensions, or from you -- meaning the links you click or precautions you don’t take.
These days, experts say Internet users are often duped by “scareware.” These fake security alerts you receive warn that your computer has a virus and suggest that you click a link to download software to remove the virus. In reality, the download actually infects your computer with a virus.
“Really the best thing you can do is approach everything with caution and read things before you click on them,” says Richard Hughes, owner of Hey PC Guy!, a tech support firm. “It's amazing how many infections could be avoided by reading the pop-up and realizing it's not a message from your installed antivirus software.”
2. Increase your browser security.
You might be unaware that you’re using what are known as free browser add-ons, plug-ins or extensions. These programs often enable your browser to do things like show videos, display PDFs or documents, or play music or games using technologies like Java. They can add helpful elements to your browser, like a toolbar with a search box. Unfortunately, rogue browser add-ons can also add viruses to your computer.
To boost your browser security, take the following steps, depending on which browser you use:
- Internet Explorer. Be mindful of which add-ons you’ve downloaded. Go to Tools > Manage Add-ons to see which add-ons you’re using, says Hughes. You can delete ones you don’t recognize or didn’t download yourself. Research the add-ons online first to make sure you don’t delete something you find useful. You can also reset IE under the Advanced Tab and start from scratch. But there is a trade-off, says Hughes, and you might lose some functionality. You’ll need to decide which add-ons you can’t live without and re-install them.
- Safari. Under Safari > Preferences > Security, you can decide whether to enable Java, pop-ups or plug-ins. To review your plug-ins, go to Help > Install Plug-ins. To remove one, quit the browser and go to the folder on your computer: Library/Internet Plug-ins/. There, you can remove plug-ins you don’t want.
- Google Chrome. When using this browser, you may get a warning when a site has some “insecure” content, and it will ask if you want to load secure data only. To review your settings, Hughes says to go to Options > Under the Hood.
- All browsers. Keep your browser software updated with the latest version and security patches. Under your security preferences, choose if you want to be warned about cookies -- or to not accept them all. Cookies store some of your personal data or preferences with a website while you surf (e.g., your shopping cart on your favorite retail site is using a cookie). And always keep your antivirus software updated -- just in case.
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