Windows Security Essentials Guide

Detailed Guidelines To Protect Your Windows System From Security Threats

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Windows Security Essentials Overviewed

In this guide we are going to cover important computer security essentials that can help protect your Microsoft Windows based computer from potential threats including computer hackers, viruses, worms, spyware and other malicious software.

Topics include computer firewalls, virus protection, anti-malware protection, automatic updates, user accounts, and more.

If you connect to the Internet, share files and folders with others on a network, or have a multiuser workstation where others use your computer system you definitely want to take precautions to protect yourself.  By using common windows security essentials such as an antivirus program, software firewall, and other key tools you may just prevent a potential disaster.

Despite these risks surfing the Internet is actually a pretty safe practice but you should definitely be aware of what threats are out there and you should also take the necessary precautions by using the key windows security essentials to protect yourself. 

For a visual perspective we like to compare surfing the Internet to driving a car.  Like driving a car there are risks but there are also tools to lessen those risks such as a seatbelt or airbag. The same goes for computers for we also have tools such as an antivirus program, software firewall, etc. Not wearing your seatbelt while driving may set yourself up for a disaster similar to surfing the Internet without antivirus protection.

Computer security is definitely something you don’t want to overlook, especially on Windows based computers since there are a ton of malicious programs out there designed to compromise a Windows based system.

In fact, computer security is so big that there are even advanced degrees on the subject including those in cyber security and computer forensics among many others. Pretty cool stuff and a great option to look into. Going to be an in demand career for the foreseeable future.

On a positive note, there are also a ton of tools available and security best practices that you can follow to protect your personal information. Before we get into the details let’s overview some common online threats.  You can’t protect yourself from something if you don’t know what you are protecting yourself from, right?

An Overview Of Common Online Security Threats

One potential security threat are criminal super nerds called hackers who typically understand the ins and outs of computer security and are looking to do harm to other computer users by spreading viruses, stealing personal information and worse.

Common motives for hackers include the challenge, joy, personal gain, and others motives only the hacker him/herself knows.

Viruses, worms and Trojan horses are malicious programs to watch out for.  Hackers typically create these to infect vulnerable computers on a network including local area networks in a home or business, or a wide area network such as the Internet.  Viruses are up there on the list of malicious software to be aware of for they are everywhere on the Internet and they can do some nasty damage to your computer or worse, such as allowing someone to steal your personal information or identity.    

Another big threat to your personal security is spyware.  Spyware in a nutshell is software that can display advertisements, collect personal information about yourself, and even change settings on your computer without your permission.  Generally spyware gets on your computer without appropriately obtaining your consent.
A common way people get spyware on their system is through a software program or website.  Often details to what you are installing are hiding in a license agreement; you know those big long lists that you need to agree with to install software.  Unfortunately people unknowingly install malicious software on their system because they don’t typically read the license agreement.  Best way to be safe is to install software only from trusted sources that claim to be malware free such as

Online phishing, pronounced like the word fishing is another big online threat you definitely want to know about.  In fact I personally have three family members who’ve fallen victim to a phishing scam and I have a small family, it’s that common. Phishing is nasty and it’s when you are tricked into revealing personal or financial information through a fraudulent e‑mail message or website. Watch out for phishing folks.

As you see there is a fair share of online security threats to watch out for, though as we’ve mentioned earlier you can protect yourself by following security best practices and by using windows security essential tools. In this next section we are going to overview some of the top recommended essential tools to get you started.

Windows Security Essentials - At A Glance

Five Recommendations To Protect You From Security Threats:

  • Firewall:  A firewall can help protect your computer by preventing hackers or malicious software from gaining access to it. Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 include built in firewalls.  See the Windows Firewall Guide for more information on firewalls.

  • Virus protection:  Antivirus software can help protect your computer against viruses, worms, and other computer security threats. There are ton of Antivirus programs out there including many free ones.  Common Antivirus programs include McAfee, Norton, AVG, Avast, and the latest Microsoft Security Essentials.

  • Anti-malware protection:  Antispyware software can help protect your computer from spyware and other potentially unwanted software. Common antispyware programs include Windows Defender, MalwareBytes, Spybot Search and Destroy, and Adaware. See the Spyware Prevention Guide for more details.

  • Windows Update:  When utilizing Windows Update Windows operating systems can routinely check for updates for your computer and install them automatically.  Windows Update is a Windows security essential tool for it will automatically install critical security patches and operating system updates. See the Computer Performance Guide for more details on Windows Update.

  • User Accounts: By using a standard account instead of an administrator account you can actually help make your computer more secure. For example if other people or hackers gain access to your computer while you are logged on they won't be able to tamper with the computer's security settings or change other user accounts, etc.

5 Popular Windows Security Essentials - An In Depth Look

In this section we are now going to take a closer look at each of our five recommendations. By no means are we covering every tool and best practice, however we've chosen these five essential guidelines for if practiced you can pretect yourself from just about any threat.

Firewalls: Windows Security Essentials #1

Firewall Windows Security Essentials Tips

A firewall is software or hardware that checks information coming from the Internet or a network and then either allows it to pass through to your computer or rejects it. Firewalls can be configured so you can personally allow specific traffic through or you can prevent access anytime.

Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7 operating systems all include a free built in firewall.  There are also a ton of third party firewalls available on the market.  For most users the built-in Windows firewall is sufficient and it offers many of the features of third party firewalls.

If you run a program such as a chat client like Yahoo Messenger and that application needs to receive information from the Internet, the Windows firewall will actually ask you if you want to block or unblock the connection.  If you decide to unblock (allow) the connection the Windows firewall will then add the program to an exception list and the firewall won’t bother you again the next time you launch the application. You can also configure Windows firewall settings anytime manually. 

A firewall is a key Windows security essential tool to help prevent hackers and malicious software from gaining access to your Windows based computer. 

For more information, see Windows Firewall Guide & Windows 7 Firewall Review.

Virus Protection: Windows Security Essentials #2

Virus Protection Windows Security Essentials Tips

Viruses are programs created by hackers that infect vulnerable computers on a wide area network such as the Internet or on a local area network such as one found in a typical home or business. 

Viruses come in various forms including worms and Trojan horses.  Viruses and worms often replicate themselves from computer to computer on a network and Trojan horses enter a computer by hiding within a program that appears to be legitimate such a free online game, screen saver, etc.

Viruses at their worst can do a ton of damage to a computer system including erasing information from your hard drive or even disabling your computer entirely.  There are other viruses too including those that affect your computers performance and stability.  Viruses were designed to be destructive software programs so it is best to protect your computer by running an up to date antivirus program. 

Antivirus programs protect your computer by running automatically in the background, and when a viral threat is detected the antivirus program typically quarantines or deletes the threat before it does damage to your computer.   Antivirus programs typically scan e-mail in addition to your local system files.

Windows operating systems do not include a built-in antivirus program so you will want to make sure you get one right way if your computer doesn’t already have one installed.  If yours doesn’t, Microsoft offers the Microsoft Windows Security Essentials virus and malware protection package for free.  It works quite well and we recommend you check it out.

There are also plenty of other free antivirus programs out there in addition to the Windows Security Essentials package offered by Microsoft.  AVG Antivirus Free Edition is one we’ve personally used and it works very well, there’s also Avast Antivirus and Avira Antivir Personal among others. 

If you bought your computer from a store or direct from a manufacturer it most likely has a trial version of McAfee or Norton Antivirus already installed.  That’s great but make sure you pay for the full version since the trial often runs out after 30 or 60 days, sometimes longer.  I can’t tell you how many computers I’ve repaired that had antivirus programs well beyond their trail period. 

If you do ultimately decide to go third party instead always remove the existing antivirus program first, having more than one on a Windows based system will cause instability or crashing.

Features to look for in an antivirus program included automatic updating capability and real-time protection. Most if not all antivirus programs offer these features, however make sure the features are activated. 

Automatic updating is important because new viruses are popping up every day and you will need the crucial virus definition files (catalog of viruses) that tell the antivirus program about a specific virus so that it can detect and remove it. If your virus definition files are out of date, your computer is vulnerable to new threats.

Real-time protection is also crucial for it is the actual antivirus application service that runs in the background monitoring your computer for new and existing viruses.  In the past I’ve seen individuals disable real-time protection to speed up their computer which never really made sense to me.  Sure it may speed up the computer but you lose the benefits of running the antivirus program in the first place.   These days’ computers are so fast that performance impact is negligible so there’s absolutely no excuse to disable real-time protection.

As you see having a solid antivirus program properly updated and configured is a key Windows security essentials tool that will help prevent viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and other potential malicious software from damaging your computer or compromising your personal information. 

Anti-malware Protection: Windows Security Essentials #3

Anti-malware Protection Windows Security Essentials Tips

Adware and spyware is a newer breed of online threats that can do a ton of damage to your computer and even your personal self.   Spyware can display advertisements, change settings on your computer, and even collect personal information about yourself which could in a worst case scenario lead to identity theft.

Spyware typically installs without your consent, sometimes hidden within an application such as a free online game, etc. Telltale signs of an adware/spyware infection included unwanted Internet browser toolbars, links, or favorites, a different homepage and weird pop-ups or apps running in your system tray down by the clock.

Some spyware even display no symptoms whatsoever, but they can still secretly collect sensitive information including the websites you visit or even the text you type.  Most spyware is installed through free software that you download and sometimes spyware is installed simply by visiting a website. 

There are many ways to protect your computer from malware. One of the best ways is to browse the Internet wisely.  Remember spyware is most likely going to originate from the Internet so definitely adopt safe online surfing habits.   If you do anything to protect yourself from malware, let this be your starting point, trust us.

Don’t browse sketchy websites such as peer to peer sites or free software sites unless the sites guarantee they are malware free like for example.  Also if you receive pop ups on your screen always close the pop ups via the red X in the corner as opposed to clicking on the ad itself in the pop up window.  We also recommend using a web browser such as Mozilla Firefox instead of Internet Explorer since it is more secure and there are less malicious programs targeting it.

Another way to protect yourself from malware infections is to use an antispyware program.  Modern Windows operating systems such as Windows Vista and Windows 7 have a built in antispyware program called Windows Defender which is turned on by default. 

Unfortunately Windows Defender in my experience is pretty lackluster but at least it is something.  If you are paranoid or happen to be a user who gets malware infections often, you may want to try a third party antispyware product instead. 

I personally do not use an antispyware program offering real-time protection but instead manually scan my system using the free MalwareBytes anti-malware software once a week in combination with using safe browsing habits.  Personally I have not had a malware infection for many years.

In the end and regardless of whether or not you run an anti-malware program or not, remember one of the most crucial Windows security essentials is to always surf the Internet wisely.  We cannot stress this tip enough and it alone can make all the difference.

For more information, see Spyware Detection Guide.

Windows Update: Windows Security Essentials #4

Windows Update Windows Security Essentials Tips

Microsoft regularly releases important updates including security updates and Windows operating system patches through its Windows Update service.  To ensure that you receive these updates I highly recommend you utilize automatic updating.  If it isn’t already turned on you may want to do so now.

Some people choose to disable Windows automatic updating because they find it annoying or whatnot, this I advise against.  If you fall in this category instead tweak it to be less annoying as opposed to disabling it completely.  If you have another motive for disabling it then that is your business.  

In my opinion however it is important to utilize the Windows update service with any modern Windows based operating system because critical security patches and fixes are released fairly often.  This is especially true for newer Windows versions such as Windows 7 since it is so new.

For more information, see Computer Performance Guide.

User Accounts: Windows Security Essentials #5

User Accounts Windows Security Essentials Tips

When you initially log on to your computer Windows grants you a certain level of rights and privileges depending on what kind of user account you have.  Typically people use their computers as administrators however there are two other types of user accounts to choose from including a standard user and guest user account.

While an administrator account is the most convenient because it provides complete control over your computer, it is actually better in many situations to use a standard account instead, even for your own primary account. 

By using a standard user account instead of an administrator account you can actually help make your computer more secure. For example if other people or hackers gain access to your computer while you are logged on they won’t be able to tamper with the computer's security settings or change other user accounts. On top of this you personally are less likely to accidentally install unwanted software since you won't be operating your own computer day in and day out with full rights.

A guest account on the other hand is a bit too restricted to use day to day as a primary account but I do enable a guest account for the guests visiting my home who may request Internet access.  Because the guest account is much more restricted than the other two account types it offers the best protection and gives me a peace of mind when I allow a guest to use my computer.

If you do decide to continue using an Administrator account as your own primary account, at the minimum be sure to setup your kids as a standard user or even a guest if you must.  I can’t tell you how many computers I’ve repaired in my time where children in the home were operating with full blown Administrator rights..

Windows Security Essentials Tips For Safe E‑mail And Web Usage

The Windows security essentials guide wouldn't be complete without e-mail and Web tips so here are a few key best practices for safely using e-mail and the Internet. By following these guidelines you may just keep your computer safe from viruses and other malware, or even protect yourself from identity theft.

  • Guard your personal information carefully and if a website asks for a credit card number, bank, or other personal information make sure you trust the website and verify that the site is secure.  If you make a transaction or input confidential information at any site you should see an https in the address bar of your browser and you will also notice a lock icon in your web browser noting that it is a secure site.  If you want you can click on the lock icon to get more information from the certificate authority.  Common certificate authorities include VeriSign, Inc. and Thawte.

  • When opening e‑mail attachments use caution, e‑mail attachments are a common source of viruses. Never open an e-mail attachment from an unknown e-mail address and even if you know the sender it never hurts to verify that the sender actually sent the attachment before you open it. Even then a safe sender can send a virus unknowingly so make sure you have antivirus protection installed.

  • Be cautious whenever you click on hyperlinks (links that open websites when you click them) in e­mail messages. Hyperlinks in e-mails are often used as part of phishing and spyware scams, and they can also potentially transfer viruses. Watch out for phishing scams folks, they are very common these days and can do a lot of personal damage. Phishing scams often originate from an email message as a hyperlink.  The link typically directs you to a fraudulent website that appears legitimate to try and trick you into putting in confidential information such as a username & password, or even a social security number. In a nutshell the best way to be safe is to only click links in e­mail messages that you trust.

  • Only install add-ons from websites that you trust, there are a ton of add-ons out there that can install spyware or other malware on your system.  A Web browser add-on can be a toolbar, video, animation, etc.  The Google Toolbar, Ask Toolbar, and Bing Toolbar are common browser add-ons. 

Windows Security Essentials Guide Conclusion:

In this guide we covered a slew of real world computer security threats and also provided a solid base of useful tips to help protect yourself from these threats.

We hope you enjoyed our Windows security essentials guide. If you have questions or any feedback please Ask The Computer Tech anytime!

We look forward to hearing from you!

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