How to protect PC from hackers, spyware and viruses

Who I am
Pau Monfort
@paumonfort

In the previous article we discussed how to improve our online privacy, related to this we decided to write an article on how to protect PC from hackers, spyware and viruses, which falls more or less in the same category, the purpose is always that, to steal our data.


To protect your PC, we need to learn good cyber security habits

When we are young, our parents teach us the general rules to keep us safe. Always look both ways before crossing the street. Never get in the car with a stranger, don't take candy from someone you don't know.



Unfortunately today's technology didn't exist when many of us were young, so there is a definite need to have the same kind of common sense, but adapted to the digital world.

1. How to protect PC from hackers, spyware and viruses using strong passwords and a password manager

Passwords are still one of our best defenses against hackers. Most sites will require minimal password complexity. For example, they will say that a password must be of a certain length and contain a particular mix of characters. Unfortunately, any type of password that a human can easily remember is likely to be broken through brute force attacks sooner or later. 


The best thing you can do to protect your computer from hackers is to use a trustworthy password manager. These managers keep track of all your passwords securely and will generate random strong passwords that are nearly impossible to guess using brute force or any other password cracking method.


The good news is that most people don't have to search very far for a password manager. Google Chrome already has a very good one built in. It can generate strong passwords within the browser and synchronize them with the cloud. So wherever you log into your Google account, you can easily recover passwords.


2. How to protect accounts from hackers using passwords

Of course, you need to set passwords on anything that could fall into the wrong hands. Your computer, phone, and tablet should all have their own passwords or passwords. Biometric unlocking, such as fingerprint or facial recognition, are not very secure. So it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with your device's biometric kill-switch, if it has one. 


For example, if someone forces you to hand over your computer or phone, they won't be able to access the device without your code. However, they can point the camera at your face or place their finger on the fingerprint sensor and unlock “your” phone.

3. How to protect your PC using encryption wherever possible

Encryption is a technique that mathematically encrypts data so that it cannot be read without the appropriate password. For example, websites starting with "https" use a secure encrypted method for sending data. So only you and the receiving website know what you are saying to each other. 

Outsiders, like your service provider or anyone who checks the data packets as they pass through various stops on the internet, only know your IP address and the address of the page you are visiting.


Not only should you avoid websites that don't use encryption, but you should also stick to chat services that offer "end-to-end" encryption. WhatsApp is one example. End-to-end encryption also prevents WhatsApp itself from knowing what is being said in chats.



4. If you want to protect your computer from hackers, don't trust anyone blindly

One of the biggest risks you will face when browsing the Internet comes from representation and anonymity. When you interact with someone, you have no idea if they are who they say they are. In fact, thanks to artificial intelligence, you can't even be sure you're interacting with a real human being. 

This means that it is very important to have some sort of confirmation from a third party that you are in contact with the person you are supposed to be with. Even if the person is who they say, you should also accept their claims and promises with some doubt. Treat them with the same skepticism you would do with a new acquaintance in real life.

5. Secure your account by using two-factor authentication (2FA) where possible

Two-factor authentication is a security method where you use a completely different channel as the second part of your password. It is one of the best ways these days to protect your accounts from hackers. So, for example, you may receive a one-time PIN via your email account or as a text message to a registered number when you log into a service. With "2FA" password theft is not enough to allow malicious people to access your account.

  • Microsoft Authenticator: what it is, how it works and how to use it!

Of course, with enough effort, criminals can get around 2FA. They may also attempt to hack your email password or run a "SIM swap" scam and take control of your phone number. However, this is a lot of extra effort and risk, making it unlikely that you will be targeted in this random way. As such, 2FA is one of the most powerful deterrents you can put in place.



How to deal with hackers and protect your PC

The term "hacker" has a wide range of meanings in the computer world. Many people consider themselves to be hackers, and people who are really hackers may not conform to the image most people get from movies. However, hackers are out there which means you need to know how to deal with them.

How many types of hackers are there?

Let's start by clearing up some misconceptions. Not all hackers are criminals. In the past, legal hackers insisted that criminal hackers be referred to as "crackers," but the term never stayed in the mainstream.

There are three types of hackers: white hat, gray hat, and black hat.

White hat hackers are also referred to as "ethical" hackers. These hackers never break the law and everything they do is with the consent of their targets. For example, a company that wants to test the security of its network can hire a white hat hacker to perform a "penetration test". If they get in, they won't steal or damage anything. Instead, they will report to the customer and help him devise a fix for their security vulnerability.

Gray hat hackers also do not harm deliberately, but they are not above breaking the law to satisfy their curiosity or find flaws in a security system. For example, a gray hat hacker can run an unsolicited penetration test on someone's system and then let them know later. As the name suggests, gray hats can be criminal, but not harmful.

Black hat hackers are the black men most people think of when using the term "hacker". These are malicious computer experts who want to make money or just sow anarchy. He's the black hat hacker we should all be wary of.

What is social engineering?

It's easy to think of hackers using high-tech methods to break into systems, but the truth is that the most powerful tool in a hacker's arsenal doesn't involve computers at all. A system is only as strong as its weakest link and, more often than not, that weak link is a human being. So rather than taking on a strong technological system, hackers will target the weaknesses of human psychology.

If you want to protect your PC, a very common tactic is to call someone, such as a secretary or low-level technical staff at a company. The hacker will pretend to be a technician or authority and ask for information. Sometimes the information is obviously not sensitive. There are also social engineering techniques that can be performed via text chat, in person, or via email.

How to tell if an email is a virus?

Email remains one of the most popular ways for bad guys to catch you. It's perfect, because you can just send millions of emails and find victims through huge numbers. 

The best defense against malicious emails is knowing how to spot them. Any email that offers you implausible rewards and asks you to part with the money should be discarded. It might be easy to laugh at the idea of ​​a prince in a distant land who will give you millions of dollars if you now part with only a relatively small sum. However, millions of dollars are stolen from those who fall in love with these scams every year. If something sounds suspicious or too good to be true, it probably is.

One of the best ways to detect these scams is to enter the email text into Google or by visiting a site like ScamBusters. There will certainly be a very similar scam already registered.

In addition to the general class of scam emails, there are also phishing and spear phishing emails. These emails aim to obtain information from you that can be used in further attacks. The most common targets are usernames and passwords.

A phishing email usually has a link in it that leads to a fake website, meant to look like your online bank or some other site. Thinking you are on the real site, you enter your username and password, passing it directly to people who shouldn't have it.

Spear phishing is the same thing, except that those who target you know who you are. They will then personalize the email with specific details. They may even try to pretend to be your boss or someone you know.

The way to deal with phishing attempts and protect your PC from hackers is to never click on unsolicited email links. Always go to the site alone and make sure the web address is correct. Spear phishing attempts can be thwarted by using a second channel to verify it.

For example, if it's someone who claims to be from your bank, call the bank and ask to speak to that person directly. Likewise, pick up the phone and ask your boss, friend, or acquaintance if he really sent the mail in question or not.

Protect your PC even when you are away from home

It's easy to think of hackers as people plying their trade miles away, sitting in front of a computer in a dark room somewhere. In real life, the person sitting at a cafe table could very well hack you while sipping a latte.

Public spaces are the hackers of choice. They may try to deceive you in person by asking you for private information. The kinds of things you would put in security questions or that can be used in social engineering attacks. Sometimes people can just look over your shoulder as you type in a password or view sensitive information.

A common threat is public WiFi. Anyone on the same WiFi network as you can see the information your device is sending and receiving. They might even access your device directly if it's not configured properly in some way. 

The most important precaution to take if you need to use a public WiFi network is to use a VPN, which will encrypt all data that comes out of your computer. You also need to use a firewall and specifically mark the WiFi network as public, to block direct access by other users on the network. Usually you will be asked if a network is private or public when you first connect.

The last important thing you should be careful of is public USB devices. Never insert a flash drive found lying around in your computer or work computer. Hackers often leave spyware-infected drives hoping that someone will connect it to their computer, thus giving them access. 

Public charging points are also dangerous. You need to use a USB cable which can only supply power and not data when charging from unknown sources. In case the charger has been replaced with a hacked one.

Ways to avoid malware and malicious apps and keep your PC safe

Malicious software includes viruses, spyware, adware, trojans, and various other subtypes of malicious software packages. We will review all types of malicious software and then also explain how to avoid or fix the problem.

What is a computer virus?

Arguably the best known form of malware, a computer virus is self-replicating software that spreads from one computer to another via disks, drives, and email. Viruses are not self-contained programs. Instead, they usually attach themselves to another legitimate program and execute their code when you run that program. 

In addition to making copies of itself to infect new computers, viruses also have a "payload". This can be something harmless or mildly irritating, like a message that pops up to laugh at you, or it can be serious. Like a virus that completely erases all your data.

The good news is that viruses cannot spread on their own. They need your help! The first thing to protect your PC is antivirus software. Windows Defender, which comes with Windows 10, is perfectly adequate for most people, but there are plenty of options available. Although viruses exist for macOS and Linux, these markets are relatively small, so virus creators don't care about these machines.

However, things are changing and if you're using one of these operating systems it's a good idea to find an antivirus package you like, before their growing popularity brings a flood of new opportunistic viruses.

In addition to using antivirus software, common sense precautions include not plugging USB drives into any old computer. Mostly public computers. You should also be very careful about running software you find on the internet that doesn't come from a trusted source. Pirated software, in addition to being illegal, is a hotbed of viruses and other malware. 

Trojan

Named for the wooden horse that smuggled a group of soldiers into the city of Troy, this type of software pretends to be a legitimate utility or other useful program. As with a virus, the user runs the program and then the malicious code becomes effective. Also, as with a virus, what that payload is depends on what the creators want to achieve. Trojans differ from viruses in that they are self-contained programs and do not self-replicate.

Most antivirus software maintains a database of Trojan signatures, but new ones are continually being developed. This makes it possible for some new ones to pass quietly. In general, it's best not to run any software from a source you don't fully trust to protect your PC.

Ransomware

This is a particularly dangerous form of malware, and the damage ransomware can do is mind-boggling. Once infected with this malware, it silently starts encrypting and hiding your data, replacing it with dummy folders and files of the same name. Ransomware authors have different approaches, but malware typically encrypts files in locations that likely contain important data first. Once your data has been encrypted, a popup will appear asking you to pay in exchange for the encryption key.

Unfortunately, once encrypted, there is no way to recover your information. However, under no circumstances should you ever give money to ransomware creators! In some cases, you can get older versions of important files by checking Volume Shadow Copy. However, the most effective way to protect yourself from ransomware is to store your most important files in a cloud service like DropBox, OneDrive, or Google Drive. 

Even if the encrypted files are synced back to the cloud, these services all offer a rolling backup window. So you can go back to the moments before the files were encrypted. This turns a ransomware attack from a major disaster into a mild irritation.

Worm

Worms are another form of self-replicating malware, but there is a big difference to viruses. Worms don't need you, the user, to do anything to infect a machine. Worms can roam networks, entering through unsecured ports. They can also make use of vulnerabilities in other software programs that allow the execution of malicious code.

What can you do with worms? These aren't a big deal these days, but to protect your PC, make sure you have a software firewall on your computer and / or router. Always keep your software and operating system up to date. At least when it comes to security updates. Of course, keeping your antivirus up to date is a great precaution.

Adware and spyware

AdWare and Spyware are two rather irritating types of malware that can cause varying levels of harm. AdWare usually doesn't harm anything on purpose. Instead, it makes advertisements appear on the screen.

This can render your computer unusable by cluttering the screen and using a lot of system resources, but once you remove the AdWare, your computer shouldn't be drunk anymore.

Spyware also rarely causes direct harm, but it is far more harmful. This software spies on you and then reports to its creator. This can involve recording your screen, looking at you through your webcam, and recording all your keystrokes to steal passwords. It's scary stuff, and as this happens in the background, you won't even know it's happening. 

Specialized apps to protect your PC and useful for removing malware like AdAware will make the work of these programs easier, but you can also prevent infection in the same way you do for trojans and viruses.

Redirects to unwanted sites

Redirecting to unwanted sites are a particular pain in the neck. This malware takes control of your web browser and redirects you to pages for the benefit of the creator. Sometimes this means fake or deceptive search engines. Sometimes it means being redirected to fake versions of sites or pages full of unsavory advertisements. 

The good news is that the same anti-malware software that takes care of adware and spyware will also take care of browser redirects. If you're running Windows 10, that's not a problem, because Windows requires your permission to make the kind of changes browser hijackers need to have to work.

Further Reading:

  • Does Windows 10 Need Third Party Antivirus?
  • The best alternatives to Avast Antivirus
  • How to protect your PC webcam to avoid being spied on
  • What is a trojan virus?
  • How to know if your phone has been hacked
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