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Lifestyles

May 8, 2010

Tech, G.P: Keeping programs up-to-date can help you avoid computer problems

What can a "normal" computer user do to avoid problems?

I'll give you some ideas.

Before we get too far into things, let me define what I mean by a "normal" user. I'm talking about the home user who surfs the Internet, uses e-mail, does some word processing or spreadsheet tasks, has a Facebook account and so forth.

By "problems,: I will be referring to the most common avoidable situation.

Today, that means keeping your computer from being infected with malware. Malware infections have turned into the single, most-common thing I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

The most successful way to avoid infections would be to simply not connect to the Internet at all. Don't laugh, there are situations where this can be the right thing to do. If you have extremely important stuff on your machine, and don't need that machine to do Internet-related tasks, don't connect it in the first place. That machine's life will be a lot simpler.

If that isn't the case, then we have to consider some more things.

If you're using Windows, and I present that as an "if," because there are other operating systems you may choose, then there are a lot of things.

First of all, turn on Automatic Updates in the control panel, if it isn't already that way. Keep your Windows system, whichever version it is, updated.

If you go into Windows update manually via the control panel, you may likely see something offering to let you use Microsoft Update, instead of just plain Windows update. Do it. Microsoft Update will get you the updates to other Microsoft programs, such as Office for example, which won't get updated otherwise. There are plenty of Office updates that deal with security, and you want them.

There are two other programs that most computers have installed that should also be kept updated to the latest version. They are Java and Adobe Reader. Both of these programs are also exploitable by malware.

If you receive a prompt to install an updated version of Java, do it.

Check which version of Adobe Reader you have installed by opening the program and clicking "help" and "About Adobe Reader." The latest version, as of this writing, is 9.3.2. Under the same "help" menu you can click on "check for updates." The latest versions of Reader will automatically prompt you to install updates. Do them. If you have an older version, like version 8 or even older, uninstall that and go to the Adobe site, download and install version 9.

The next thing to do is make sure that you have an anti-virus program (many are now referred to as anti-malware or Internet security programs) on your computer and that it is also kept updated.

A lot of people fall down here. Most new brand-name computers come with a free trial of such a program, but after a certain length of time you either have to buy it, or it stops getting updates. People don't buy it, and then they wind up with malware, because the program didn't recognize a new variant of a malware program.

So do either of the following. Bite the bullet and pay for a commercial anti-malware program, or switch entirely to a free one. There are several free, good anti-malware programs out there for you to download and install without paying a dime. Microsoft Security Essentials is a good one, and it was rated No. 2 by Consumer Reports in the free category.

If you want to know which was No. 1, you'll have to get Consumer Reports to find out. I don't want to steal it's thunder.

Of course, all this is really just preparatory work. There is still the behavioral component that needs to be mentioned. A mechanic would call it the "nut behind the wheel."

Don't go to websites that have reputations for sleazy behavior. I avoid places that offer free copies of pirated commercial software, or copyrighted music, especially. Don't let your kids use Limewire to download music or programs. Keep away from "too good to be true" sites.

If, all of a sudden, you get a pop-up saying that your computer is infected, don't immediately do what it says. It may very well be a fake warning and lead you into a real problem. Look very carefully to see if the message is actually coming from your installed anti-malware program, or if it is from another program that you're not familiar with.

If it's not from the anti-malware program that you know you have previously installed, don't take its suggestion and scan your computer.

Of course, the fact that you get such a pop-up message may already mean that it's too late. At that point, you may have to look for help to remove the infection, and it may not be easy. That could take up another whole column, however.

So, take this laundry list of things to do and check it against your own computer.

Recall that I mentioned earlier that we are talking about Windows computers here today. Next column, I will give you some alternative ideas to using Windows all the time.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at techgp@dailystarmail.com. His columns can be found at

www.thedailystar.com/techgp.

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