Today’s computer environment is filled with pitfalls. From computer viruses, phishing attacks, spyware and spam. If you connect your computer to anything other than a power outlet, you need to have protective security software installed.

Viruses are a danger to any computer system, whether or not they are connected to a network or Internet connection. Anyone can get into your system by setting down at its keyboard and inserting a CD, DVD, or a USB drive. Once that media is inserted, your computer system is at risk. The security needed to protect your system is in the form of an anti-virus program that is installed and running at all times. (See Anti-virus Programs article.)

Phishing attacks are a major threat to email. Phishing is sending you an email falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam you into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft. Currently, the only protection against phishing is to be vigilant. Software manufacturers are constantly updating their email programs to help combat this threat. But still, when you check your email, be sure you know who is sending you that missive and never click on any hyperlink in a questionable email. Most reputable companies like eBay, PayPal, and banks will not send you an email requesting you to click on a link in their email. (See Phishing Attacks article.)

Spyware is any software that covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without his or her knowledge, usually for advertising purposes. Spyware applications are typically bundled as a hidden component of freeware or shareware programs that can be downloaded from the Internet; however, it should be noted that the majority of shareware and freeware applications do not come with spyware. Once installed, the spyware monitors user activity on the Internet and transmits that information in the background to someone else. Spyware can also gather information about email addresses and even passwords and credit card numbers. Your defense against this is to have a good anti-spyware program installed and running at all times. (See Anti-spyware Programs article.)

Spam is electronic junk mail or junk newsgroup postings. Some people define spam even more generally as any unsolicited email. However, if a long-lost brother finds your email address and sends you a message, this could hardly be called spam, even though it's unsolicited. Real spam is generally email advertising for some product sent to a mailing list or newsgroup. Two things you can do to limit your exposure to spam is a) never give out your email address to any website you visit unless you really want email from them, alternatively, give that website an alternate email address that you have set up especially to use as a junk email collector (a good choice as some websites require you to login with an email address to even view their site) and b) install a good anti-spam program into your email program and have it running at all times.

Last but most important of all, if you have Internet access at all, you absolutely need to have a firewall program running at all times. A firewall program is designed to prevent unauthorized access to or from your computer and/or private network. Firewalls can be installed as hardware or software, or a combination of both. If you share your Internet connection with other computers in your home or business, your hardware router should have a firewall built into it (check the box – if it doesn't have one, don’t buy it). In addition, have a software firewall program installed on all computers connected to the Internet whether or not the connection is shared. This program should also be running at all times. (See Firewalls article.)

If you have read this far, you can see that all of the protection programs mentioned above need to be running on your computer system at all times. But that isn't enough. In order to keep your computer well protected, these programs need to be updated on a regular basis – just as your car needs oil changes, your computer needs ‘oil changes’ in the form of program updates. All of these programs can only protect you against threats they know about and there are newer, more vicious threats created every day.

Keep your computer system safe by making sure all your protective programs are updated at least weekly.