– by David Matthews 2
Every year, thousands of people join the online world. Some will buy their own computers; others will simply be given them either as a gift or for work or school purposes.
Unfortunately, every year, we also see a new influx of computer viruses, snooping programs, and illegal schemes to deprive the online users of their money and/or their identity. These threats are bad enough of an annoyance for your more seasoned computer users, but to a new computer user, these threats can turn their new gift into a nightmare. Some new users have become so traumatized by these threats that they have literally abandoned their computers, vowing to never use one again.
With that in mind, I have come up with a few tips that should apply to most new computer users. Of course, I know that not everyone uses Microsoft products, but a few tips should also apply for those of you playing with Macs and Linux.
RTFM: Read That (Fine) Manual! – The biggest tool at your disposal is a book (and in some cases it really IS a book) that has all of the essential information about your computer. This book is called a MANUAL. I know we all hate to read… unless it’s our paycheck, or a sales circular… but this is one book that you should get to know. Take the time to go over this book and get to know the particulars about what your computer has and doesn’t have.
Upgrade and check often! – Even though you may have Microsoft’s Automatic Updates turned on, there are some patches and upgrades that you still have to download and install yourself. Visit Microsoft’s Windows Upgrade website (http://windowsupgrade.microsoft.com) on a regular basis, even if you have Automatic Updates turned on. Also, some updates may be available BEFORE the Automatic Updates feature gets around to doing your computer. Virus writers don’t wait until Microsoft gets around to coming up with a patch before they exploit the holes, so don’t wait for MS to get around to you!
Learn to like Microsoft! – Whether you think that Bill Gates is a genius or the devil incarnate; whether your love or hate Microsoft; if you’re using Windows, you better learn to LIKE Microsoft!
Visit their website (http://www.microsoft.com) regularly because they have some great tools that go beyond your standard system upgrades. One of the best little free trinkets is a program called Tweak UI, which helps you make little changes to the Windows XP system so you can customize things to your liking.
Microsoft also has their Knowledge Base, which is a repository of technical support documents of all of the various changes, updates, and problems that may occur at any given time. You’ll find that many companies will simply defer their Microsoft-related questions to the Knowledge Base. Trying to get the result you need may take a bit of time, but just like an Internet search engine, if you phrase the question right then the Knowledge Base SHOULD come up with the right answer for you.
Check your anti-virus program! – What sort of anti-virus program do you have? Do you have a whole suite of security programs? Are they running? How do you know it’s running? You’ll usually see an icon over by the taskbar showing what is working in the background.
If you bought a computer from a retail store or from one of the major computer stores like Dell or Gateway, then they will probably throw in at least an anti-virus program, if not the whole suite of security tools. The same, however, cannot be said if you bought a second-hand computer or one from a local mom-and-pop computer store. So make sure you check to see if you have an anti-virus system installed, and if you do not, then you better make sure to get one and install it as soon as possible.
The latest version of Windows XP (Service Pack 2) has a new feature called the Security Center. This monitors things like firewalls anti-virus programs and makes sure you have the latest version, and if you don’t then it will let you know. This version of XP will also come with its own firewall program, which is turned on by default.
If your anti-virus program has a schedule feature, set up a time every week to have it automatically scan your computer. Set it for a time when you know that you probably won’t be using the computer too much, such as very late at night or very early in the morning. That way your computer will be checked regularly for viruses while not interfering with your day-to-day activities.
Get multiple anti-spyware programs! – Yes, some anti-virus programs will offer anti-spyware protection as well. But that is usually not enough. Spyware programmers are notorious for designing their programs to avoid detection by some of the most popular security programs, sometimes even disabling those services to open the door for more programs to be downloaded and installed without your knowledge or permission. So it’s always best to have a second or even a third opinion in this matter.
There are two FREE spyware-detection programs available online. Spybot Search & Destroy and Ad-Aware will check your computer for spyware and other potentially dangerous programs. Install them and set some time in the week to have them run. (Not at the same time, though. That would really slow things down.) Do so once a week if possible, and make sure that these programs are updated with the latest data before using them. Remember that Spyware programmers are always looking out for new ways to hack into your computer.
Check your pop-up blocking programs – Pop-up windows are those advertising windows that either pop up in front of or behind your browser window. Pop-ups are a nuisance to people because it shoves all sorts of advertising on their computers, wasting computer resources and also slowing down your online browsing to any given website. For instance, you could visit a news website, and it could take forever for the page to load. In most instances, it’s not a problem with the page itself. The actual page itself could load in half-a-second. It’s all of that advertising being downloaded to your computer that’s slowing it down.
Some online services will provide you with free pop-up blocking software that will work on MOST forms of pop-up and pop-under advertising. Users of Windows XP with Service Pack 2 have a built-in pop-up blocker with their Internet Explorer browser. Browser toolbars from America Online, Yahoo, Google, and Earthlink will also have pop-up blocking features included. Unfortunately these programs aren’t instant cure-alls, and while they will block most pop-up and pop-under windows, they will also block essential pop-up windows that are not used for advertising.
Keep in mind that this is an all-or-nothing setup. Blocking programs cannot tell the difference between a legitimate window and junk advertising, so it will block everything unless you tell it otherwise.
Holding down the CRTL key while surfing through a page or clicking on a hyperlink will usually temporarily suspend the pop-up blocker. If you’re looking for a more permanent solution, your blocking program may allow you to include certain websites as "acceptable" locations for pop-up windows. Check with the program’s "options" to see how this is done, since the method can vary from program to program.
Watch the CAPS LOCK! – It’s very easy for people who have very little typewriting or data entry experience to leave the CAPS LOCK button on. But in the online world, especially when it comes to instant messaging and chatrooms, leaving the CAPS LOCK button on is considered SCREAMING AND SHOUTING AT THE TOP OF YOUR LUNGS!
It’s very annoying to the seasoned computer users and it makes you look like an idiot.
You don’t want to look like an idiot, do you? Of course not! So mind the caps lock.
Beware Friendly Attachments! – This one is a little hard for people to pick up, but this is how many of those viruses get spread around. You get an email, supposedly from a friend, or a family member, or a coworker or even just someone you know, and they have some sort of weird attachment with it. They claim it’s a new screen saver or some graphical display that you MUST check out. Only it’s NOT what they claim it to be. It’s a virus, and by the time you realize it, your computer is already under the control of hackers and Spammers.
Just like parents tell kids to never talk to strangers, you need to remember to never open up strange attachments, even if they supposedly come from people you know. At the very least, double-check with the sender themselves to make sure they really did send you that email. If they don’t know anything about it, then their computer may be infected with the virus itself. Be sure to delete the email in question, go offline, and run your anti-virus and anti-spyware programs IMMEDIATELY. Don’t go back online until you know for certain that your computer hasn’t been affected.
Also, if your email program has what is called a "Preview Pane", make sure this feature is turned off as soon as possible. The preview pane was a nice feature once upon a time, but then virus writers learned how to exploit it, allowing viruses and Spyware programs to be installed just when the message is previewed, without the actual message even being opened. So now this neat little feature has become a liability to users. (Note: Users of Microsoft’s Outlook and Outlook Express will find that the Preview Pane feature is turned on by default.)
Check your time zone – Double-click on the clock and check to make sure that it’s showing you in the right time zone. By default, Windows is set on Pacific Time. (Because Microsoft’s headquarters is on the West Coast, in case you’re curious.) If you’re not on Pacific Time, though, several clock settings for things like email will be screwed up. Make sure that Windows reflects the RIGHT time zone that you’re in. And if you’re in one of those areas that doesn’t recognize Daylight Savings Time, then make sure that the option box is NOT checked. (That feature is checked on by default.)
If your computer runs on Windows XP, connected to the Internet regularly, and you’re not on a company network, there’s a little feature that you way want to try out called "Internet Time". This allows your computer to coordinate its clock with one of several atomic clocks in the world to ensure precise time. You can set it up to check every day at a certain time, and you can even manually tell the computer to check it. (Note: if you’re connected to a network, you might find this option is either disabled or simply not available.)
Beware the pitfalls of multi-tasking! – Yes, you can have multiple programs and windows open, but bear in mind that each active program gobbles up computer resources, even if you’re not using it at the time. (And yes that includes that cute little screen saver you may have running when you’re not around.) Once the easily accessible resources (RAM) are used up, then the computer has to dip into some space on your hard drive, which isn’t as easy to play around with and slows things down considerably. So unless you’ve got plenty of RAM to spare, you may want to start closing down those applications that you’re not using.
Guard your personal information! – Identity thieves try all sorts of tricks to get you to give up your personal information. They look to steal things like your credit card numbers, bank account numbers, Social Security number, and even your home address and phone number. Their most notorious trick is to impersonate a bank or an online store and tell you that you need to correct some sort of error in their records. This scam is called "phishing". (Yes, that is how it is spelled, and not to be confused with the sport that involves a rod and reel.) Their deception will take you to a website that will even look like the real deal, but the only thing they are interested in is getting your information, and then exploiting you and bleeding you dry.
Banks and online services WILL NOT ask you for your personal information or passwords via email. If you have any suspicions about an online account, DO NOT follow the link given by email. Instead do a search yourself for the website and visit it. If everything is as it should be with your account, then the email is just another phishing trap, and you should delete it immediately.
Keep in mind your specifications – If you happened to get a brand-new, top-of-the-line computer, then you should be able to play most programs on the shelf today. But if you got one that’s been on the store shelf for a few months, or if you got a second-hand computer, then you really need to keep in mind what sort of setup you have. Most, if not all, programs have a list of specifications of what your computer SHOULD have at the very least in order for the program to run. Some will even have both a minimum and an optimal standard. If your computer is leaning closer towards that minimum standard, then you may still be able to run the program, but it will probably be quite slow or you’ll have limited functions.
The key things you need to know about your computer are the operating system, RAM, video memory, and not only your hard drive space, but also how much space you have left on your hard drive.
Power games demand MORE! – High-graphic computer games can be fun, but keep in mind that they are notorious for demanding the latest-greatest computer specifications. One well-known simulation game that came out a few years ago was so advanced for its time that it demanded that users have computers that weren’t even AVAILABLE yet.
Some game specifications will recommend a certain kind of video or audio card to get the "optimal result". Part of that is a subtle push to get you to either buy a computer with that hardware or to upgrade your current system with that hardware. Will the program still work if you don’t have that exact brand? Probably, but it may not look or sound as good as what you see on the box.
Oh, and if you’re still one of those who has dial-up Internet access, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of those online games. Most of those programs are designed for people with high-speed broadband access.
Many game designers will presume that ALL uses of their programs have the same kind of computers as they do. So if they have the latest, greatest, most recent computer system, then they believe that everyone else does too, even if that hardware still costs upwards of $3000. Call it the "Jones Principle", as in "Keeping up with the Joneses". (By the way, you’ll find that many web designers also operate under the "Jones Principle".)
Watch out for your kids! – We all hear about online predators who try to entice kids. But what doesn’t get reported is how much of this problem is the fault of parents who simply do not keep an eye on what their kids do online. Some parents will even make the critical mistake of letting their kids have an Internet-capable computer in their bedrooms. This is akin to having them play in the middle of a busy freeway.
As a parent, it is YOUR responsibility to make sure that your children are using the Internet properly. It’s not the responsibility of your online service or the various websites to watch out for your children. There are plenty of tools available for parents to help monitor computer use. Some of these may even be available through your online provider. But the best tool at your disposal is simply good parenting. You don’t have to be a software expert to figure out what your kids are doing online… just be a parent.
Read "Idiot" and "Dummies" books! – This isn’t to insult anyone’s intelligence, but rather to point out that there are books that are designed for those people who take pride in calling themselves "computer illiterate". You don’t have to default to your eight-year old neighbor to figure out where the power button is. There are plenty of books to help you out of that "technically-challenged" category, with the best ones being either "For Dummies" or being an "Idiot’s Guide". They’re very informative and they’re designed specifically for people with little or no technical experience, and they’re a whole lot cheaper than the computer courses at your local college or computer store.
Backup if possible – If your computer has a CD or DVD burner and you have something stored on your computer that you really want to keep, then it would be to your advantage to back it up to a disc. This includes things like any documents or family photos that you may store on your computer. If something were to happen to your computer, such as a virus attack or if your hard drive crashed, then you won’t have to worry about these things being forever lost.
The computer is not smarter than you – That box full of silicon, copper, plastic, and electricity may be a wonderful device, and it can do a lot of things all by itself faster than a human being. But it is still not smarter that a normal human being. Keep that in mind before you start throwing your hands up in frustration, screaming and shouting about what that computer "won’t let you do".
Every program in your computer was written by a human being, and it only does what it is told to do. It can’t guess what you want it to do. It can’t even figure out what you MIGHT want it to do. It just works on whatever it is programmed to do along with whatever commands you give it, and that’s only if it understands the command you give. In that regard, even the most intelligent computers are still pretty dumb compared to the human brain.
And yes, that includes those of you who consider yourselves to be "technically-challenged".
David Matthews 2 is a freelance writer living in Georgia. He has been around computers in one form or another since the 1980’s.
This article may be distributed freely only so long as it is reprinted in its entirety, with all proper credit given to the author.
2005 – Get Brutal Productions