Last updated Feb. 10, 2006.
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These Internet and PC security notes are written to Windows 2000 but can be adapted to Windows 98se, ME, and XP. Variations to this are certainly normal to accomodate specific PC configurations. There are many good programs and utilities in addition to the ones I have listed in the links section, those are just the ones that I use regularly. I encourage everyone to search the web for information and programs that help keep your PC working well and secure when accessing the Internet.
It is generally agreed that you should NOT use Microsoft Internet Explorer web browser. It has been exploited more than any other browser by writers of spybots, trojans, and other viruses and variants. Having said that, it is a fact that IE is considered the most supportive of web page content, scripts, etc. Try other broswers like Firefox (Mozilla) and Opera, both free, to see if they will work for your needs. I use a browser shell which sits on top of IE, eliminating the security holes and providing much better configurability. One such browser shell that works well is Maxthon (previously MyIE2). I have tried a few others, but they had problems. Be reminded, no single browser is perfect. Try several, and use the one that fits your requirements and web browsing needs. If you must use IE, be sure you have the latest version of IE, presently IE6sp1, and be sure your OS has the latest service pack and security patches from Microsoft. See links below.
Keeping your PC free from pests, the following tasks should be performed periodically to prevent unwanted attacks on your computer from hi-jackers, spy-bots, and similar Internet sourced threats.
Stop all applications and check all startup folders for programs that you have not specifically intended to start when Windows starts or you log on. This includes your logon ID folder under Documents and Settings as well as the All Users folder. Many viruses will place themselves in startup folders so they becom active when your computer starts. Some applications will put shortcuts to programs into the startup folder. In general, many are not really required, but are said to speed startup of certain applications. I find that these just take up RAM and can often slow PC performance. Some, however, may be desired or needed, like a special clock program, CD drive monitor, virus/spybot active protection, or wireless adapter driver.
Some startup time programs and drivers will not appear here but are buried deeper in the Windows environment such as the WIN.INI system file and the Windows registry. REGEDIT is a system program that can be used to examine and change registry entries but must be used with great caution as you can disable Windows componenets by making improper modifications to the registry.
Look in the Documents and Settings folder which is typically on the C: drive. Within each userid (including one called All Users), at \Start Menu\Programs\Startup, you will find each users list of programs and shortcuts that are started at logon. Verify each of these for validity at startup time. If you can't identify an entry, get rid of it. Most normal entries should be shortcuts. If you find an executable file (.EXE, .COM, .DLL, .BAT or the like), you may have found an intruder.
Be familiar with what you have installed on your computer (see desktop organization below) and know what you want to start at boot/logon time. Office and other such startup software usually just takes up space and can make your PC sluggish. They often place cute application bars on the desktop or icons where they're not very useful. From the control panel, visit Add/Remove Programs from time to time to review what is installed on your system.
From the Control Panel, open the Internet Options (properties). This is also found under the Tools menu of IE, but best started from the Control Panel with no browser running. The "Delete Files" function will clean up lots of junk that takes up space and can slow down browsing. When you delete files, delete offline content separately.
Cookies are generally harmless but can sometimes allow more information out than you might want. They were intended to hold information about your visit to a website that would be used the next time you visit that page. Sites, however, sometimes look at cookies as a sort of tracking mechanism and this information can be used to target advertisements, etc. Be aware, many websited require that cookies be settable to work properly. Most web based email hosts require to ability to set a cookie. Some people configure their web browsers to delete all cookies each time they exit the program. While this may be extreme, it shows how some take extra precautions. Most good cookies will come back anyway, but at the expense of requiring you to enter certain data each time you access a particular web site.
Under Settings, the Temporary Internet files folder need not be much more than about 64MB, more just slows things down and takes more space. Under View Objects, the only thing you typically need is the Flash Object. Anything else might be an intruder, bot, or virus. Delete everything you cannot positively identify. Set Privacy to Medium-High. Use the Browser Check from Qualsys to set additional Security items as needed. Shields Up from Gibson Research also has some good information and live tests.
Run HiJackThis.exe to check your IE browswer environment for unwanted help objects and other intrusions. A normal scan screen might look like this:
This is just an example and yours will probably differ somewhat. BHO entries are the most prevalent of spyware programs, but other startup related hijacking will show up here too. Look carefully at each entry and try to figure out what it is for.
Near the top of the scan, you might see a bunch of stuff related to Internet searching, most of this will be disposed of as it most likely is a result of a web site changing your search preference without your knowledge.
Near the bottom, you should see your Domain Name Servers (DNS) in an HKLM line. Become familiar with what they SHOULD be (get this information from your ISP). If that line differs, get rid of it.
Reboot your PC and run Spybot Search and Destroy before running any progams, and before connecting to the Internet. Most often, you should delete everything Spybot S&T finds. Keep it updated by downloading updates regularly and use the Immunize function to block undesirable pages.
Use Web based email like Yahoo or Google (Gmail) to avoid downloading emails and potentially harmful content and files into your computer. Web based email is also portable and you can access all your saved mail anywhere in the world. You don't ever need to change your email when you change ISPs.
For more flexibility in composing email, you can use Outlook Express for outgoing email by disabling the incoming Mail Server Name, simply specify a name like "disabled". You will need to specify the SMTP server name for outgoing mail as specified by your ISP.
Desktop organization can also help you keep tabs on what programs are installed on your system. Launch applications from the Start Menu which is highly customizable, resizable, and movable. This way all applications start from the same place and you don't have to keep closing all the windows to see the icon ridden desktop. Keep you desktop as free of icons as you can (the minimum is usually 3) so you can put one of my pictures there as wallpaper :).