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SOME THINGS are better left to professionals.  Editing the registry or manually removing viruses from the system files come to mind.  BUT general maintenance is a necessary responsibility that comes with computer ownership.  Preventive maintenance should be done on your computer every thirty days or so.  It takes only a little while and can save you time and expense in the future.  Here are my recommendations for a “security baseline” for the average computer (all links are for free software programs). 

As hackers have become more devious and creative, the necessity of protecting yourself from them has also become more cumbersome, so I apologize in advance for what morphed from a few points to a lengthy discussion.  Generally, however, a security baseline should at a minimum include the following “multi-layered” security approach (see Defense-in-Depth):  A firewall, anti-malware and anti-virus software, a secure Web browser and a process for keeping applications frequently updated. You probably don’t need everything discussed below, but you should be aware of these things. 

You will also notice that I opt for a “best-of-breed” approach, i.e. each program (anti-virus, anti-malware, spam fighter, pop-up blocker, rootkit remover, firewall) is the best at what it does and usually  does only one thing, but does it extremely well.   It doesn’t try to be a “jack of all trades, master of none,” possibly slowing down your PC in the process or doing a less than stellar job for all tasks. 

ALWAYS REMEMBER:  Security is an evolving process.  It is an ongoing circle where vulnerabilities are discovered and protected against every day, until new ones occur.  Click HERE for more...

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=  INTERNET TOOLS

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=  WINDOWS TOOLS

NOTE: Always BACK UP your computer or data before running any of the following programs (see Point 18, below).  If they cause a corruption, at least you can recover your system or your personal data files and they won’t be lost forever...

1.  First, remove all temporary and cached files and empty the Recycle Bin.  There’s no sense wasting time scanning files that have to be removed anyway. [Try CLEAN UP, ATF Cleaner or, if you’re sure about what you’re doing, CCleaner] NOTE:  You might not want to remove any cookies that might be used by your online banking site or similar sites, since in a few cases the passwords are stored in those cookies, otherwise you might have to re-set your browserWindows Disk Cleanup will also remove unnecessary files quite well, including unnecessary DLL files (Windows Update Cleanup feature), which can cause problems.

2.  Second, run a complete disk scan with your anti-virus program and repair or quarantine any viruses found.  [NOTE:  If virus notifications continue to appear, then you may have worms or dialers that are more complex that cannot be removed by standard anti-virus programs and will require professional help for manual removal from your operating system.  It’s also probably not a good idea to attempt to remove boot sector viruses or rootkits on your own, even with free software.]  An excellent, free, anti-virus is AVG from Grisoft, which is simple to use and does not take up extensive system resources as some of the larger programs do [try AVG free].  Or try the paid versions of McAfee, Norton, Kaspersky, etc.  But, just like a flu shot isn’t a 100% guarantee that you won’t get the flu, even the best anti-virus software won’t prevent an infectionOther free anti-virus - Trend Micro, Panda, Avast, Avira, Clamwin & Microsoft Desktop Security Tools.

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3.  Next, scan for spyware.  If you’re concerned that the malware is resident in memory and cannot be removed because it operational, then first run a program like RKill, which stops them so that they can be removed without reappearing.  Programs like AdAware, Spy Sweeper, MalwareBytes  or Combofix will do the job nicely, but be careful to follow the instructions (particularly with ComboFix, as if not used properly it can damage your system.  Remove all recommended spyware at the conclusion of the scan. If you have persistent threats that get into your machine, you might want to consider the paid version of anti-malware programs that will block the malware before it gets on your computer, rather than manually cleaning it after it does.   In addition, there are available numerous programs that remove specific spyware, many of which are quite complicated.  Again, depending on your operating system, you could also use some of the free Microsoft Desktop Security Tools.

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>>>4 and 5, below, probably aren’t necessary unless you’re experiencing a specific problem that require them...

4.  If you feel competent, run Hijack This to remove browser hijackers and unnecessary BHOs from your browser. [Try Hijack This]

5.  Run CW Shredder by Trend Micro to remove any Cool Web search variants. [Try CWShredder]  You don’t see much CW, but it can’t hurt.

6.  Go into the Control Panel, then Add and Remove Programs, or Programs and Features in Windows 7 and 8, and go through the entire list, removing unnecessary programs, trial programs, spyware and toolbars that you don’t want, shouldn’t need and probably didn’t ask for.

7.  If you feel competent, run MSCONFIG from the Command Line (see msconfig), and disable any programs that you don’t want running in background when starting up, which will increase your available RAM and speed up your computer.  [This may not be a permanent fix and you may have to run regedit or use one of the utilities available for this purpose if it becomes a recurring problem.]

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8.  UPDATES: If you feel really adventurous, and it isn’t running automatically already, check out the Windows updates (Internet Explorer> Tools> Windows Updates)  and see if you want to install any specific updates or security patches.  If you don’t know what they are or if you don’t think they’re applicable (e.g. Portugese language keyboard support), then don’t bother.  But usually security and important updates should be accepted.  Same for Java and Flash updates, (if you are even using Java) because that’s how most of the more recent infections get through to your computer these days, 78% according to a leading anti-malware vendor. Check them in your Control Panel.   Finally, make sure each of your browsers are up to date, as this alone will protect you from a variety of current intrusions and malware.

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9.  Check your software to make sure you have the very latest versions of browser add-ons, Flash player, Quick-time, Java, Adobe Reader or other PDF Viewers and the like (if you have them installed), as more and more viruses and intrusions are using these programs to enter your computer, completely without any active engagement on the user’s part.  You might also want to check to see if you have the latest firmware for your hardware, such as modems and routers, while you’re at it.  (See discussions in Security.)  And make sure your hardware and software passwords are secure and changed periodically.  If you want, you can always get programs such as Secunia PSI to automatically keep your most important software up to date and free of known security issues.

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10.  Make sure that your Windows Firewall is enabled, even if you have a hardware firewall in your router.  This protection against uninvited intruders is essential.  Unless you’re operating a business, this is sufficient for most users.  If you have more, that’s fine too - firewalls don’t usually conflict with each other.

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11.  Finally, after checking the remaining space on your hard drive (Computer>C) and removing any unnecessary programs or data, you should defragment the hard drive (enabled by default in Win7 and later).  Remember, by the time your drive becomes more than 75-80% full, it starts to slow down.  Defrag may give you even more space on a crowded drive, make it run faster and, even though the new drives are faster, it’ll still help  reduce overall drive wear, increase the probability of recovering a lost file and reduce noise and heat from the drive.  Find defrag at Start>Programs>Accessories>System Tools.  But NEVER defragment an SSD drive!  Also, if you’ve been having problems with your hard drive, you could run chkdsk from the command line, using the /f switch to automatically fix any problems found with the drive. 

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12.  I’m not a big fan of Registry Cleaners.  It seems to me that most of the time they eliminate useless items like orphaned or duplicate lines of code left after uninstalls or else unnecessary cookies, but don’t really solve a malware problem.  In my opinion, they either correct trivial or harmless “problems” or create new problems (like recommending installing unnecessary driver updates) instead.  Better to find the specific settings in the Registry that have to be edited and then do that and only that.  Otherwise, you may cause more problems than you solve.  However, if you want to run such a cleaner, don’t use the free “scareware” ones that pop up on your computer, use CCleaner (#1 above) instead, it seems to do a pretty good job.  Even AVG Tune Up, as well as Norton PC Checkup and Corel WinZip Utilities Suite, all from reputable sources, aren’t particularly reliable. That being said, I believe that the System File Checker utility built into Windows 7 and 8 is in fact quite useful for detecting and solving problems in those Windows versions.  Type “sfc /scannow” from a command prompt.  If you don’t understand this, you probably shouldn’t be doing it and should call someone who does.  See Tip#59 and Registry for more.

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13.  Often, when you encounter a problem, it’s not a bad idea to Google or check with web sites for ideas which might help you solve the problem. But you must be careful:  (1) Just because you read it on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s true.  See Internet Rules. (2) Not every suggested answer is correct or, if it is, it may not be for your problem, even though it worked for someone else (who may  actually have corrected a different problem than the one they thought they had).   (3) If you’re asked to download anything to view the answer, it’s probably best not to do so.  They’re either trying to get you to sign up for some sort of paid service or product and/or don’t really have the answer anyway. Or it may install malware on top of your problem.   I just love it when there’s a zero day exploit that doesn’t have a solution, but the Google results show lots of “easy ways” to remove it (usually the same jack-of-all-trade programs that are listed every day anyway).  There’s lots of free stuff out there and you can always learn to solve your problem the hard (manual) way if you have the inclination.  Also beware the tech support “Ctrl + F5” trap (see Tip #51)  (3) Although there are lots of excellent programs to solve specific problems (MalwareBytes, Hitman Pro, Combofix, Junkware Removal Tool, Super Anti-Spyware to name a few) which can be booted from Safe Mode or at initial boot, you’ve got to be careful when using these programs as they can possibly render your computer useless or exacerbate the initial problem.  Unless you are not comfortable backing up your system, including the registry, before using them, I don’t suggest you try them.  (4) Some viruses and malware simply can’t be removed directly from your computer, no matter what software you use.  You have to start your computer using a remote (usually Linux) operating system and edit your hard drive to manually remove the problem without booting from it.  You’re not going to do that yourself unless you’re an expert.  If you’ve reached an impasse, call an expert.

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14. If you’re running enterprise (business network) computers, think about setting each PC’s software management tools, or setting its Group Policy Objects to restrict vulnerable registry keys. (For more, See Tip #62). And you should consider using a program that keeps track of changes to all of the computers (Spiceworks comes to mind).  Also Microsoft’s Baseline Security Analyzer and Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit, if you’re up to it.  But if you’re not a sysadmin, it’s a bit of work.

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15. I know this doesn’t involve software, but it’s just as important:  You should physically CLEAN YOUR COMPUTER!  And not just the exterior holes where the fans vent (side of the case, maybe the front or back, and the power supply grate).  You should also take off the side cover and suck the major dust off of the fans, heat sinks and boards, then blow off the rest of the dust.  Bundle the cables away from the fan and oil the fan if necessary (see Tip 88).  Accumulated dust can easily cause overheating and system failure.  While you’re at it, make sure all connections are secure.  See cooling, heat sink, FAQ #38, Tip #17, Tip #43, etc. for more.

16. Some techs suggest checking the BIOS and other hardware drivers for updates. I don’t, on the theory that if it’s not broken (i.e. sending you error messages) you don’t need to fix it.  Same for printer drivers, if they’re working well, leave them alone.  I do, however, believe that you should periodically update the “firmware” for devices like routers, because this can make a big difference in performance (see #9, above).  And change the default firmware passwords, too.  Click HERE to see what happens if you don’t.  If you’re an advanced tech, you may wish to trim the WinSxS folder by using the compcln.exe command (Vista), DISM tool (Win7), or the easier to use Disk Cleanup tool in Win8 (click on Clean Up System Files).  Or the Page File, which can become bloated.

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17. Once again, while this isn’t software, it’s still important:  Review all of your passwords and, if it’s been quite some time or if they appear to be really weak, consider changing them.  If you need security, once a year is a good time to make the changes, kind of like replacing the smoke detector batteries each time the clock is changed for Daylight Savings Time. See Passwords for more.

18. I know that this last item will seem like a lot of work but, believe me, it can save your life:  After everything is perfect, MAKE A BACKUP.  [Also, if if you have Windows 10, don’t forget to make a (machine-centric)  system recovery drive as soon as possible, as it maybe the only way to repair your system if it fails due to a forced update or other issues.  This is always a good idea to protect you from hard drive failure, power spikes and the like.  But a detached (not cloud) backup is  sometimes the only way to recover locked files from a virus like CryptoLocker (see Security for more). There are lots of free and paid programs that make this easy.  I use either Acronis True Image or Easus ToDo Backup which will backup or clone your hard drive to another hard drive or USB. Click HERE for more about backup and restore...

19. If you are servicing your computer because of a failure, you should check the error logs.  Prior to Win7, you could right-click on Computer, click on Manage, then review the Event Viewer in the menu under System Tools.  In the later versions of Windows, the Reliability Monitor (just type it in the search box) is easier to read and provides similar information about shut down and errors.

20. If you are concerned about someone accessing your computer remotely, without your knowledge or permission, you should check your program list in the Control Panel to see if you have any non-Windows remote desktop programs installed (see definition for examples) and, if so, whether you need them any more.  You may have allowed tech support access once, but don’t want to have this feature continuously enabled, for example.  Also, uncheck the “Allow Remote Assistance...” box in the System Properties window in WinXP and later.  For good measure, go to the Windows Firewall in your Control Panel and check or uncheck the various allowed programs in the list if you don’t want them to have further access.  Same for your router’s firewall.

21. You might want to make comparisons about how much your efforts have speeded up your system and made more space.  You can check your C drive in your computer for before and after size.  You can also compare a before-and-after for use of system resources and RAM using the Task Manager (Ctrl+Alt+Del).  Although you can create a batch file, it’s not that dificult to simply time your shut down/start up times with a watch.

22.  Remember, if you’re not positive about what you’re eliminating, don’t do it.  Err on the side of caution.  Contrary to popular belief, System Restore does not restore everything on your system or even in Windows and, if misused, can permanently corrupt your system and prevent future repairs.  See this LINK for more information.  You can always call a professional, but it’s not easy or inexpensive to restore a mistake that crashes your system...

23.  Windows 10 users, especially:  Again, remember that your O/S is device-specific.  Make sure that you have already created (and updated, if necessary) a System Recovery disk or drive in case issues arrive, otherwise it may be too late.

Thinking about free security and utility software?  It may be just as good as paid for most home users.  Also, Windows now includes many utilities you used to have to purchase separately elsewhere.  For more information, click HERE.

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MURPHY’S LAWS OF COMPUTING #3:  He who laughs last probably made a backup.

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