Given that October is Cyber Security Month, it's a fitting time to remind computer users about the growing threats in cyberspace. Some are quite obvious, such as nasty viruses that spread through e-mail, and others are more subtle, such as a website disguised as your banking institution that seeks to steal your personal identity for financial gain.
The answer isn't to live in an offline world — the Internet’s advantages outweigh its disadvantages — but you need to safeguard your computer and, more important, your information, while spending time online.
The good news is you don't need to be Bill Gates to know how to keep the bad guys out. All you need are a few pointers, good software and some common sense, and you'll be good to go.
Let's get started
The first step to protecting yourself online is to back up your important files on a regular basis — just in case something happens to your computer, such as a virus, fire, theft or damaging power surge.
The easiest way to do this is to pick up an external hard drive, USB thumb stick or recordable DVDs and copy all your documents, photos, camcorder footage, address book, e-mails and any other irreplaceable information.
If you're not sure how to back up files, clever products like Clickfree hard drives can do this for you by automatically scouring your computer and copying important files to the external drive — without you having to click anything, as the name of the gadget suggests.
Depending on how often you use your computer, I'd recommend backing up once or twice a month and keeping the backup solution somewhere other than near your PC (in case of fire, for example).
On a related note, you might also consider backing up your data to free online services, such as Windows Live SkyDrive, which gives you 25-gigabytes of free password-protected storage.
"Data backup is absolutely crucial," says Christopher Burgess, senior security adviser for Cisco. "Imagine losing two or three years' worth of photos … losing all these memories could be worse than losing money."
For safekeeping, Burgess says he keeps a hard drive with his important files in his bank's safety deposit box.