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Safeguard Your Electronics

New computers need security software but so do phones and game devices

With Santa delivering the latest in smartphones, computers and other techno toys, now is the time to expect scammers to try to offer their own "gift" — malicious software that they'll try to secretly install on your new electronic devices.

See also: The smartphone is the new universal remote control.

Although personal computers remain the biggest target, cyber-criminals are quickly widening their net to other popular Internet-connected gizmos. Android smartphones in particular are a target. One study found a 472 percent increase since July in the number of malware programs aimed at the phones.

So while lucky recipients may be eager to begin playing with their new booty, "it's important to secure their new devices the moment they begin to set them up," said Gary Davis of McAfee, a computer security company, in a press release.

Here's how:

Personal computers and laptops: Many experts recommend installing comprehensive "security suite" software — old-school anti-virus software may not be enough.

Look for products that include real-time anti-virus capability and a two-way firewall, plus anti-spyware, anti-phishing and safe-search features. Additional levels of security come with features such as spam filters, parental controls and document encryption.

Macs, iPads and iPhones: Their popularity makes them a growing target for attacks that attempt to hijack personal files, information and contacts. There are at least 5,000 known pieces of malware targeting the Mac platform, with a 10 percent increase per month, according to the McAfee press release.

Rather than relying solely on built-in protection in the OS X operating system, consider additional security software that is developed specifically for Apple products. At the least, use free Mac-specific software from Sophos and Avast.

Many experts recommend Firefox as a safer Mac browser than the default Safari. Also consider Apple's new iCloud service, which provides tools for syncing, backing up and securing data.

Other smartphones: Be cautious about third-party apps and download only from reputable app stores. Before using an app, read users' reviews and make sure you understand its "access permissions" — its ability to get at things such as your personal data and your GPS location. Some malware apps send that data off to people who shouldn't have it.

Gaming devices: Wii, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are now Internet-connected, making them vulnerable to many of the same threats. So connect devices only to secure Wi-Fi networks, and don't store personal information on them. If children are using multiplayer games to engage with strangers over the Internet, consider activity-monitoring tools.

Flash drives and portable hard drives. If you've been given a gift USB stick that's non-secure and non-encrypted, consider trading it in for one with built-in encryption so that your information will be unreadable if your device is lost or stolen. Set a password and use security software to protect portable hard drives.

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Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.