Top tips for busting bugs

I’m a big believer in the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared. It’s wise to follow that old adage in this era of seemingly inevitable computing snarls. Every month in Bugs and Fixes, I keep you up-to-date on the latest bugs, security holes, and other software and hardware glitches. This month, though, I’m going to share some tips on how I protect myself from bugs and bad guys.

Strengthen your browser. Take advantage of your browser’s built-in security settings to exercise more control over the information that comes your way on the Internet.

TIP: If you use IE 5.5 or later, go to Tools–Internet Options and click Security. Then select the Internet icon, click Default Level, and set the slider bar to Medium.

To adjust Netscape’s individual security settings, Net-scape 4.x users need to select Edit – Preferences – Advanced. Netscape 6.x users can choose Edit – Preferences and then click the Security & Privacy tab.

Think before you click. Plenty of clues will tip you off when something isn’t kosher. For example, if an e-mail message from a coworker contains a subject line that seems unlike the person’s usual style, view it with suspicion – especially if it includes an unexpected attachment.

TIP: Never open a file attachment from someone you don’t know.

Ignore “Microsoft updates” via e-mail. Don’t click any e-mail with an attachment that purportedly contains an update to a Microsoft product.

TIP: Microsoft never sends out updates via e-mail, but in several cases viruses have been found masquerading as Microsoft updates.

Test beta software at your own risk. In my experience, beta software – the testable version made prior to the final product – is chock-full of bugs. Beta software can destabilize your PC by damaging files that other programs depend on or by overwriting important data in the Windows Registry. You could end up losing the entire contents of your hard drive.

TIP: So avoid beta software unless you can’t bear to wait for the shipping version of software – or you plan to use a separate test machine.

Practice safe computing before disaster strikes. My last piece of advice takes its cue from the Boy Scout strategy.

TIP: Back up all of your essential data – religiously. Stay on top of your anti-virus software updates. And if you maintain an always-on broadband connection, make sure you use an Internet firewall program.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing editor for PC World.