PC Networking and the Internet are wonderful things, but there are a lot of wolves out there. Unless you want to be one of the sheep, you need to work at securing your PC. Some things to do:
I shouldn't have to mention this any more, but you need to be very selective about what email you open. The rule is very simple: if you have any possible belief that the email in question might be suspicious, erase it immediately. No legitimate company in the US asks for account information or personal information via email.
The recent NoVarg (or MyDoom) worm illustrates the problem. In this case, the email did not look like any kind of spam, nor was it any kind of offer or request. It looked like a rejected email, with the supposed email as an attachment. In order to see which email it was (i.e. which one had been rejected), you needed to open its attachment, Voila! You are infected. Curiosity opened the door to the worm.
So, you have to be ultra-suspicious and ultra-careful. But what most people don't think about is the downside of erasing an email without opening it. The answer is: very little. If the email was REALLY important, they will send it again or contact you via some other means. Resist the temptation to open the unknown.
If your Outlook Express shows the Preview Pane, shut it off. The Preview Pane will open email even if you just select it to delete it. Close the Preview Pane via View / Layout and unselected Preview Pane.
Consider having separate email accounts. Most ISPs will give you more than one, and so you can create new ones for special purposes. Thus, you won't be giving out your real email ID when you don't want to. In Outlook Express you can use the Identities feature to separate email from the various accounts.
If you have Windows XP (and, you should) make sure that the Guest account is turned off. You can see via Start / Control Panel / User Accounts. If you turn it off and you have trouble sharing files and printers, then you need to have a user account on each machine. If, for example, account ALICE wants to share a printer on machine SERVER, then you need to create an ALICE account on SERVER, even if you don't use it. Make sure you assign the same password to the account that you use to log ALICE on at her PC.
Speaking of which, you should have passwords on all of your logon accounts. If you don't use a password (or if you have XP automatically log you on even if you have a password) then anybody can walk up to your PC and use it.
If you have a wireless network, consider enabling WEP (Wired Equivalency Privacy) for your router or wireless access point. This basically puts a password on your wireless network. Refer to your manufacturer's documentation on how to do this.
If wireless, you should also turn off SSID broadcast. This feature broadcasts the identification (SSID) of the wireless network periodically. This enables new stations on the network to find it easily. But this in effect opens up your network to anybody driving by and "listening" for wireless networks. Turning off SSID broadcast removes that issue, but then you will have to manually configure your wireless attached PCs. Since your wireless network is probably static and unchanging, this should not be a problem.
And, of course, take good backups!
Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport / Oak Island area. You can visit his web site at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.