Personal Computers: Preventative Maintenance

Overview

Your PC is not unlike other electronic and mechanical devices. Just like your car, it needs some occasional maintenance. Also, depending on your circumstances and how critical your data, it can use some insurance. By insurance I mean backups, which are copies of your critical files and folders that are made and stored in a location other than on your pc's hard drive, other than in My Documents.

Backups

Image3 Backups are true preventative medicine. If you keep valuable info on your PC and/or can't afford extended downtime and repair costs caused by a virus, spyware, a popup infestation or your hard disk taking a vacation to Tahiti (without you), then you should routinely back up important files. You can back up to:

  • Second disk
  • CD or DVD
  • Floppy or zip drive (tape)
  • Email
  • To your website
  • USB Flash drive
  • Another PC
  • Over the internet to companies that do this for a business

The above list does not represent all the options. If you're techy, you can even use programs such as Norton Ghost which will create a mirror of your hard drive. It all depends on how important your data is and how much time you can afford recreating or re-obtaining it. Regardless of backup medium, the key here is that backups are insurance, and even the lowest cost insurance (backup a file to another name or sending to your email account) is better than nothing at all.

SPAM

SPAM is defined as annoying, unsolicited email, usually commercial in nature. Depending on the contents of the email and how it is (or is not) managed, it can be harmful to the computer (laden with viruses), just plain nasty, may lead to loss in productivity, and may result in financial disasters to an unsuspecting audience.

The subject lines can be very enticing, perhaps personal, deals, jobs, get out of debt, pornography. Typically it will come via an email address you don't recognize. Regardless of how it gets through, learn to recognize the signs and resist the temptation to open the message. If your email program has a junk or spam marking option, mark and delete it.

Opt out

Legally, U.S. businesses that get you on their spam/email list must include an opt out mechanism in the body of the message. Read about the Can-Spam Act of 2003 at: http://www.spamlaws.com/federal/108s877.html. The opt out can be either an email that you should respond to or perhaps a link to click on. With respectable companies the mechanism usually works. However with others, the link or attachment can open an uglier can of worms, may lead to more spam or even a computer virus. Generally speaking, the techies I know suggest to not respond to the opt out processes, be it a link or email address, for business you do not recognize as legitimate.

How do you get on a SPAM list?

  • By filling out an online form requesting your email address.
  • Via an address-harvesting program that gets your email off someone's contact list.
  • If you have a website and a generic This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. address, then you're open game. Spammers have programs that go through domain lists and send email to likely addresses.
Email

What can you do to alleviate SPAM?

  • Get a dummy (throw-away) email address that you use when filling out forms.
  • Subscribe to an ISP such as http://www.frii.com which includes a spam filtering service (www.mailarmory.com). The great thing about services like these is that they filter out most spam and viruses before getting to your PC.
  • Purchase an over-the-counter spam filtering program that gets installed locally on your PC.
  • Subscribe to a service that forces folks who want to email you to fill out a name/text recognition form virtually guaranteeing that the email is being sent by a human.
  • Switch to an email program such as Thunderbird that has built in spam filtering and adaptive learning.
  • If you have a website, install one of the email address-hiding utilities and/or use words other than info, support, etc. in your general addresses.
  • Last but not least is the option of changing your email address. Although at first it might sound catastrophic, it can really be a blessing in disguise. If you're a business person it presents an opportunity to casually touch basis with clients, never a bad thing.

Visit: http://spam.abuse.net/userhelp/ to get additional options.

Spyware

Spyware and Popups tend to get confused with each other, as some of the symptoms seem similar or perhaps because they work hand in hand. Spyware is data mining, market research software which grabs system resources. You can buy over the counter treatments from CompUSA, BestBuy or download a freeware program such as ad-aware, http://www.ad-aware.com or SpySweeper from Webroot, http://www.webroot.com .

Pop-ups

Popups are small windows which pop up on top of the existing window or screen. The challenge to popup blockers is determining whether the windows are requested or not. They typically manifest themselves as ads, mortgage rates, casino gambling, and some nasties. To control popups you can try several things:

  • Purchase or download popup blocker software
  • Download the google toolbar which helps to control them
  • Install an OS other than windows (peace of mind, not necessarily easy to do, use)
  • Switch web browsers from Internet Explorer to something like Mozilla Firefox which is highly configurable and works well.

Computer viruses rank with spyware and pop-ups as the most aggravating things which can infect your PC. They frequently come via email attachments and/or downloading unqualified programs off the internet.

What can you do?

  • You should install a commercial anti-virus program such as one made by McAfee or Norton. There are other brands out there which will work as well. The caveat in using off-brands is that you don't know where the manufacturer will be in 6 months. This is a similar problem with freeware, but this may be compounded by the fact that the program may only be free for a limited time (once again, that 30 day trial period).
  • You need to keep your virus definitions updated not less than weekly. Generally the software will have some default settings so that it polls for a weekly update.
  • General advice - Be careful of opening enticing email attachments coming from strangers. Although reading the email is not likely (rarely) to cause a disaster, opening the associated can unleash the kiss of death.
  • Use a filtering service such as MaillArmory, http://www.mailarmory.com
  • Keep strangers and risktakers from using your PC.
  • Be careful about downloading programs over the internet.

Child Safety & Parental Controlss

Child safety- In Windows 2000 and XP, under the internet option you can set some controls about which sites can be accessed as well as controlling downloads. These can be very useful, but annoying. Annoying is right as you will get prompted to enter a password for any site that does not meet their approved rating system. There are oodles of commercial packages out there, including:

  • Net Nanny
  • Content Protect
  • CyberSitter

Visit http://www.buy.com to find discounted packages for each. You can visit the local computer store and browse for other packages on the shelves. If you are interested in locating freeware packages, visit: http://www.download.com. If you opt to download any of the packages, be sure to read the licensing passages with each. Some are totally free, while others offer a free trial, perhaps 15 or 30 days.

Routine Maintenance / Summary

Beside the preventative software suggestions noted above, you should also do some regular maintenance including clean-up of unnecessary files, disk fragmentation, etc., scanning your hard drive for errors. Norton SystemWorks Pro (2003+) is a great program, a bundled package that includes:

  • Norton Anti-virus name says it all.
  • Norton Utilities includes programs to Optimize Performance (Speed Disk) and fix problems (Norton Disk Doctor and Win Doctor); Speed Disk is used for defragmenting the hard drive. Do this monthly, no less.
  • CleanSweep is used to uninstall unneeded programs and clean disk space (nicer interface than what comes with Windows)
  • Norton Ghost (for the techies, but really easy to use given a few one-liners)
  • GoBack - a program which can be used for reverting your hard drive to a previous point in time (say, before the virus struck) - you don't have to be techy.

If you do a search on google, you can find lots of sources to purchase the software. www.pricewatch.com is another recognized source for searching for deals. If your subscription runs out, renew it. This stuff is not expensive, considering the agony it can save. If you can find and purchase an older rev, such as Systemworks 2003, you may get some exceptional prices and the stuff works.