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Anti hacking tips for home based online business.

In previous articles, we've looked at protecting your online business in relation to credit card fraud and web site hacking, but another very important aspect of online security focuses on your most important tool - the computer you use to run your business.

Many of us involved in ecommerce choose to work from home - it's a comfortable environment, we can dress the way we want, save time and money in travel and be close to our loved ones. 

But if the computer you use to run your online business is the same one your children use for homework and general surfing, this is potentially a very dangerous situation.

A recent security survey reported that 20% of home PC's are infected with viruses and over 80% contained spyware and adware. Frightening figures.

The following are a few anti-hacking tips that will help in keeping your business systems secure.

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Don't ignore operating system updates

Practically every day, some new security flaw is found in the most critical aspect of your business - the operating system on which all your other software runs. While it's a major pain in the butt to apply updates and patches so regularly, especially if you access the web via dialup, it's nonetheless of vital importance not to put off performing these tasks as part of regular maintenance.

Don't wait to be alerted via mainstream media of problems that have been discovered - more often than not, these notifications will be delayed. As a part of your daily routine, it's wise to visit the software vendors' site and keep abreast of any critical security updates. In the case of Microsoft, you'll need to go to the Windows Update site.

Anti-virus software used *properly*

Install anti-virus software and ensure that it's regularly updated - this is of the utmost importance. Many times I have come across people who believe that because an anti-virus program is installed, they are protected, yet the last time the virus data file was updated was months or even years ago. Even missing one update could bring down your computer and the business you have struggled so long to build.

Also remember to password protect the settings on the software so no-one else can alter protection levels. 

Firewall software

Anti-virus software isn't enough - it's also a good idea to install firewall software which will help prevent unauthorized incoming and outgoing communications from your computer while connected to the Internet. In most instances you wouldn't even be aware that these illegitimate probes and scans of your systems are occurring. Port scanning is *very* common and is carried out with a view to finding weaknesses in your system that can then be exploited. 

If you are using Windows XP, then you're in luck as there's already an effective firewall included - but it's not enabled by default.

To activate the firewall in Windows XP:

- Go to "Start"
- Go to "Settings", then "Network connections"
- Select your Internet connection
- Click on "Properties"
- Click on "Advanced"
- Check the box in the "Internet Connection Firewall" section

Email software preview windows

Some viruses, called worms, can infect your system without you clicking on attachments - they can execute in the message preview window. Many worms can cause your sensitive information and documents to be transmitted to millions of people. While the preview window is a handy feature, it's safest to turn it off.

To turn off the preview window in Outlook Express:

- Select "View" on the Menu Bar
- Select "Layout"
- Uncheck "Show Preview Pane" 

To turn off the preview window in Outlook:

- Select "View" on the Menu Bar
- Select "Preview Pane" if it's not already greyed out
- You may need to repeat this for each top level mail folder

Consider email filtering services

More and more people are turning to 3rd party solutions for filtering email of spam and viruses as their inboxes become inundated with junk. Email filtering can be very effective in dramatically reducing security risks before the mail even has a chance to be collected by your email software. It not only reduces the risk, but also the amount of time and bandwidth used in retrieving your mail. Learn more about these services in our anti-spam & email filtering guide.

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Regularly remove spyware

If you and your familiar do a lot of surfing and downloading of shareware software, then it's likely you'll also accumulate your fair share of spyware. Spyware is a broad term applied to software applications that monitor your actions and report them to back to a company. 

Some software companies use spyware that is incorporated into their software products to gather data about customers, which is often sold to other companies. An excellent free application for removing spyware can be downloaded from Spybot. Learn more about spyware

Not using it? - unplug it..

Disconnect your computer from the Internet when not in use. The longer you are connected to the Internet, the more opportunity you give for persons to gain unauthorized access. This is especially the case where your ISP provides you with a static IP, which usually occurs in broadband scenarios.

Audit your computer regularly

If your computer is used by others, carry out regular audits of the software on it and research any software that you discover that you haven't installed yourself. It's safest to make it a policy not to allow any software to be installed without your permission. Spybot again is a very effective tool for detecting and removing software that may be a security risk

Remember that your anti-virus software, firewalls and email filtering services should always be considered your last line of defense against software nasties - the first line of defense should be you.

Kid's *aren't* all computer whizzes

Monitor your children's computer usage carefully. They may seem to be "experts", but more often than not they will have very little idea of the ramifications of some of their actions whilst on the Internet. Close supervision is especially necessary in chat rooms as these are places where Script Kiddies and other undesirable elements of the online community are very active.

Password issues

If you must store usernames and passwords on your system, ensure they are contained in a document that is password protected. It is safest not to store any passwords on your computer. Don't let Windows "remember" passwords for you. Passwords should always be more than 8 characters long and contain a mixture of numbers and letters. Learn more about password security issues.

Logging out

Ensure that you log out of online services properly. Failure to do so can allow others who use your computer to gain access to those services and you can be blamed for their activities.

The fight against viruses, script kiddies and other online parasites isn't getting any easier for those of us involved with ecommerce; and as the years go by, more and more of our time and money will be spent on dealing with the darker side of the web.

We can only hope that in the future detection methods become so efficient and punishment becomes so harsh that these kinds of incidences stop occurring. But if the history of our species is any indicator - that's highly unlikely to happen.

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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