How to protect your computer against viruses

Like home foreclosures and bed bugs, computer viruses are things you increasingly read about in the papers but fervently hope you will never have to deal with. Unfortunately, as many people are finding out, hope is proving to be a very poor form of prevention.

There are literally millions of computer viruses already in existence and thousands more are created every day. It’s no longer a case of if your computer will be attacked by a virus but when. However, there are certain actions you can take to reduce the risk of a picking up a virus, and you don’t have to be a security expert to adopt a few elementary safeguards.

But first, a little bit more about viruses, and how you might be able to tell if you are infected.

What is a virus?

A computer virus is a small software program that spreads from one computer to another computer. Although some viruses are benign, others can attack data and seriously affect a computer’s performance. Viruses increase their chances of spreading to other computers by using communication programs like e-mail or instant messaging, or by infecting network system files.

How are viruses spread?

Computer viruses are most easily spread by attachments in e-mail messages. They can be disguised as documents, images, audio and video files, or even greeting cards. Computer viruses can also be hidden in pirated software or in downloads from the Web.

How can I tell if my computer is infected with a virus?

The following are some of the primary indicators that your computer may be infected with a virus, although some of these problems can also be caused by other factors:

  • Your computer is running slower than usual.
  • Your computer locks up or stops responding.
  • Your computer suddenly restarts on its own.
  • Programs you regularly use are suddenly slow to load and operate.
  • Applications and disk drives are suddenly inaccessible.
  • Unusual error messages appear.
  • New, unexpected icons appear on the desktop.
  • Anti-virus software is disabled or will not run.

How to protect your computer against viruses?

Practice safe computing. Don’t click on random links that lead to unknown files and web sites. Never open an e-mail attachment unless you know who sent the message and you are expecting the attachment. Avoid searching for free stuff and visiting adult or pirate web sites, as these will all increase your chances of encountering malware.

Also, avoid clicking on random computer scanning or “clean-up” services, as these links can often lead to the acquisition of viruses, or are phishing scams looking to capture your credit card information.

Other actions you can take:

  • Use a Firewall. A firewall can help alert you to suspicious activity across your network. It can also block viruses, worms, and hackers from attempting to download potentially harmful programs to your computer. If you are using Windows 7, make sure the Windows Firewall is turned on.
  • Keep your software up-to-date. Microsoft, and now Apple, periodically release special security updates that can help protect your computer by closing possible security holes. In Windows, make sure automatic updating is turned on.
  • Install an anti-virus program. Installing an anti-virus program and keeping it up-to-date can help protect your computer against viruses. New viruses appear on a daily basis, so choose an anti-virus program that is regularly updated by the manufacturer.

How to find free books online

If you like reading books but can’t afford to load up at Barnes & Noble or pay the increasing cost of e-books, then don’t despair – there are literally millions of titles that can be downloaded for free.

Many of these are “in the public domain,” which means they are copyright-free and available on the Internet and elsewhere completely free-of-charge. These include thousands of classics, like Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. However, there are countless other free titles, ranging from first-time novels from undiscovered authors to academic works published by non-profit groups.

If you’re interested in sampling this vast literary treasure trove, here’s where to look:

Google Books

It’s been estimated that there are around 130 million unique books in the world…and Google intends to scan all of them! By the end of 2013 it was well on its way, with over 30 million books already digitized and thousands more added every week.

Not all of these books are available to read online. Google has been bogged down by numerous individual and class-action copyright claims from authors and publishers, and it appears that its goal to create the world’s first complete digital library has been stalled, at least for now.

However, the books that Google can make available – all 5 million of them – are accessible through its Google Play Bookstore, where users can download reading apps and peruse the huge catalog of both free and for-sale titles. The Bookstore includes a “Top Free” section, but don’t feel restricted to the 100 or so titles that are featured there. There are over a million more free titles, so search away until you find one – or several – that you like.

iTunes

Apple’s iTunes Store also has thousands of free titles available for download to Macs, PCs and Apple mobile devices. Just go to the App Store, click on Books and choose Free Books. Apple divides its free book catalog into several helpful sections, including What’s Hot, Breakout Books (new releases), classic Fiction and Literature, Biographies and Memoirs, etc.

There is the usual iTunes description of each book, along with reader reviews where available, and related titles. Books can be downloaded to keep forever, rather than as short-term rentals, and you can download a sample if you don’t want to immediately download the whole book.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg offers over 46,000 free e-books for download to a PC, Kindle, iPad, Android or other portable device, and over 100,000 additional free titles through its partners and affiliates. The site has useful sections highlighting recent additions, and a Top 100 section, which features the most popular downloads and authors.

Although Project Gutenberg is much smaller that Google Books, it’s often easier to navigate and there isn’t the distraction of having to scroll through thousands of for-sale books to find the free ones that you are looking for.

Open Library

Open Library is a off-shoot of the non-profit Internet Archive, which was established with the lofty goal of creating a publically available digital record of every book ever published. In the same way that Wikipedia relies on user contributions to build its online encyclopedia, Open Library invites users to add books, fix typos, or do whatever else they can to preserve this public record of the world’s literary offerings.

The free e-book section has a lending library, which allows registered users to “borrow” up to 5 books at a time from a collection of over 10,000 titles, which increases to 100,000 if you include Open Library’s network of affiliate public libraries. Books can be downloaded as a PDF, read in plain text form, or even sent to a Kindle.

Many Books

Many Books contains over 29,000 free titles organized into various helpful categories, including authors, genres, languages, new titles, and Books of the Week. Most of the titles are sourced from Project Gutenberg but the emphasis is on the more popular works.

E-books can be downloaded in a variety of different formats (including PDF) and can be read on multiple devices. Many titles are also available as audio books.

How to decide if a paid app is worth the money

A lot of smartphone owners make the understandable decision to never download paid apps. With hundreds of thousands of free apps to choose from, the thinking goes, why bother spending the money? But that closes the door to some of the best apps on the market. In fact, the ability of a developer to charge for an app is often a sign that the product or service has a premium value.

But how can we be sure that we will end up with something useful? What steps can we take to evaluate an app before we buy, so we avoid later disappointment? Here are a few suggestions on how to screen those app purchases, so you can minimize the chance of buyer’s remorse:

Read the app description carefully

I know it sounds obvious but most people end up disappointed in an app because it didn’t do what they expected it to do. Read the description carefully and see whether it matches your expectations. If you’re looking for help with a home-based exercise program but the app description is all about high-octane workouts using equipment only found at a gym, then you should probably move on and look elsewhere.

When you read the app description, it’s also important to understand exactly what you are paying for. Some apps involve a small payment upfront but then require a monthly subscription. Others allow you to download a basic package for free but then require payment every time you attempt to access additional content.

Also, it’s become popular for app developers to offer a free or ‘Lite’ version of a paid app in the hope that customers will try the free version and then upgrade to the paid option. Sometimes the only difference in the paid version is the absence of advertising. If you can live with a few ads, then the free version might be fine.

Check the app history

When you are reviewing the app description, it’s also worth checking when the app was last updated. If there have been no updates for a while, then it’s possible the app has been “abandoned” and the developer has moved on to something new. Also, click through and check the developer’s web site. If the web site looks up-to-date and the app is still prominently displayed, then it’s safe to assume it’s still receiving enhancements and support.

Read the user reviews

Both Apple’s App Store and Google Play carry user reviews on every app they sell. Each user rates the app from 1 to 5 (5 being the best) and ratings are averaged out to give an overall score. As well checking the overall rating, read some of the most recent reviews. App users are usually not shy about offering their opinions.

Be careful about brand new apps that only have a few published reviews. Early reviews tend to be posted by “friends and family” and are invariably favorable. It usually takes a couple of weeks after the app’s release before the real user reviews start to appear.

Check the app review sites

If the paid app is popular or the developer is well-known, then the app will almost certainly have been reviewed by one of the many third-party app review sites. If it’s an iPhone or iPad app, then check AppCraver or appolicious. Android users can see Android app reviews at Android Tapp and Life of Android. There are also specialty sites like Famigo, which concentrate on family-friendly apps and games.

Check with friends on social media

Finally, if you still have doubts about the value of a paid app, check with your friends on Facebook or Twitter. “Crowd-sourcing” an opinion in this way can yield interesting and unexpected results, and tends to tap into a more knowledgeable and opinionated group.

How to Manage Your Cell Phone Bill

Even though cell phones and smartphones have become ever-present in our daily lives, many people can still be surprised when they open up their wireless bills. Data overages plus unexpected roaming charges can lead to lead to some sizeable variations on a month-to-month basis.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a number of simple things we – and our families – can do to make sure our cell phone expenses stay within budget. Here are 7 ways to start managing that bill:

1. Understand your existing plan

Checking and understanding your existing plan is perhaps the biggest money-saving move you can make. Although most people pay their cell phone bills without checking the charges, it’s important to understand why a single bill is high or why the bill can vary from month to month. It’s also important to check your bill if you have been abroad or if you have made a temporary change to your account. Understanding your existing contract is the first step to getting on a plan that will save you money.

2. Switch to a prepaid or pay-as-you-go plan

If you are operating within a strict budget, then a prepaid or pay-as-you-go plan could be the right option. Both types of plans offer cost certainty, meaning you will never have to worry about those dreaded overage charges! And while many people think that a prepaid plan might restrict the number of talk and text minutes, that’s not necessarily the case. Verizon offers a prepaid plan for basic devices with unlimited talk, text and web for just $50 a month. A similar prepaid plan for smartphones offers unlimited talk and text and 2 GB of data for $60 per month with no annual contract. (See Verizon’s web site for complete details of prepaid and pay-as-you-go packages.)

3. Consider a family share plan

If your spouse or kids have cell phones, it will almost certainly pay to switch a family share plan, where voice and text is unlimited and data is shared among all the devices on the plan. Verizon’s Share Everything plans can cover up to 10 different devices, including tablets, hotspots and even connected cameras. There are various data plans to choose from depending on your needs, and you can move your monthly data allowance up or down without incurring any change fees or extending the life of the contract.

4. Monitor data charges

As data is the new variable in most cell phone plans, it’s important to monitor how much you will need and how much you have used at any given point in your monthly billing cycle. Verizon has an excellent Data Usage Calculator that can help you estimate your needs. Once you decide on a data plan, there are a number of different apps that can help you keep an eye on your data usage. You can also request text alerts from your carrier when you approach your monthly limits.

5. Set up an international plan before you go abroad

One of the biggest shocks on a cell phone bill are the roaming and international voice and data charges when you come back from an overseas vacation or business trip. Make sure you set up an international plan before you travel to minimize these charges. Your carrier will also make sure your phone will work in the countries that you are visiting.

6. Utilize Wi-Fi networks

Get into the habit of switching off cellular networks and utilizing Wi-Fi whenever you are handling large amounts of data, such as downloading a movie or uploading photographs. Any activity over Wi-Fi will not count against your data allowance. Also, many apps run in the background and use up your data allowance without you realizing it. Switch them off when you are not using them, or uninstall them if they are no longer required.

7. Talk to a representative

Visit your carrier’s web site, where you can chat online with a representative. They can explain how plans work, answer any questions, and even sign you up right there over the Web.

How to use Wi-Fi hotspots securely

One of the great benefits of the wireless revolution is the ready availability of Wi-Fi hot-spots – locations that offer public access to the Internet over a wireless local area network. Whether it’s a hotel lobby, the local coffee shop, or an international airport, there are usually plenty of network options to choose from.

But if you can easily access a Wi-Fi hotspot, then so can anyone else, and sharing a network with complete strangers can lead to serious security issues. However, there are some simple measures you can take to help protect your identity and personal information. Here are seven tips that will help you log on with more confidence:

Choose a secure network

When searching for a network, you will usually see a list of “Secure” and “Unsecure” networks. If possible, choose a secure option. More and more public establishments – hotels, bars, coffee shops – offer such an option and are happy to provide visitors with the password key.

Use a firewall

A firewall protects your computer from unauthorized access when you are connected to a network. Your firewall should be turned on at all times but it’s particularly important when using public Wi-Fi networks. In Windows 7, go to your Control Panel and click on System and Security. Open the Windows Firewall option and make sure your firewall is activated.

Restrict sharing options

Make sure you disable file and printer sharing options. From the Control Panel in Windows 7, choose Network and Internet and then Network and Sharing Center. Click on Advanced sharing settings and make sure the File and printer sharing and Public folder sharing options are turned off. You can also disable Network discovery, which makes your computer harder to see  by other devices on the network.

Avoid financial transactions

If you are using a public network, avoid opening sensitive files or making any financial transactions. If you have to use a credit card online, make sure the web site begins with https:// indicating the site is secure and all transaction data is encrypted. Other sites use SSL technology. In Internet Explorer, look for the padlock display to the right of the url bar.

Erase sensitive data

If you use a laptop or netbook for travel, consider storing sensitive files only on your home computer and just using the mobile option for e-mail and entertainment. Alternatively, you can carry your sensitive information on a separate storage (USB) drive and only access it when you know you are on a secure network. And never keep a word or excel file with all your sensitive passwords on your computer.

Keep your software up-to-date

Microsoft’s and Apple’s operating systems are constantly under attack and security holes are discovered – and fixed – all the time. Make sure you have the latest updates and patches for your OS. For Windows, visit http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/help/windows-update to check your settings and make sure you have all the security essentials.

Add Internet security and anti-virus protection

Consider strengthening your computer’s defenses by adding third-party anti-virus and Internet security software.

Carry your own Wi-Fi hotspot

If you’re still not comfortable using public Wi-Fi networks, then you can carry your own hotspot around with you by activating the Internet-sharing feature on your smartphone. Most newer smartphones (ones that have been released in the last 12 months) have this feature, which allows multiple network-enabled devices to share your carrier’s network. Usually the carrier will charge an extra monthly fee for this service, although it’s now included in many data sharing plans. Just keep an eye on your smartphone’s data allowance and battery level when this feature is in use, as it can be a significant drain on both.

How To Shop Safely Using Your Smartphone

While a recent New York Times article about how stores are using smartphone Wi-Fi signals to track shoppers’ movements might have unnerved some individuals, the brick and mortar stores are only doing what online shopping sites like Amazon have been doing for years. Besides, the ability of retail outlets to know how we shop and what we are looking for can lead to some of the best deals and biggest discounts.

While in-store smartphone tracking may have both its supporters and detractors, there are other aspects of smartphone shopping that legitimately raise concerns. The small size and portability of mobile devices are the same qualities that make them prone to being lost or stolen. And if they’re not password protected, any data stored on our devices can be exposed and exploited.

Here are a few other factors that we should be aware of as we increasingly utilize our phones for those bargain-hunting shopping trips:

  • Make sure you are dealing with a reputable web site. Whether you are directly accessing a retail web site or using a custom-built mobile app, look for signs that your data is secure. Only download apps that you can trust and avoid apps that require you to store credit card information on the phone itself.
  • Avoid using open networks. Only use secure wireless networks and avoid open networks which could make your personal data available to other users.
  • Be alert for phishing attacks. Mobile devices can be more vulnerable to phishing e-mails because spam filters are less effective and because it’s often harder to recognize the source. Be extra careful about opening e-mails with attachments or clicking on unknown links.
  • Always use a credit card. Credit cards offer more protection against fraud than debit cards or other forms of “cash.” It can be a good idea to use a separate credit card for all your online and mobile shopping transactions, so any fraud is isolated from business and other credit card use.
  • Use different passwords for different sites. Don’t use the same password for all your online or mobile accounts. If a password is intercepted or stolen from one account, it makes all your other online transactions vulnerable as well.
  • Keep software up-to-date. Make sure your operating software and apps are up-to-date. Manufacturers and developers regularly offer updates to eliminate potential security weaknesses. Also, make sure you lock your smartphone when it’s not in use.

This post first appeared on Insider Blog, which is part of Verizon Insider.

How to protect your identity online

Although the most common causes of identity theft are still a lost wallet or a stolen credit card, online abuses are playing an increasingly significant role. Every time we sign up for a web-based service – whether it’s online banking or Facebook – we lose a little more control over our identity. And it’s not just adults that are at risk. Thieves are increasingly targeting minors because of their clean credit history and the length of time it can take to uncover misuse.

While there is no software or other device that can completely eliminate the possibility of identity theft, there are a number of small actions we can take that will greatly reduce our vulnerability. Here are some suggestions on how to minimize the risk:

  • Safeguard all your personal information, not just your social security number. Your name, address, bank account details, date of birth – all this information can help thieves build a profile and take over your identity.
  • Make sure you use strong, unique passwords for all online services and transactions. Consider using an independent password manager.
  • Use a credit monitoring service, so you are warned about strange purchases or attempts to open new accounts in your name.
  • Keep a record of your credit card and bank account information, so you can take quick action to close or freeze accounts if they are compromised.
  • If you do have to submit your personal information online, look for evidence that the information is being encrypted, so it can only be read by the intended recipient. Secure sites usually have web addresses that begin with “https” rather than the usual “http” and display a lock icon on the right-hand site of the address bar.
  • And before submitting your name, e-mail or other personal information, look for the web site’s privacy policy. How will the site use your information and will they share it with other organizations? If you do decide to submit personal data, make sure you uncheck the options to receive offers from partners or other third parties.
  • Monitor your kids’ online behavior and make sure they do not post any personal information on their own behalf or on behalf of other members of the family.
  • Use anti-virus and Internet security software to reduce your exposure to malware and other online risks.

How to look good in photos

Over 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day. Other social media web sites and applications like Pinterest and Instagram rely even more on photos, urging members to share their pictures as often as they can with friends, family members, and even total strangers.

All these pictures mean that hardly a day goes by without someone pulling out a camera or a smartphone and pointing it your way for an impromptu picture. Whether it’s a casual gathering at work, a more formal family occasion, or a night out with the girls, the inevitable cameras are there, ready to snap a few pics and upload them to who knows where.

While there are lots of tips on how to take a good photo, there is very little advice on how to make a good shot. Whether your photo is going to be seen by a few friends and family or subject to comment by your entire high school graduating class, there is a lot of pressure to “put your best face forward.”

Dr. Jeffrey Spiegel, a world-renowned facial plastic surgeon and professor at Boston University School of Medicine, has completed a number of “attractiveness studies” and knows what makes a face look good. He offers the following tips:

  • Women should slightly look up towards the camera as it will make your eyes larger and raise your eyebrows, creating the attractive look of large eyes.
  • Men should slightly protrude your chin. This creates a strong face and eliminates a double chin. For men and women, slightly lean your neck towards the camera.
  • For women – a minute before your photo, tap on your lips a few times (somewhat stronger than you would think!). This will send blood to your lips making them redder and fuller, both considered attractive. Similarly, you can pinch your cheeks a few times to get a little bit of a rosy glow.
  • Stand at an angle to the camera. This creates a slimmer body profile and adds some interest to the photograph. Also, try slightly lowering your shoulder towards the camera. This will relatively elongate your neck and slim it out.
  • Blink just before the camera goes off. If the photographer is counting to three before shooting, blink deliberately on two. This will help guarantee that your eyes are not closed during the picture, and importantly, will capture you with the most open and bright eyes. Remember, bright eyes are critical to a good looking photo.
  • Smile with your eyes! A fake smile is just your mouth. A true smile is when your whole face is laughing. Think about sending energy to your eyes or smiling with your eyes, and your beauty will shine through.
  • Be relaxed. Think about relaxing your face and trying to convey that to the camera. That emotional change will show in your photos.

How To Borrow E-Books From Your Local Library

It’s one of the best free services available for the digital age…and also one of the most underutilized. Thousands of public libraries through the U.S. now allow you to download e-books completely free-of-charge, just like borrowing a print title.

There are several different ways to borrow e-books but perhaps the easiest – and by far the most popular – is via the OverDrive Media Console app.

Here’s how it works:

  • Visit the app store for your particular device and download the OverDrive app. It’s available for iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch), as well as Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Kindle, and even Macs and Windows PCs.
  • Find your local library using the OverDrive ‘Get Books’ Feature.
  • Browse your library’s digital book collection until you find something you want.
  • Check out using your local library card or PIN number.
  • Download the e-book directly to your chosen device.
  • Be sure to note the lending period and finish your book while it’s still available on your device.

If your chosen book is already checked out, then you can join a waiting list and you will be notified when it’s available. Most libraries also keep additional e-book titles that are outside of the normal lending arrangements. These often include classics and other DRM-free titles. In many cases, you can download these books on a permanent basis with no lending restrictions.

While OverDrive is by far the most popular e-lending service, it is by no means the only one. Freading, Aldiko, OneClickdigital (audiobooks) and Fregal Music are just some of the alternatives.

If you love books but can’t afford the increasing cost of print books or downloading titles from Amazon, iTunes, Google Play and more, then borrowing e-books from your local library is a great way to go.