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Your computer probably contains a significant amount of sensitive information about you that if used by the wrong person could cost you a lot of time and money.

Follow the 10 steps below to protect yourself:

  1. Update your system's operating system and Web Browser (IE, Firefox, Chrome, etc.) frequently. Keeping this system software updated with all the latest patches will dramatically reduce the potential that your computer can be accessed by an unauthorized user, also called hackers. If your version of the system software does not automatically check for and download software updates, be sure and do this manually. Like your system software, keep your office software products -- such as your word processing and spreadsheet software -- updated with the latest patches for the version of the software you are running. Hackers usually take advantage of known software weaknesses, so if you keep up-to-date with your patches, you'll be a much tougher target.

  2. Use and update your anti-virus software regularly. Computer viruses can have damaging effects, including deleting files or causing your computer to send out files to unauthorized users. Your anti-virus software should always be active when your computer is turned on, automatically screening new files, and you should scan all your drives (with a PC you usually just have one, your C: drive) once every week.

  3. Back up your data regularly. Copy your personal data to some external medium: CD, Zip drive, or cloud storage.  Do it at least weekly. Don't worry about programs or the operating system. Just your data. About once a month store a backup copy at a location away from your home, such as a safe deposit box or website.

  4. Don't download files from strangers or click on hyperlinks from people you don't know. Even if you know the person sending you an email, never open an attached file until you have scanned it first using your anti-virus software. Opening a file exposes your system to bad things so be diligent.

  5. Use a firewall, especially if you have an "always on" -- such as DSL or Cable -- connection to the Internet. The firewall allows you to limit uninvited access to your computer. Without a firewall, hackers can take over your computer and access sensitive information.  Wireless Internet networks may offer convenience, but take the time to ensure they're secure as well.

  6. Use a secure browser - software that encrypts or scrambles information you send over the Internet - to guard the safety of your online transactions. When you're submitting any sensitive information, look for the "lock" icon on the status bar. It's a symbol that your information is secure during transmission.  Also, be especially cautious about using public computers or your own at places like cyber cates or trade shows. A public computer could be rigged to capture user names and passwords. Pay attention to those around you who might track your personal data and be sure to log out when you're through.

  7. Password-protect all sensitive information on your computer using a "strong" password comprised of a combination of letters (upper and lower case) and numbers. This will cause this data to be encrypted so that it will be difficult to make sense of by unauthorized individuals even if they have gained access to your data. Do not write any password in a location that can be found and associated with your computer. Can you believe that some users actually save passwords on their computers?

  8. Avoid using an automatic log-in feature that saves your user name and password; and always log off when you're finished. You certainly do not want a burglar to make off with a computer with full access to your online banking or brokerage accounts!

  9. Delete any personal information stored on your computer before you dispose of it using a utility program that overwrites the entire hard drive and makes the files unrecoverable. Files that are just deleted can easily be recovered using special utilities.

  10. Read Web site privacy policies to understand what they do with any information they capture about you. They should answer questions about the access to and accuracy, security and control of personal information the site collects, as well as how sensitive information will be used, and whether it will be provided to third parties.