Don't sweat the small stuff Worry: Get a grip on real and not-so-likely computer dangers.

August 17, 1998|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,COX NEWS SERVICE

Sometimes I take after my namesake, my Great Uncle Bill, a man who had only a nodding acquaintance with reality and who delighted in worrying about improbable things.

For instance, he worried himself sick about meteorites and avoided going outside during the peak of meteor showers. On the other hand, he spent most of his working life in the logging fields of the Pacific Northwest, during a place and a time when the term "widow maker" was coined for cutting a tree down in a careless fashion.

Maybe you're like me and my Uncle Bill when it comes to computers and the Internet, spending more time worrying about the meteorites of computing and not enough time about the widow makers. Let's talk today about what's worth worrying about and what isn't.

We'll start with some things that lots of people worry about but probably shouldn't.

Topping my list are viruses. I don't mean that viruses are a myth. They're real. But unless you spend a great deal of time exchanging software with friends and downloading programs from the Internet, viruses don't present a great threat. And, even for folks in these high-risk categories, an up-to-date anti-virus program will usually catch the infected programs that come your way.

Next on my list are folks who avoid buying something over the Internet because they fear a hacker will steal their credit card information. Many of these are the same folks who feel perfectly comfortable handing their credit card to the perfect (and sometimes not-so-perfect) strangers who wait on them at the store and in restaurants.

It's the same with e-mail. Sure, it's possible to break into an e-mail account (we'll talk about ways to protect yourself in a bit), but most of us have outdoor unlocked mailboxes for the checks and personal letters that arrive every day.

But, as the Internet grows and as computers become more popular, there are things that you should worry about. Let's talk some about what those legitimate worries are and how to protect yourself.

At the very top of my list of things to worry about is the pure certainty that - sooner or later - your hard disk will die. It's a mechanical device and, if it had a tattoo, the tattoo would say: "Born to die." Since the hard disk probably contains important e-mail and e-mail addresses, and data about family finances and business projects, you should learn how to back up your data.

Once upon a time, when hard disks were smaller, floppy disks could be used to make copies of your critical information. But as hard disks have grown, most of us need a tape backup system (you'll find plenty of them for $200 or less) or a Zip drive (even cheaper). You needn't worry about backing up Windows or most of your programs. You can reinstall them using the original disks (CDs in most cases). But you should regularly back up the data you create.

Next on my list of potential problems is the way most people treat passwords. Many of us have to juggle three or four passwords nowadays - we're logging on to an Internet service at home, to the computer system at work, and perhaps to three or four password-protected Web sites. Being human, we like to keep things simple. So many people make passwords easy by using the name of a child, or a spouse, or their own telephone number. I strongly encourage you to use a password that contains both letters and numbers. Then avoid telling anyone - in person or online - what that password is.

Finally, and this is the best advice you'll ever get about computers and computing: Avoid following the advice of untried experts. Nowadays, there are dozens of computer experts at work, at your church and among your closest friends. Mostly these are nice people who mean well but who feel compelled to either tell you how to adjust your computer for maximum performance or fix it when it is broken. Many of the saddest stories I hear are from people who decided to tune up their computer based on help from this kind of expert.

In most cases, they ended up with a computer that was fixed so completely that it didn't work at all.

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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