The internet saw a massive ransomware attack on May 12th, when computers in nearly 100 countries were hit and held hostage to hackers. The hackers demanded those affected pay a ransom to have their files and systems released. The attack hit medical networks and government agencies especially hard, as they are more vulnerable since they tend to upgrade their systems less frequently than businesses. It’s all a reminder of how important it is to safeguard your computer’s security.

First and foremost, keep your computer’s operating system (OS) up-to-date. Security updates are made for operating systems on a frequent basis. If you have a Windows-based machine and you’re running an OS older than Windows 7, it’s definitely time for an update. Microsoft no longer supports any OS older than Windows 7, and when the next OS is released, they’ll stop supporting Windows 7. I run Windows 10 at home and have learned to really like a lot of its features.

Windows products and Mac OS both can do automatic OS updates. I highly recommend that you turn those services on, and make sure they download regularly. An important thing to keep in mind, is that if you are using a desktop computer, you should not shut it down. You can sign out and the updates will still update. Windows defaults to downloading and installing them in the middle of the night, when you are less likely to be using them. That can be very convenient, as many times the updates require a restart, and the last thing you want is to have to restart your computer when you’re in the middle of a major project.

Another necessity is up-to-date anti-virus / anti-malware software. I wrote about the leading software available for this in a previous column, including programs like Symantec’s Norton, McAfee, Eset, and Kaspersky. What’s most important is that you keep that software constantly downloading current definitions.

Another important line of defense is actions the user can take. Many times, systems are exposed through the actions of a user. A friend of mine recently had this happen to him. Hey visited a website and clicked on an ad talking about breast cancer research donations. He visited the link out of care for the subject, and then his computer was infected. Be especially careful if visiting websites that rely on advertising to provide something for free, like many porn sites: be particularly suspicious of any ads there.

Open ads with an abundance of caution, and follow the same rule with email attachments. The May 12th attack was able to take over systems after someone opened up a PDF file attached to an email that looked legitimate. If you don’t know the person who sent you the email, or if it came from a friend who would not normally send an attachment, definitely don’t open it. If the email is from a friend, it’s best to contact the person first to confirm that the attachment is real. It’s always possible that a bot may have taken over your friend’s email, sending infected emails to everyone in the person’s contact list.

It’s important to keep in mind that attacks don’t just happen to computers, but also to smartphones and tablets. There are mobile versions available of many of the leading anti-virus / anti-malware protection software available.

While it’s true that thieves are going to continue to find ways to extract money or steal files, there is a lot you can do to stop them by keeping your operating systems up to date, maintaining current anti-virus / anti-malware software, and just using some good computer hygiene.

John Redmond-Palmer can be reached at