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5 things you absolutely need to do to secure your laptop and mobile device

online security antivirus vpn
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Our devices are under sustained attack from increasingly sophisticated malware criminals, and where twenty years ago there were hundreds of thousands of types of malware, today there are millions – evolving so that their tell tale signatures are never the same.

Downloading the best antivirus is your obvious first port of call, but what else do you need to do to secure your computers, smartphones and tablets from potential attacks? Follow these five top tips, and your tech should prove impregnable...

Install an antivirus  

OK, so we'll start with the most obvious security measure, but it’s worth explaining why. Antivirus is now something of a misnomer, with AV software having to counter threats from all kinds of malicious attacks – increasingly sophisticated, often lying dormant and undetected for weeks before doing any damage, and no longer the preserve of a few amateur online ‘anachists’. Malware, ransomeware, Trojan horse programs, malicious bots: today’s antivirus software has to take on all-comers. Anybody not taking these risks seriously is opening themselves up to a world of potential pain.  

Some people are happy to go for free antivirus software, and largely that’s fine, as the leading brands tend to include their top antiviral smarts, just as they do on the paid-for iterations. But feature-rich these freebies ain’t, so it’s worthwhile investigating the available extras – both on the free versions (each brand is different) and their paid-for equivalents – before making a download decision. Obviously, as each of the leading AV brands is keen to constantly remind us with infuriating pop-up ads, it’s easy enough to upgrade to a pay service later on, once a freebie has been selected. 

Sure, Windows Defender offers some AV protection. Built into Windows 8 onwards, it runs by default when no third party antivirus software product is installed, but most commentators advise third party protection from a leading brand, for the best antivirus chops. 

It’s worth considering a free ransomeware download for extra protection, if the antivirus or antivirus suite installed doesn’t include it. Indeed, for those that decide on free AV, it is possible to bolt on all sorts of free features to bolster defences, although be prepared for potential slowdowns in system speeds. Although, we'd always recommend just going straight for the good stuff and downloading one of our picks of the best antivirus software on the net.

Add a VPN

One such bolt-on is a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. This is essential when connecting to free Wi-Fi services, in coffee shops, on trains, in hospitals and at airports – and even eateries like McDonald's!

Without a VPN, the risks to devices is high, as the security on the Wi-Fi connection is unknown, and it’s possible that other users could potentially access unsuspecting and unprotected devices. A VPN protects devices by encrypting all Internet traffic, routing it though the provider's server.

Use of a VPN also ensures that IP addresses are hidden, confusing advertisers and trackers so that they only see the VPN company’s address. It’s no surprise that activists and journalists in repressive regimes are keen on VPNs.

And yes, it is worth considering a VPN for Mac devices as well as Microsoft and Android. Basically, if a device is going to be used out of house or office – i.e. when the security of Wi-Fi connections is uncertain – a VPN is a very good idea indeed, especially if you choose from our list of the best VPN services.

Install a password manager

Everybody knows the importance of using multiple passwords alongside varied usernames, but with the gargantuan number of log-ins everyone needs to manage these days it’s easy to stick with one or two favorites to make things easier, or even write them down somewhere ‘safe’! This is obviously a mistake, but with our busy lives it’s often easier to take shortcuts even when we know it’s not the safe thing to do.

And passwords are probably the cyber criminal’s favorite method of stealing information, because it’s so damn easy! Obtain a series of usernames and passwords from a source and then attempt to use the same combos in different places, such as bank accounts. All anyone has to do to secure against such a security breach is to use strong (i.e. lots of letter, number and case combinations) and unique passwords across each and every online login. Job done! 

But, of course, this is a nightmare and the reason why people use the same password or series of passwords for multiple logins. A password manager is solves this conundrum, automatically generating strong and unique passwords each and every time a new one is required, and remembering previously generated ones in order to easily access other accounts. All the user need do is remember the master password to unlock the manager. There are a number of freebies, but as with antivirus freeware, the pay versions are more feature-heavy.  

It’s also a good idea to switch off any password management systems built in to browsers. Given that password manager software will typically offer to import passwords from the browser’s back end when installed, why wouldn’t a malicious piece of software be able to achieve the same thing? Utilising one password manager for use across all devices and different browsers also makes a lot of sense.  

 Use two-factor authentication for smartphones

Well known to Google users, this is an essential barrier against hackers, but it’s also intrinsic security for Android smartphones.

To set it up on an Android phone, users login to their Google account and select the two-step verification settings. Following the prompts, users input their phone number in order to receive a verification code via text, and then complete the process as directed. Google Prompt is then recommended for authorising and Google apps, by entering ‘yes’ when promoted. 

When it comes to IOS, two-factor authentication provides an additional layer of security for Apple ID, so that even if somebody else knows the password they will be unable to access the account without the second ‘factor’. The Apple ID account will also only be accessible via trusted devices. When signing into a new device for the first time, the password and six-digit verification code – generated by the previously trusted device – will need to be inputted. The code is verification that the new device is trusted. The verification code will only be required again if the device is signed-out or erased. 

 Clear caches

A browser’s cache holds a lot of information about a user. Search history and cookies could highlight all sorts of potentially usable information for hackers; info that they could use to join the dots in order to commit fraud.

Browser cookies and history should be cleared regularly. Pressing Ctrl+Shift+Del in any of the leading browsers launches a popup that permits whatever clearances are required. Sure, cookies are there to help personalise some websites, so this could make things tricky, but most browsers ring-fence cookies on any bookmarked websites to mitigate against this.

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