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Setting Up Your Christmas PC

Don't give hackers a surprise gift

Like hundreds of thousands of Britons, you might be thinking of buying a new computer. This column is all about how to make the best use of it without waking up the next day to a security nightmare.

If you're buying a new computer for your family, think about taking delivery early and making sure it's all set up so that Christmas morning isn't spent on tedious security administration.

Step 1: Don't get online yet

It might be tempting to plug everything in and start browsing the net. Don't. Hackers continually scan for new internet users and you can be found and attacked within an hour. It's better to get your computer all set up and ready for action first.

Step 2: Shields up

A firewall will stop hackers finding and penetrating your computer. Assuming your computer comes with Windows XP Service Pack 2 already installed, you can switch on Windows Firewall using the Windows Firewall control panel and clicking 'on'. Simple.

If your computer is running an older version of Windows XP, until you download the free update, you'll need to run Internet Connection Firewall instead. Download instructions on how to set this up from Microsoft.

Step 3: Switch on any antivirus software

If your computer came with some antivirus software - often new PCs come with a limited-time trial - make sure it is switched on. If not, consider buying one of the popular antivirus programs such as Symantec or McAfee. You don't necessarily need the most elaborate, all-singing, all-dancing security suite; the basic antivirus product should be fine.

Step 4: Wireless networking

Wireless networks are increasingly common at home these days as manufacturers often combine an ADSL router with a wireless network access port. This saves cabling and means you can access the internet anywhere in the house but it poses some security problems. Wireless network protocols include provision for encryption, to prevent eavesdropping, and for access control, to keep out freeloaders who might mooch on your expensive broadband connection. However, most access points have these defences turned off by default. For more information on how to secure a wireless network see the instructions that come with your hardware and check out the Wi-Fi alliance's security advice.

Step 5: Connect and update

You're ready to connect to the internet now. However, you still can't go browsing. The first job is to get all the latest updates and patches.

First update your antivirus signatures. The documentation that came with your software will explain how to do this. You should also make sure that it will update itself automatically in future.

Second, visit the Windows Update site and download all the critical patches (if any). This may include Windows XP Service Pack 2 if it is not already installed. Sometimes you will have to do this several times as some updates have to be installed on their own and before others can be applied.

Third, once you have downloaded and applied all the patches on Windows Update, if you are using Microsoft Office applications like Word or Excel, go to Office Update and download any updates that are required to secure these applications.

With a modem, expect to spend an hour or two downloading patches - more if your computer didn't come with XP Service Pack 2 already installed. With ADSL or cable modems, it'll be more like 10-20 minutes plus time to install and update the patches.

Step 6: Protect and subscribe

This is the point when you should make sure you have a long-term subscription for your antivirus software. Keep an eye on this column and Microsoft's security advice and make sure you keep your defences current and strong.

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