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How to secure your computer and online accounts in 10 simple steps

Data breaches, hacks, and vulnerable software makes it easier than ever for a hacker to get access to your data. These simple steps can help mitigate it happening in the first place.

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Topic: Storage
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1 of 10 ZDNet/CBS Interactive

1. Set a strong password, and use a password manager

A secure password can be the death knell to a hacker trying to gain access to your PC or your online account. Pick something memorable, but also complicated and unique. But using that password again and again for multiple accounts, no matter how strong it can be, can open you up to other attacks. If one account is breached, that means others could be too. Using a password manager like LastPass and 1Password can help eliminate passwords that you reuse, while mitigating other attacks, like keyloggers.

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2 of 10 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

2. Remove bundled crapware and bloatware

Even with a brand new Windows PC, do you really know what's on it? Removing software and apps that are preinstalled with your new computer can help improve your security. After Lenovo was found to have installed a covert tracking tool and broke encryption on new computers, it sparked a new wave of hatred for pre-installed junk software. Removing these apps and pseudo-antivirus programs (which more often than not want you to pay for them) can cut down on how many points of attack a hacker or malware can get you from.

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3. Setup two-factor authentication on your online accounts

Two-factor authentication works by sending a second password or code to a device you own and trust, like your phone. Setting it up bolsters your password considerably, and makes it far more difficult for someone to access your account. Most online accounts now support two-factor authentication, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo. It takes only a few minutes to set up.

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4 of 10 Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

4. Enable full-disk encryption

Setting up encryption on your hard drives is relatively straight-forward with most tools, and could save your private data from ending up in the wrong hands. Without the right password, your data is scrambled and unreadable.

Something open-source like TrueCrypt is best while TrueCrypt itself is off the table because it's no longer in development (though a recent audit said it's still essentially trustworthy). There are offshoot alternatives, like VeraCrypt, that are said to be the next-best thing. Or Microsoft's BitLocker or Apple's FileVault are good built-in solutions -- but while they may keep hackers away, they won't deter the US government.

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5. Use HTTPS Everywhere plugin for Firefox, Chrome browsers

Forcing a secure connection to a website can help protect your privacy and help you stay secure. Adding a plugin called HTTPS Everywhere in your Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome browser forces a website to load up using a secure version of the page (if available).

It's created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group, so you know it can be trusted. (Firefox and Chrome also come with an auto-update feature, so they will always be up-to-date with the latest security features and fixes.)

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6. Uninstall Java, and lock down Adobe plugins

Java. The bane of most IT professional's existence. Most websites don't use the plugin, instead opting for modern Web standards. Java is renowned for being riddled with bugs and security issues. Homeland Security has previously warned users about using the software. Simply disable and uninstall it if you know you don't need it.

Meanwhile, apps like Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader are also known to be troublesome, but are still widely used. Your best bet is to make them update automatically in the background. There's advice on how to do this for both Flash and Reader.

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7. Use Tor for anonymous browsing

Tor, known as the anonymity network, scrambles a user's identity and makes browsing history unreadable to the outside malicious actor (or intelligence agency). In fact, even the National Security Agency had considerable trouble in gaining access to so-called "dark web" data. Using Tor can significantly help your privacy needs. It's not infallible, and there are always people trying to crack it. But it's one of, if not the best browsing masker available today.

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8. Keep your machine patched and up-to-date

Making sure that your operating system is up-to-date is vital to your computer's security. Without your knowledge, malware can be installed on unpatched computers forcing them to enroll in criminal activity without your knowledge. Known as "botnets," they can steal data and bring down other networks by overloading them with traffic. Keeping your computer (even your Mac) up to date can keep malware and botnets at bay.

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9. Use an ad-blocker

Installing an ad-blocker to your browser, like Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, can help significantly reduce the number of tracking cookies that get installed on your computer. A number of ad-blockers exist, but one of the best up-and-coming plugins is called uBlock. It's also open-source, so other developers can inspect the code.

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10. Use a virtual private network for public Wi-Fi use

Adding a virtual private networking option to your computer can help bolster the poor security on open, public Wi-Fi networks. Adding a free service like Hotspot Shield to your computer funnels your traffic through an encrypted pipeline so potentially malicious actors on the same Wi-Fi network can't access your data. The downside is that your speeds may slow slightly. Other services like OpenDNS, which adds an extra layer of security to your browsing, can also filter out some of the more nefarious and malicious sites.

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