Windows XP support ends: Survival tips to stay safe

If you're late to upgrade or have decided not to change your operating system, check out these tips to keep the system as secure as possible.
1 of 8 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Do not use Internet Explorer

It is not advisable to keep running Microsoft's Windows XP operating system now that support has ended.

Today, Microsoft will release its last batch of security updates, patches, and fixes for Windows XP, and after this date, core vulnerabilities or security issues that could leave you open to cyberattack will not be investigated or fixed. You won't have a permenant blue wheel of death the moment support ends, but vulnerabilities stored up by cybercriminals for use after this date will not be fixed. 

See also: Windows XP and the Future of the desktop

Tip one? Stop using Internet Explorer.

The most common version of IE used on XP systems is version 8, and considering that Internet Explorer is now up to version 11, you can see how old and obsolete the browser is. Not only this, but Internet Explorer 7 and 8 will also not be updated further, leaving your system vulnerable to malware that exploits this old program.

Both Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome browsers will continue support for Windows XP after expiration, and so use one of these browsers instead of Internet Explorer if you are still running XP. This will at least give you a little more time, but be aware that Chrome on XP will only be supported for one more year, and it is not known how long Firefox will offer support.

In addition, don't forget to change your browser from the IE default.

2 of 8 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Keep third-party software up to date

The fewer software packages you have installed on your computer, the fewer routes that hackers can take to infiltrate your system.

Any software you can't live without, especially if used in tandem with an Internet connection, must be kept fully updated at all times. Adobe Flash, Adobe Acrobat PDF reader, and Java are of particular concern, as they are often targets for hackers -- and while modern versions check for updates automatically, older versions may skip checks altogether.

If you don't need the Java browser plugin, disable it, and you should do the same for Adobe Flash. The fewer outlets you provide for vulnerabilities to be exploited the better. While these are all stop-gap solutions instead of the ultimate protection — killing your Windows XP system altogether — it may keep your system a little safer.

3 of 8 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Turn on the Windows XP firewall

It may seem like an obvious tip, but it is amazing how often this critical security feature is turned off and forgotten about.

Go to your control panel, select Windows Firewall, and turn the security barrier on — and leave it that way.

4 of 8 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Update everything

It is not just third-party apps and plugins that should be updated — don't forget the most important element, upgrading all of your Microsoft applications and services to their most modern states.

See also: The end of XP support: The complete guide for stayers and switchers

From the Start menu, select All Programs and then Windows Update to see the status of your system. Install anything deemed "Important," and set Windows Update to install any future fixes automatically. In addition, as Microsoft Office 2003 is also being abandoned, leave it alone and switch to an open-source suite such as OpenOffice, or move along to the Web and use Google Docs or OneDrive.

5 of 8 Screenshot via ZDNet

Limit user accounts to limit potential damage

If you use a full-system administrator account, this type of user is able to install programs as well as modify and remove software, and often malware will use these privileges to achieve its malicious ends.

See also: Gartner: 'Prepare now' for the death of Windows XP; security at risk

While many versions of malware are able to modify user privileges anyway — and so this advice is limited — creating a limited user account may mitigate some of the damage malicious software can do if it arrives on your system. This restricts your ability to make changes to the operating system, but should be fine for daily tasks. You can always switch back to an Administrator account if you need to install software — but make sure you scan it for problems or malicious code first using an antivirus program.

6 of 8 CNET

Protect yourself against zero-day malware and exploits

Microsoft's Windows XP will not be updated and protected against major flaws any longer, but this does not mean security needs to go entirely out of the window.

Microsoft says you'll be facing a zero day forever scenario by clinging on to the old operating system, and that's likely, but it doesn't mean you'll immediately be left out in the cold by many security vendors.

See also: Hackers text ATMs for cash via XP flaws

The Redmond giant's Microsoft Security Essentials will support XP for one more year, and this seems to be the approach taken by many third-party security vendors. 

Considering that you'll be saving money by not upgrading your computer, it's worth considering the purchase of premium antivirus products to give Windows XP the best chance of staying secure. AVG, Avast and MalwareBytes are antivirus vendors with real-time scanning that you may want to consider.

7 of 8 Screenshot ZDNet

Stay safe and vigilant

If you're using an archaic operating system, being careful when you browse the Web will now be critical to staying safe.

Do not click on emailed attachments or links that are suspicious, and if you receive an email which seems legitimate — whether from the tax office or bank — ring them first and clarify the contents before submitting any personal data. Stay away from websites that are known sources of malware, adware, and spyware, and be careful about visiting websites with expired security certificates. 

If you can, unplug from the Internet entirely. This may be an extreme solution, but if you're running the risk of using an outdated, vulnerable system, connecting up to a source of security issues isn't going to help matters. 

8 of 8 Charlie Osborne/ZDNet

Upgrade your operating system or computer entirely

The final, and most useful tip? Changing, updating and shoring up the system are only temporary measures. If you want to stay safe, you need to upgrade the operating system to a newer version, such as Windows 7, or change your OS altogether.

Microsoft offers Laplink, a free data migration tool, to help you transfer files, settings, and profiles from your Windows XP PC to your new Windows laptop, desktop, or tablet — as long as they are running Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1.

See also: Windows XP phantom will haunt majority of businesses after deadline

The problem is that many old computers still running Windows XP simply won't have the memory, storage, or capabilities to cope with a modern operating system, and so if you can't upgrade, you'll have to invest in a new machine. 

But what's worse — a few hundred dollars for a new machine or your account emptied when a hacker installs malware, keyloggers, and steals your financial data due to XP security vulnerabilities?

Chris Boyd, Malware Intelligence Analyst at Malwarebytes told ZDNet:

"The research team at Malwarebytes, myself included, is keeping an attentive eye on how cybercriminals respond to the threat to XP users. Whenever there is an event that gains a lot of media attention, there will always be individuals with criminal intent seeking to capitalise. 

The problem is that XP being retired isn't just a software issue but a hardware issue too. Many end-users running XP may well be running old PCs and may struggle to upgrade to Windows 7 or 8. It's going to take some time for those people to upgrade and we need to do everything we can to ensure their machines are as safe as can be in the meantime, which is why we're continuing to support them."

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