Keeping a Windows PC safe can demand a high degree of vigilance — imagine if cars needed the same constant care and feeding. And yet all these attacks by viruses, worms...

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Keeping a Windows PC safe can demand a high degree of vigilance — imagine if cars needed the same constant care and feeding.

And yet all these attacks by viruses, worms, spyware and browser hijackers could have been prevented with some initial effort. It’s completely feasible to put a computer on the Internet — even one running Windows, the most-attacked, least-secure operating system around — and never suffer a single successful attack.

Here’s what to do, starting when you take it out of the box and plug it in. Most of these steps apply only to Windows, but some pertain to Mac OS X as well.

Step 1 is to barricade your Internet connection with a firewall. Without this, network worms such as Blaster can try to sneak onto your computer the instant it goes online, even if you don’t run a single Internet program.

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On any Windows XP machine running Microsoft’s Service Pack 2 update, a firewall should be on already. On an older Windows machine, open the Network Connections control panel, right-click the icon for your connection, click the Advanced tab and click the checkbox under Internet Connection Firewall.

On a Mac, the built-in firewall must be switched on: Open the System Preferences window, select the Sharing category and then click the Firewall tab.

Step 2 is to download and install every security patch available. Don’t do anything else online until the process concludes. In Windows, select Windows Update from the Start Menu’s All Programs listing; in Mac OS X, select Software Update from the Apple icon menu.

Then set your computer to download future fixes automatically (you should need to do this only in pre-SP2 versions of Windows XP, where you’d open the System control panel and click the Automatic Updates tab).

The next three steps apply only to Windows; Mac users can skip ahead.

Step 3 is to activate and update the antivirus software on your computer. Most new PCs include only 90 days of updates, after which your protection will evaporate. Find out when your free coverage will end, then make a note in your calendar to renew your subscription before then.

Step 4 is to update three core Internet programs, since older versions can suffer from security flaws.

Get the latest versions of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player (www.microsoft.com/windowsmedia/, RealNetworks’ RealPlayer (www.real.com) and Sun Microsystems’ Java software (www.java.com).

Step 5 is a big one: Download the free Mozilla Firefox Web browser (www.mozilla.org) and use that instead of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer whenever possible. Firefox is not only simpler and more convenient than Internet Explorer, it’s also much more secure. And by not running Microsoft’s ActiveX software, Firefox blocks a common route for spyware.

The sixth and last step is to use the most effective security mechanism ever invented, the human brain. In two words, be skeptical. Don’t open unexpected e-mail attachments, even if they come from the e-mail address of someone you know, since viruses scour infected PCs for e-mail addresses to impersonate.

There is no replacement, on any computer, for common-sense caution, the same thing that keeps people safe in the face of far worse dangers in the real world.