Internet Security for the Modern Real Estate Agent – Part 1

Internet and computer security are huge issues and you could spend a lifetime learning all the aspects of protecting networks and systems. Due to that fact, and because talk of Internet security can bore even the biggest geeks to death, it’s best to break the main topics into manageable chunks. Therefore this is the first of three parts of this article. All three parts of this article can be accessed by following the links below.

It’s time to talk technology safety. Sadly, like many average computer users, REALTORS lack the basic understanding of what it means to secure your computer from the various threats in the Internet jungle. Your computers and your electronic accounts (email, website, CRM systems) are the backbone of your business. So by securing your technology you’re insuring the safety and continuity of your business. Lets take a look at some of the main issues that you need to be aware of. Keep in mind that no amount of security software or hardware will keep you safe if you don’t know the purpose and importance of these systems. Security is a process; it’s a holistic approach that requires several different gears working in harmony to be successful. Hopefully some of this information will be old news to you and hopefully the rest of it won’t bore you to death.

First, let’s tackle the most well-known computer threat: viruses. Computer viruses have been around since the very inception of the modern personal computer. Over the years the complexity and potential damage from computer viruses have escalated to levels that simply can’t be ignored, no matter what your level of business. Failing to prepare for computer virus threats could compromise your entire client roster, completely cripple your computer hardware and even expose your identity to theft and exploitation. Protecting yourself from these threats is actually just a simple matter of having the appropriate software in place and keeping it up to date, which all modern antivirus software does automatically – assuming you don’t get in it’s way. Without a doubt, the two most popular and best selling antivirus packages on the market today are offered by Norton Antivirus and McAfee Antivirus. Both of these pieces of software retail for around $40 and can be obtained online (Symantec.com and mcafee.com respectively) and anywhere software is sold (BestBuy, OfficeMax, Staples, even Wal-Mart).

After the first year additional updates are available on a subscription basis, usually running roughly $20 per year. Installation of these and similar packages is a breeze and so long as your have a broadband Internet connection they will keep themselves updated. Another antivirus software worth mentioning is the AVG Free Edition Antivirus software provided by Grisoft Software. This package is totally free though prohibited for commercial use. For your personal and home computer equipment this is a great option. It lacks some of the advanced features of Norton and McAfee, but it does provide a very good level of protection at no cost. All three of these software packages, and many others, now integrate some level of protection against spy ware – which brings us to our next topic.

Spyware and adware originated as tiny pieces of software code that would download on your computer from the various websites visited on your computer. These pesky “bots” would then sniff around on your machine and keep track of your viewing habits, with the purpose of providing marketers with detailed information about your likes and dislikes in order to target specific advertising to you in the form of pop-ups. These programs have evolved to the point now where they pose a significant threat to your personal information. They can now capture passwords and account data, which are then sent on to cyber criminals. This information can be used to get lines of credit in your name and to steal your identity. Spyware also can corrupt your Internet browsing software (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Netscape etc.) to the point that you are so bombarded by advertising pop-ups that your machine essentially becomes unusable. Spyware and adware are now responsible for more identity theft than any other type of malicious software in the wild. Thankfully there are two very good, and totally free, pieces of software available to combat the spyware problem. They are Spybot Search and Destroy from developer Patrick M. Kolla and Windows Defender, formerly Microsoft Antispyware. Both of these packages are 100% free and provide updates and spyware signatures at no cost. They can be downloaded directly from their developer websites and from CNET’s download.com. I highly recommend that both of these packages be installed. They both tend to have some small deficiencies (each package detects some spyware that the other fails to find) that are overcome by having both in place.

Now that you have both antivirus and spy ware blocking software installed its time to talk about keeping hackers at bay through the use of firewalls. In terms of computer technology, a firewall functions just as a firewall does in building. Between one attached condo and another, for example, you will have special building materials to prevent a fire from burning from one unit to the other. A computer firewall works in much the same way, it keeps the fires that are out on the Internet out of your home or business network. Assuming that you are running an up-to-date version of Windows XP, with Service Pack 2 installed, then you have a pretty decent software firewall already installed and running on your machine. The settings for this firewall can be accessed under Windows Firewall in the Control Panel, though these settings are best left untouched for the average user. For additional protection there are a number of commercially available software firewalls on the market, two of the most popular are from…yes, you guessed it – Norton and McAfee. Another very popular commercial firewall is from ZoneAlarm.com. However, the biggest problem with all of these options is that they tend to be way too confusing for the average user. They constantly pop up and ask questions about every application on your computer that tries to access the Internet. Though this provides greater overall security, it forces the user to continually stop what they are doing to allow their applications to function. Often the applications are identified by their filenames (blahblah32.exe), which the user does not recognize as one of their apps. They than deny Internet access that an application which should have access, essentially breaking the functionality of one of their programs. There are also complex configuration and setup issues if you have even a very simple business or home network. Allowing access to shared resources between computers requires explicit configuration of each resource, which is often beyond the scope of what the average REALTOR can handle. It is for this and other reasons that I usually do not recommend these more sophisticated software firewalls. The firewall built into your Windows operating system is more than sufficient for most purposes. If you require a higher level of security, then I recommend you bring in a specialist to assist you with setting up advanced software firewalls on each of the computers on your network.

This does not mean that I don’t strongly recommend the use of an additional hardware firewall. These are often built into your wired or wireless routers. These provide a level of security at the very outside perimeter of your network. Since this is the first line of defense between you and the Internet, it’s important that this be in place and running smoothly. Most routers come with their hardware firewall features turned on by default, so many of you are probably in good shape. You’ll need to check the documentation that came with your router or check the manufacturers website for more details on your specific router’s firewall capabilities and their configuration. I strongly recommend that you have both a hardware and software firewall protecting your computers. Also, make sure that if you are going to share resources (folders, files, printers etc.) they must be password protected and that you keep critical data off of your network shares.

This is the end of part one of three of Internet Security for the Modern Real Estate Agent. Stay tuned to part two where we’ll discuss securing your data.

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