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Protect your PC from hackers by installing firewall

Letters are piling up in the mailbag. Let's try to get to the bottom of some of them.

Question:I recently subscribed to a DSL service offered by my local telephone company. Within two weeks I had a hacker. I had McAfee to protect my computer. I learned that it really didn't, but canceled and went back to dial-up service. Now a friend has told me that Windows 98SE, which I run, is especially susceptible to hackers. They can easily access it. Is this so? And as a casual user of the Internet and computer (as in no game player), which version of Windows would you recommend?

Answer: I think Windows XP is the best version out there for general use. I don't subscribe to the feeling that Windows 98 is worse than other versions. What you were missing, however, is a firewall. The McAfee you speak of likely was anti-virus, not a firewall. What a firewall does is put a screen door between your PC and the Internet. I would strongly suggest you give DSL or cable a try again, but protect your PC better. If you want a free solution, install Zone Alarm (www.zonelabs.com). Otherwise, use a commercial firewall and keep it updated.

Question:When you run "Disk Cleanup," does it just clean up unneeded files or wipe out all data on the computer?

Answer: Good question. It only cleans up stuff you don't need. If it erased the whole PC, they would not make it so convenient to use.

Question:How do you clean out the old Internet files from your browser? I use Internet Explorer.

Answer: Right-click on the blue "E" representing the Internet Explorer and hit "Properties." Under "Temporary Internet Files" hit the "Delete Files" button. That will take care of the files that collect in your PC. If you do nothing, the files will delete themselves eventually. So if you have lots of disk space don't worry too much about it. If you hit the "Settings" button, you can pick how much space that the temporary files can take up.

Question:What is the best laptop out there? I have about $1,500 to spend, maximum.

Answer: That's like asking what is the best car out there. So much of it depends on what you plan to do with it. Many PC laptops, in fact, are made by overseas contractors and sold under various labels. I think the best functional laptops these days are made by Apple, Dell and Sony, but I would use test results from reputable computer magazines over me.

Question:I am getting all kinds of e-mails returned to me claiming I sent someone a virus. I never sent any of the mails. How is this happening?

Answer: Several of the viruses out there "spoof" the return address. What you need to do is simple. Get a quality anti-virus program and keep it updated. Then run a full computer scan of your PC every other day while you sleep. The most important part of anti-virus protection is the constant updating you have to do. Without updates you are vulnerable to every new attack out there.

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James Derk is co-owner of CyberDads, a computer repair company, and a computer columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is jim@cyberdads.com.