A skilled thief can break into a car in less than a minute. Hackers take slightly longer to break into a computer. There is a 50 per cent chance of being infected by a malicious program within 12 minutes of connecting to the internet on an unprotected Microsoft Windows PC, research from anti-virus firm Sophos has found.

Some of these programs, called Trojans, can give hackers remote control of a computer linked to the internet. Jason Hart, chief executive of security consultancy Whitehat, says they can even override webcams and microphones to allow outsiders to see into your home and listen to conversations. “We’re seeing hackers and paedophiles taking control of video cameras remotely,” he says. “Most people leave computers on all the time, so essentially the webcam can act as a spy camera. It’s important to protect the family – by protecting your computer you’re protecting them and their identities.”

To stop people falling victim to online identity theft, the US government recently launched a website (staysafeonline.org), which explains in plain English how to protect your computer.

One of its first recommendations is to use a firewall – a tool that stops hackers seeing into your computer in the first place.

“The internet is millions of computers all connected together, so you need to put some kind of barrier up to prevent others from accessing yours,” says Alan Phillips, CEO of security firm 7Safe. “A firewall will act like a nightclub bouncer for your computer, rejecting unauthorised attempts to get in.”

Windows XP is sold with a firewall, but you should check if it is switched on. Zonelabs.com offers a free firewall for home users.

Mr Phillips advises caution over e-mail attachments, especially if they come from someone unknown: “Treat programs with suspicion especially if you haven’t initiated the communication yourself. If in doubt, telephone the source and ask if the e-mail came from them.”

Anti-virus software from companies such as Symantec or Trend Micro, can detect some malicious programs, but Mr Hart says it is important to update the software: “Everyone says they have anti-virus but how many people update it? You’ve only done half a job if you don’t do that. Make sure auto-updates are switched on.”

Hackers exploit weaknesses in older software versions to control a machine, so Mr Phillips recommends regular updates for all software: “Ensure that you regularly update the security of your computer’s operating system, such as Windows XP Home, and applications like Outlook to prevent it from being vulnerable.”

Microsoft currently offers a free, downloadable program to handle spyware – malicious programs that steal data, such as bank details and passwords, and send it back to hackers. Some anti-virus software is unable to detect these programs, so it is a good idea to have an extra layer of defence.

Last, the golden rule is given on staysafeonline.org, which advises people to back up their most important data on to CD some other electronic method of storing information.

In the event that you are hacked, it is always best to have something to fall back on.

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