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Computer users need good habits

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Behavioral experts say that one of the best ways to drop a bad habit is to replace it with a new good habit. If you have a computer that constantly acts up, you probably need to develop a few good tech habits.

Most computer problems aren't catastrophic, and you can fix them yourself. Upgrading to fancier software or shopping around for a new computer will cost you time and money.

Buying and installing extra RAM often fixes the dreaded Blue Screen of Death and other problems. Find out what kind of memory your computer takes with a free scanner. Installing new RAM is a breeze.

Cleaning out the clutter on your hard drive is another easy solution. Grab the free PC Decrapifier to remove trial programs and bloatware in a snap, then open up Duplicate Cleaner and CCleaner to clear out duplicate files and fix errors in your Windows registry.

When you have to buy a new computer or other piece of tech gear, watch out for the booby traps.

Extended warranties, for example, can add hundreds of dollars to the price of your purchase. They're usually bad investments, unless you're buying an expensive laptop.

You'll also save money by buying extra RAM and hard-drive upgrades and installing them yourself.

Far too many computer and gadget users don't bother to create passwords and leave their home wireless networks open for others to use. Or else they come up with passwords that are easy to hack, such as “password” and “123456.”

The trick to passwords is striking a balance between security and convenience. You want it strong and long enough to repel the bad guys. But you also don't want to spend 4 minutes tapping out a cryptic code every time you need to use it.

The best password is at least 8 characters long and contains a mix of letters, numbers and symbols.

There are thousands of strains of viruses, worms and other malware circulating on the Internet. Running up-to-date security software on your computer is a top priority.

An unprotected Windows computer can pick up a file-erasing, information-stealing bug in under a minute.

Macs aren't immune to viruses, either, as last year's outbreak of the Flashback Trojan proved. That monster wreaked havoc on more than 600,000 Macs. Every computer you own should have an anti-virus program, a firewall and an antispyware program.

Another huge threat right now is security holes in Java, a programming language Web browsers use to run interactive content. When a vulnerable version of Java is active in a Web browser, visiting a compromised website is all it takes for crooks to give you malware.

In most cases, you won't even know your computer is compromised until it's too late. To stay safe, stop using Java — or stay on top of the upgrades and use Java a lot more guardedly.

Data loss isn't a question of if; it's a question of when. Your photos, songs, financial information, art projects and business presentations are on there. Paying a technician to recover information from a failed hard drive will cost you a bundle.

Backing up to an external drive is better than nothing. But external hard drives fail, too, and can be stolen.

Use a system that backs up to the cloud so it's safe from fire, theft and flood. You also want your backup made automatically. For both, I recommend Carbonite. Two other popular backup services are Mozy and Backblaze.

Email Kim Komando at techcomments@usatoday.com.

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