If you are reading this you have a computer and Internet access (obviously), so you have probably had to deal with that pesky thing known as spyware or adware. These are those programs that install themselves without your permission and unleash a myriad of lame programs on your computers. From pop-up advertisements (sometimes pretty embarassing ones, too) to changing your homepages, these programs can be a pain in the neck, and even a bigger pain to get rid of sometimes.
Being in this industry for a while now, I can remember when spyware problems were few and far between. At first the victims were those who went to, um, non-PG sites.
Now spyware is everywhere and anyone can be a victim. As soon as someone asks me why their home pc is running so slow all of the sudden, my immediate answer is: "have you run a scan for spyware?" Call up any computer repair place and more than likely they will have you run a scan for viruses and spyware before even looking at anything else.
So why should we be concerned about spyware? Aside from clogging your computer and making the system crawl at a snail's pace, it was announced this week that a major identity theft ring was using spyware to do their dirty work.
From Yahoo News:
Sunbelt Software Inc., makers of the enterprise-grade CounterSpy spyware protection product, made the discovery during an audit of "CoolWebSearch," a program that routinely hijacks Web searchers, browser home pages and other Internet Explorer settings.
During the research, Sunbelt researcher Patrick Jordan deliberately installed the "CoolWebSearch application on a machine and immediately noticed that the infected system became a spam zombie that was placing callbacks to a remote server.
When Jordan visited the remote server, he was shocked to find that it was being used to distribute sensitive personal information from millions of PC users infected by the spyware application.
"We found the keylogger transcript files that are being uploaded to the servers. We're talking real spyware stuff chat sessions, usernames, passwords, bank account information, full names, addresses," said Sunbelt president Alex Eckelberry.
The researchers who made this discovery said that the computer(server) running all of that mess was hosted out of a data center in Texas, and the web domain was registered to an offshore company.
I've worked on computers with CoolWebSearch on them, and I'll tell you this, that is a nasty little program to remove, but it can be done, takes a lot of patience though.
Now I'm not trying to be an alarmist here, spyware, viruses, these are things we have to deal with now in this age of technology.
As time goes on the bad people out there who want our info are going to come up with more sophisticated ways of getting to it. In the past it was only those who went to "questionable" sites that were attacked, now all you need is a live connection to the Internet and it can happen to you.
Some people say, well that's why I don't own a computer or go on the Internet ever. You know what, you don't even have to own a computer to have your identity stolen. Do you have an account at a bank? Ever signed up for a credit card? Signed up for a student loan? Then you can be a victim of identity theft. All it takes is for a hacker to break into that bank or credit card company's database and then voila, they have your SS#, address, birthdate, and your first dog's name. I know because it has happened to me twice already.
What can you do to protect yourself?
In my case I have signed up with a program that sends me an alert (via email) whenever there is any suspicious activity going on with my credit. Say I sign up for a new store credit card, I get an email letting me know when that happened and where.
Now on to your computer, how can you protect it? Here are a few tips I always share with people who ask me about their pcs at home:
Get anti-virus software
I cannot stress how important it is to get this. If you don't want to shell out money for it, there are several places on the web that offer free virus scans. Trend Micro is a good place, but if you have a dialup account, the scan may take a REALLY long time so you may want to run the scan overnight. If you are on cable or broadband, the scan may take up to 45 mintues. There is also a great free anti-virus program you can download by AVG, click here to check out the AVG Free Edition.(Thanks birddog for the recommendation!)
Get an anti-spyware program
These programs are also essential nowadays, and you can find some really good programs that are free. In addition, installing more than one of these anti-spyware programs is a good idea, since one program may not catch something, but another one can. I run several of them on at home including Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy.
Keep up with software updates
This bit of advice is mainly targeted to those with a Windows operationing system (XP, 2000). I cannot say this enough UPDATES ARE VITAL to your computer. One time I set up a brand new computer (out of the box)and within minutes of hooking it up to the Internet it was infected with a virus. That computer didn't have the latest updates, making it vulnerable. Microsoft releases security updates every month, so make sure to keep up with them.
Use another webrowser: Firefox
Now I'm not telling you to ditch Microsoft's Internet Explorer(IE) (although that itself is no easy task), but you need IE to install your Windows Updates so hold on to it. However, IE has been known to be full of security holes, and no amount of updates seem to ever fix that. A safer bet for your web browsing needs is the Firefox browser, and guess what it's free. Sure it has security issues as well, but it is still a safer option.
Those are all the safety tips I have for now. I have more, including a personal firewall and how to look out for phishing emails, and oh so much more, but it seems that I have written a novel here already. So the rest I will leave for a later time.
The Internet can be a fun place, an informative place, and for some people, an essential part of their lives. We need not be afraid of it, we just have to learn how to co-exist.
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