Friday, April 25, 2014

Simple Steps Enhance Computer Privacy, Security

After the first virus invaded her computer through an "always on" high-speed cable connection to the Internet, Annie Williams, from Wisconsin, considered buying antivirus software. Getting rid of the virus required reloading all the computer's software, a process that wiped out the family's documents, e-mail addresses, and anything else stored in memory. This first headache cost a lot of time and frustration--but no cash.

Yet once the virus was gone, antivirus software quickly fell to the bottom of Annie's list. The demands of managing a household of five and Annie's work as an emergency medical technician seemed much more important than computer security. Then a second virus attacked the computer. That virus gets at least part of the blame for the nasty grinding sound that led to the metallic "ping" that signaled the demise of Annie's hard drive.

The second time around, antivirus software was one of the first items loaded onto Annie's replacement hard drive. This instance was more costly than the first. A new hard drive runs about $200 and a new copy of Windows XP can cost up to $330. Because Annie and family members did the work themselves the cost was reduced considerably. If a professional does it for you, you'll pay more. Today, Annie and her family are careful to regularly access updates from the software vendor. She sums up the experience with just three words: "Live and learn."

Annie's story is real, although her name was changed at her request to conceal her computer naiveté. Annie and her family can be thankful they escaped with only a fried hard drive. The significant consequences that can arise from connecting an unprotected computer to the Internet vary depending on whether a computer invader takes something, such as information that enables a thief to create a false identity, or whether the invader leaves something behind, such as a virus or program that allows the invader to return to take control of your computer for dubious purposes.

'Casual' risks

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently launched a campaign on its Web site to educate consumers about the need to protect information stored on their personal computers. Ellen Finn, an attorney in the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, says a surprising number of consumers share Annie's casual attitude toward computers.
Software can protect the computer with minimal interference in everyday operations.

"People just don't have an instinct for how important information is these days, how easily it can be misused, and how many people are interested in capturing it," Finn says.

Finn says some consumers appear to view unreliability and occasional operating problems as the price of using a computer. These casual computer users fail to comprehend that the risks are much greater than coping with a virus or even replacing hardware.

"People need to educate themselves about the reality of the threats they face and the steps they can take to protect themselves," Finn says.

Finn says the first step is developing an awareness of the type of information that identity thieves need to pretend to be you. Regard account numbers of any type as sensitive information. That goes beyond credit union/bank accounts to utility accounts and cell phone accounts. Hackers who sneak into your computer to "steal" your identity also are interested in any type of relationship that offers significant personal information, which then can be used to stage an impersonation.

This impersonation is the basis of identity theft, which occurs when someone uses details about you or your relationships to obtain credit or open new accounts. Identity theft hurts your credit rating when the criminal defaults on a loan or credit card, fails to pay a cell phone bill, or writes bad checks on a new account opened in your name. Experts say that fixing the damage to your credit typically takes two years of diligent effort.

Hackers also can use a "Trojan Horse" program to get inside your computer and take over its Internet connection to hide illegal online activity or to launch denial-of-service attacks that bombard corporate Web sites with an overwhelming volume of e-mail, sometimes forcing the site to shut down completely. Even computer owners who unknowingly "lend" their computer to these attacks by hackers can come under investigation by law enforcement agencies.

Hackers can easily steal the information used to create common passwords.

Basic steps

Everyone who connects to the Internet potentially opens his or her computer to invasion by viruses or hackers. Computer users with high-speed or broadband Internet connections carry additional risk, since hackers are drawn to their enhanced online capabilities. Fortunately, you can take simple steps to protect your home computer.

  1. Use antivirus software. Antivirus software identifies infected e-mail attachments and other virus carriers before they have a chance to damage your computer. Bundled software packages combine antivirus software and personal firewalls for $60 to $80.
  2. Regularly update antivirus software. Since new viruses emerge every day, the companies that make antivirus programs allow computer owners to subscribe to updates to catch the latest versions.
  3. Create strong passwords. Hackers easily can steal the information used to create common passwords such as your birthday or a pet's name. They also have access to programs that will plug in every known word from the dictionary in an attempt to crack your passwords. Strong passwords avoid personal information, login names, or adjacent keyboard symbols. Instead, they combine numbers and letters in passwords that contain at least eight characters.
  4. If you have a high-speed connection, install a personal firewall. This software blocks hackers who attempt to locate your computer or access your files. Personal firewalls range from about $40 to $50 depending on whether you buy it packaged or purchase it from a major vendor as a download. Virus protection alone runs about $35 to $50, and annual updates run about $30 to $35, depending on vendor and features.
  5. Be wary of unsolicited e-mail. Viruses often are sent as attachments, and identity thieves may attempt to use e-mail to get personal information by masquerading as an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or another vendor. Always confirm the identity of the e-mail's author before opening attachments, never send sensitive personal information to anyone using e-mail, and always verify that an e-mail request for sensitive material is genuine before sharing personal information.
    "People don't have an instinct for how important information is."

The FTC suggests a variety of additional security precautions on its site. Many major security software vendors, such as Symantec and McAfee Security also offer security information for consumers.

Finn notes that software vendors are helping consumers face threats to computer security with inexpensive software that is easily installed. Configured properly, this software can protect the computer with minimal interference in everyday operations. In the future, Finn says virus and firewall protections should be standard on every new computer.

Reaching kids

While security tools are vital, Finn says understanding safe computer operation is equally important. This is especially true for young users who know how to make the computer perform complex tasks but take safety for granted. The FTC hopes that kids will respond to the appeal of its "cyber security spokesturtle" Dewie, who embodies the message that users should carry a security "shell" with them whenever they roam the Internet.

"Kids are so computer savvy. They know how to download music files, and instant message, and do all those things," Finn says. Unfortunately, they may not understand the consequences of all their actions. As an example, Finn tells the story of the executive who allowed a teenage niece to use his home computer, which contained company files that allowed him to work at home. When the niece downloaded software to share music files, she unwittingly set it up in a manner that made every file on the computer accessible via the Internet.

To prevent similar security lapses, Finn says users of all ages need to develop computer intuition that helps them define appropriate online conduct, so they quickly can identify inappropriate behavior that poses a risk for users of any age.

"For security and privacy to work, everyone has to participate," Finn says.

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