How to keep your computer healthy and protect it—as well as yourself and your family—from cyber ills and threats
Jim Graham spends most of his working days on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant, a research project to improve computer-based rapid emergency response systems and communications. So he knows plenty about unsavory characters who use viruses, spam, and other cyber threats to bring down computer networks.
But while high-profile systems such as the Pentagon and even major online commercial sites such as eBay and Amazon.com are prime targets for cyber crooks, Graham says no computer is immune to cyber-borne ills. And threats, he says, change day to day, hour by hour.
“All computers are vulnerable to intrusion by malicious hackers,” says Graham, who is director of the Information Technology Research Center at the University of Louisville. “Their mission is to attack computers with spam, infect them with spyware to steal users’ passwords and identities, and even to use them to engage in terrorism.”
Cyber terror may be first on the minds of government and law enforcement agencies, but computer-borne scams and fraud worry home and business computer users the most. According to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint project of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Commission, computer fraud cost American individuals and businesses a total of $198.44 million in 2006, more than $15 million more than in 2005. Kentuckians who reported computer crime in 2006 reported losing an average of $700.08 to scammers in connection with crimes such as fraudulent online auctions, credit card fraud, and identity theft.
That’s partly because, says Graham, computers are entrance ramps to the information highway, and the technologies designed to make reaching the Internet faster and easier have also made the trip more dangerous.
“Dial-up is becoming a thing of the past,” Graham says. “More and more people are using broadband cable and high-speed DSL connections to the Internet. That means computers are connected to the Internet all the time.”
As a result, he says, computers are vulnerable to intrusion whenever they are turned on—even when their operators are not surfing the Net. And even if home and office computers are protected with anti-spyware and anti-virus software, hackers can still turn innocent systems into unwitting accomplices to their criminal deeds.
“A kid doing his homework in Kentucky can actually have his computer become part of a ‘bot net’ that turns thousands—even millions—of computers into a network capable of bringing down target systems,” Graham says.
More likely, though, high vulnerability via DSL or high-speed cable connections simply means computer users get more spam. That’s because so-called computer “spies” infiltrate computers via software capable of recording keystrokes to obtain e-mail addresses, then sell them, often along with user profile information, to marketers that generate cyber junk mail. What’s more, unwanted e-mail can include virus or worm-carrying attachments capable of slowing, even crashing, computers, and keystroke-sensitive spyware can pirate Internet shopping and banking passwords and account information.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to reduce the risks.
“Just be sure to turn the computer off when it’s not in use,” Graham says. “And be sure to install anti-spyware and anti-virus software and keep it current.”
According to Graham, protection programs available at retail stores work well. Also, most Internet service providers, such as AOL and others, offer computer security software either in low- or no-cost packages or as downloads. Keeping up with recommended Web browser updates is critical too, he says, because new browser software usually contains protection against the latest threats.
He also recommends choosing spam-blocker e-mail accounts that recognize spam and separate it from legitimate e-mail. Those accounts store spam in folders separate from legitimate e-mails. Over time, its software “learns” which e-mails from what sources are spam, then blocks nuisance e-mails from those specific addresses.
“Be careful about downloads,” he warns. “Make sure you know what software you’re downloading, and that the download is from a source you know, such as your Internet service provider or your anti-virus or anti-spyware software manufacturer.”
Graham recommends keeping abreast of new Internet threats as soon as they surface by using the FBI Web site for the latest cyber news. Then be on the lookout for unusual and unsolicited in-box messages.
“Most of the time, the FBI site will display a sample of an e-mail containing a scam or a virus or a worm,” Graham says. “Take a good look at it and read the information about it, so you’ll recognize it if it does show up in your in-box.”
Even though Internet service providers and law enforcement agencies work diligently to identify and eradicate computer threats, don’t look for them to disappear anytime soon. According to Graham, for every hacker caught there are several more working on new ways to wreak high-tech havoc.
“Malicious hackers can be in this country or they can be across the world,” he says. “Some of them are criminals, some are politically motivated. Either way, they get some gratification from what they do, even if it’s just respect from their fellow hackers.
“The good news is that when they’re caught, they’re treated like terrorists and given very stiff penalties,” he says. “It’s impossible to eliminate them altogether, but at least they know law enforcement agencies mean business.”
KEEPING KIDS CYBER SAFE
There’s no question about it: kids have plenty of technological savvy. In fact, most are better at using computer-based tools than their parents. That’s especially true of the Internet. But just because kids know how to cruise the information highway doesn’t mean they’re doing it safely, or that they shouldn’t have parental supervision along the way.
“As parents we’re all concerned about our children’s physical location,” says Lt. Phil Crumpton, commander of Media Relations for the Kentucky State Police. “The Internet is just as dangerous as any physical location, and as parents, we should know where our kids are and who they’re talking to.”
According to NetSmartz Workshop, www.NetSmartz.org, an interactive, educational safety resource from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, 61 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 told pollsters they have a personal profile on a site such as MySpace, Friendster, or Xanga. Half have also posted pictures of themselves online. What’s more, 71 percent of teens reported receiving online messages from someone they don’t know, while 45 percent have been asked online to provide personal information to someone they don’t know.
Still, 42 percent of parents told pollsters they do not review the content of what their teenagers read or type in chat rooms or instant messages. The numbers add up to cyber danger for kids—even for their families—Crumpton says.
“When kids provide online profiles, it doesn’t take long for someone to find out all about them,” he says. “And whenever kids are on the Internet they’re exposed to cyber bullies, pedophiles, kidnappers, and scammers who want to know who the kid is and where he or she lives.”
But there are ways parents can make the Internet safer for their children, according to Crumpton. All it takes is a little effort and some simple rules.
Here’s want he recommends:
Surf in plain sight. Locate computers in living rooms, family rooms, even kitchens, anywhere the family gathers, and where parents can glimpse what’s on the screen.
Share an address. Prohibit kids from establishing their own e-mail addresses. Instead require that they share an e-mail address with a parent.
Require permission. Keep track of Web sites that kids visit and require that kids ask permission before visiting sites not on the parent-approved list.
Get software. Software manufacturers have responded to parents’ Internet safety concerns with software that locks kids out of sites that parents deem inappropriate. Those programs may be purchased online or from software retailers.
Communicate. Discuss Internet dangers with kids and why online-use rules are in the whole family’s best interest.
The Kentucky State Police Web site offers tools and tips to help parents ensure their kids are safe online. Visit www.kentuckystatepolice.org and click on the Internet Crime Task Force link for details and a kid-friendly Internet safety brochure download.
TRACKING COMPUTER THREATS
Make regular visits to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Web site at www.fbi.gov for the latest news on viruses, worms, scams, and other threats by clicking on “Cyber,” and “New E-Scams & Warnings.”
COMPUTER CARE AND MAINTENANCE
Though revolutionary when they were initially introduced, personal computers have become as indispensable to most households as the family car. Still, when it comes to routine maintenance, the home computer is the most likely to be ignored.
“People need to treat their computers just as they do their cars,” says Mike Velez, president of American Computer Works, a Somerset-based technology consulting firm. “Cars need oil changes, computers need maintenance.”
According to Velez, hard-working computers should receive routine professional maintenance every six to eight months to remove hidden files that can slow, or crash, PC systems. Beyond that, he offers these three common-sense computer health rules.
1. Stay away from the systems folder. It’s too easy to delete necessary system operation files.
2. Learn good Internet behavior. Nearly 100 percent of computer problems, from glitches to complete crashes, come from Internet-borne “infections.” So stay away from suspect sites and never open e-mail from unfamiliar senders.
3. Don’t download. Free downloads, especially free screensavers, are not without cost. The majority carry viruses and other Internet plagues, including spyware. What’s more, personal information provided in order to complete the download process is often sold to marketers who frequently turn that information into spam.
ONGUARD ONLINE POSTER
Download and print OnGuard Online's PDF poster 7 Practices for Safe Computing.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: ONLINE HELP FOR ONLINE USE
For three great online resources to help keep you and your kids safe while online, and for acronyms to decipher your child’s Internet lingo, click on: computer safety