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Safeguarding your computer from harmful bugs, hackers

Jan. 21, 2004

By Kevin Chandler, reporter

Another year, another way hackers are able to steal your money. During the holiday season, an outbreak of 'Phishing' appeared on the Internet, robbing hundreds of people of credit card numbers and life savings.

The payoff is so big and the cost of the scam is so small that Phishing will no doubt become more common as the year progresses.

Phishing uses spam e-mail to fish for victims. According to Anti-Phishing.org, these clever thieves dress up an e-mail to resemble that of an official company, requesting an urgent reply to a potential problem with the victims' bank account, credit card, online account or purchase.

The hook e-mail gives a URL where the victim is required to enter a credit card number or other personal information which can then be used for identity theft.

It seems that anyone could identify a phony Web site by the Internet address, but the more clever Phishers can exploit an Internet Explorer bug that replaces the phony Web site URL with that of the genuine company. The end result is a perfectly believable trap that catches 5 percent of people who receive the counterfeit e-mails, according to Anti-Phishing.org. They suggest users be wary of e-mails from the following companies: Visa, Bank One, Citibank, First USA, Earthlink, eBay, SwiftPay.com, Lloyds TSB, NatWest, PayPal, Amazon.com, Yahoo and Best Buy.

Some of the bogus sites report there are problems with accounts, and others offer fabulous prizes to lure in the victim.

With just a few hours of time and a cheap Web address, Phishers can receive an incredible return on their investment. If they send out 5,000 e-mails at a time, even a 5 percent response rate can make any programming wiz wealthy overnight.

With Phishers, spammers and five major virus outbreaks last year, four in the month of August alone, it is more important than ever to be protected from those out to exploit the unprepared.

Here are some common sense ways to protect yourself from fraud and Internet infections.

• Turn off the Internet. It sounds simple, but every hour the computer sits idle is an entire hour for identity thieves and viruses to do their work.

• Never click a link on an e-mail If you get an official-looking e-mail, don't click the link provided in the e-mail. Type in the address of the Web site in the address box and log in from there. If there are any problems contact the Web site administration for help.

• Never put personal information in an e-mail. Besides the scammers who can use credit information to paint the town red, there is the slim chance of your e-mail being intercepted by any number of hackers.

If you have to give out your credit card number only do so on a secure Web site. Look at the the bottom left hand corner of the Internet browser window, and if there is an emblem of a lock then you are secure. Never give out personal information without first verifying that the site is secure.

• Download operating system updates. Every couple of months, Microsoft releases a new patch for windows or Internet explorer to fix a hole some code-wielding overzealous hacker has managed to find. The patches are free, they're small and they will give you basic protection.

• Use anti-virus software. This is another common precaution, but it's surprising how many people still don't have any protection despite all of the reports. McAfee and Norton virus protection products will get rid of just about everything, but be sure to update them every so often. A year-old version is worthless without downloading new patches.

• Use a firewall. This is a must, especially for those with cable modem connections that remain online constantly.

'If you're always on, your computer is a stationary target,' Al Decker, executive director of security and Privacy for electronic data systems corp, said in the Miami Herald. 'Hackers can hone in on something that's not changing. With a firewall, it's making yourself invisible to that outside world.'

Anti-virus software is great for eliminating viruses; however, the key word here is eliminate, not protect. Norton and McAfee can cure anything, but they first must have an antidote. A new virus could destroy the computer before your virus software can come up with a vaccine. A program like Norton Firewall will keep the computer worm and virus free.

• Create a spam bin. Every time you enter your e-mail address to register for a contest or a log-in Web site, the computer is left wide open for a barrage of annoying spam. Set up a free account on Yahoo or Hotmail and have all the spam sent there.

With a spam bin you won't spend hours and hours scrolling through weight loss and vulgar ads to find the letters you actually want to read.

If you're wondering if the computer can defend itself against the onslaught of cyber-criminals, visit privacytest.org for a rundown of what the computer is broadcasting to the world or what it is powerless against.

Follow these rules and you'll be perfectly safe, at least until someone creates the next big thing that will have everyone quaking behind their keyboards. Such is life on the information superhighway.