The Internet puts the world at your fingertips. Communication, entertainment, shopping, banking and more information than you could find in the largest library can be obtained with a few clicks. Unfortunately, the same technology can also give online con artists, hackers and identity thieves access to your computer, finances or personal information.
Take these simple but crucial steps to protect your computer and yourself:
Spyware: Spyware is deceptive software that can monitor, collect, and transmit personal information; change important settings affecting privacy and security; and even take control of your computer. Spyware can range from being merely a nuisance to being a serious threat to online security. These types of programs are often installed without the user's informed consent and are estimated to reside on up to 80 percent of consumers' computers.
How to protect yourself: Spyware applications are typically bundled as a hidden component of freeware or shareware programs that can be downloaded from the Internet. Resist the urge to install any software unless you know exactly what it is. Install anti-spyware software and regularly scan for programs that may sneak on to your computer. Several free anti-spyware programs are available online at CNET.com and Microsoft.com, among others.
Phishing: Identity thieves "phish" for personal information by sending e-mails that appear to come from businesses you may have accounts with, such as a bank, online auction site or Internet service provider. The messages usually say that you need to validate your account information and contain links to look-alike Web sites. The sites then instruct consumers to "re-enter" their credit card numbers, social security numbers, bank PINs, or other personal information.
How to protect yourself: Don't take the bait. Never reply to e-mails that ask for personal information and don't click on links in e-mails or pop-ups.
Spoofed Web Sites: Identity thieves, especially those who "phish," will often create bogus Web sites that bear similar names to legitimate ones and even include trademarked images. Hackers may also use a more sophisticated ploy known as "pharming" to redirect Internet traffic from one Web site to another. Their goal is trick you into entering your user name and password, which they can later use to access your account.
How to protect yourself: Always verify that you have a secure connection before entering personal information. Look for the yellow lock icon on the status bar and a Web address that begins with "https:" instead of the standard "http:". Double-click the lock icon to display the security certificate for the site. Don't click on links in e-mail messages or pop-ups, and double-check your spelling when you type a Web address.
Viruses, Worms and Trojan Horses: Viruses range from harmless pranks to programs that can crash your computer. They are commonly transmitted through e-mail and some "strains" use personal address books to propagate themselves. Many viruses are attached to an executable file, which means that the virus may exist on your computer but it can't infect your computer unless you run or open the malicious program. A worm is similar to a virus but has the ability to travel without any help from a person. A Trojan horse will appear at first glance to be useful software but will actually do damage once installed or run on your computer. Trojans are similar to spyware and are known to create a "backdoor" for malicious users to access your system; they can activate without a user's permission.
How to protect yourself: Ensure your operating system is up to date. Install anti-virus software that has the ability to scan e-mail and files as they are downloaded from the Internet. Install a firewall to prevent unauthorized access to your computer. Don't open an e-mail attachment unless you are expecting it and know what it contains.
Spam Zombie Drones: Some spammers search the Internet for unprotected computers they can control and use anonymously to send spam e-mails. Because the activities of Zombie Drones are hidden from view, most consumers don't realize their home computers have been compromised.
How to protect yourself: Install a firewall to keep hackers from using your computer. Turn off your computer or unplug it from the cable or phone line when not in use.
Evil Twin Hotspots: An "Evil Twin" is a look-alike hotspot. An identity thief sets up a duplicate public access point in a cafe, airport or other wireless hot spot that mirrors the actual settings but with stronger signal. An unsuspecting person logs on. The hacker can intercept any data the victim is sending over the Internet, such as a password or bank details.
How to protect yourself: When transmitting private information over a wireless connection, disconnect the modem feature that automatically connects you to the strongest signal. Instead, manually choose a signal you know is secure. Also, install a personal firewall.
Where to report online fraud:
If your computer is hacked or infected by a virus: Contact your ISP, the hacker's ISP (if you can tell what it is), and the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ifccfbi.gov.
If you receive spam that violates Washington state law: Forward it to the FTC at email@example.com and file a complaint with the Attorney General's Office at www.atg.wa.gov/junkemail. It's important to include the full e-mail header; instructions are available on the Attorney General's Web site.
Attorney General Rob McKenna offers this public service to help consumers avoid fraud and to promote a fair and informed marketplace. To suggest a future topic for this column, write to "Ask the AG", Attorney General's Office, 900 4th Ave. Suite 2000, Seattle, WA 98164-1012. Past articles are archived online at www.atg.wa.gov/AskAG.