Pop-ups, Viruses, The Internet, Oh My!

Although, I’ve changed careers and moved from a computer/network consulting role to teaching I still carry the label amongst family & friends as the “computer guy”. Never has that been more true than these past few months. With the advent of the MS-Blaster worm, Gator pop-ups, spyware, adware and the multitude of annoyances the average computer user endures, I’m surprised I haven’t found a way to exploit Joe Somebody with my vast knowledge and make tons `o cash. I could have easily invented the trick e-card.

I kid, I kid… I wouldn’t want to get caught violating my parole.

All I’m sayin’ is that it amazes me that anyone in this day & age doesn’t have at least an intermediate level of computer knowledge. Consumers are told to buy anti-virus software, personal firewalls and now spyware removal tools, but it’s like handing someone a firearm without a gun safety course.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of things the average consumer should consider when using computers and the Internet:

AOL is not the Internet. Sure AOL capitalized on consumers by signing up millions with free CDs, but they also did little to prepare those people for using the Internet. The only thing useful about AOL these days is their instant messenger. If I hear one more AOL user say “Why don’t you fix your web page so it works with AOL” it’s a 10 a day postal rampage for this blogger.

Mr. Perry will tell you take those training wheels off and start surfing like the rest of us.

I know, I know, ignorance is bliss. You’re the one that put together Timmy’s bicycle with only 8 spare screws and the constant 12:00AM flashing on your VCR is some sort of personal affirmation, but confusing the CD-ROM tray for a coffee cup holder only makes you look stupid.

When the tech support person you called asks to speak with your two year old to fix the computer there’s a problem. When you ask your secretary to print off your e-mail messages because you don’t know how to open Outlook there’s a problem. When an ex-lover tricks you into installing spyware on your computer because you just couldn’t be bothered learning “the computer thing” don’t come crying to me.

If you’re on the Internet then you best invest in the following software applications. I’m a savvy computer user who was the victim of identity theft, what makes you think you’re luck will hold out?

  • Anti-Virus – A virus that flashes an annoying message once a month you might be able to live with, one that deletes important files from your hard drive is a different story. Get the latest version of Norton or McAfee products to make sure your e-mail and web surfing stay clean.
  • Firewall – First generation cable modems lacked the bandwidth to support all the users in one area. Back in the day, it was a simple matter for me to disconnect other subscribers and keep the bandwidth to myself. If those people had bothered to use a firewall it would have made the task more difficult. ZoneAlarm or Black Ice do the job and will protect you from mischievous folks like me.
  • SpyWare Removal – Companies like Gator Corp provide consumers with free downloadable utilities like the “Weatherscope” or “Precision Time”. These folks are the unwilling recipients of adware which tracks their web surfing habits and sends demographic data back to the marketing firm. If your computer is running REALLY slow when connected to the Internet or you seem to have 10x as many pop-ups then you remember you probably have adware installed on your computer. Spychecker has a list of freeware products or you can go with the highly rated SpyCop.

After buying all the software I recommended be sure you constantly watch for software updates. Lucky for you most updates are available via the Internet and some applications (like Norton anti-virus) can be automatically set to update themselves.

If you are using Windows XP utilize the automatic update feature. You can also check for updates to other Microsoft products (Outlook, Outlook Express & Internet Explorer) at http://www.microsoft.com/security/.

NOTE – Microsoft will never send you an update file via e-mail. In fact most companies will direct you to a secure website to download patches & updates.

Before double-clicking on that nude picture of Anna Kournikova or Jennifer Lopez ask yourself “Do I know who sent this to me?” or “Is Mom the type of person who normally e-mails me this kind of attachment?” Just because you know the person who sent the message doesn’t mean it was not an automated virus worm. Remember, a quick reply to an e-mail or even a phone call to verify a valid file attachment will alleviate any confusion. What’s a file attachment you say? This is why you should follow Step #2. Generally speaking picture files (ending in .GIF or .JPG) are okay, but anything ending in .VBS .EXE .COM .SCR should be suspect.

MICROSOFT TIP – Most e-mail viruses are launched when you open the attachment, but newer viruses can run automatically using exploits found in Outlook & Outlook Express. Not only can viruses send themselves to everyone in your address book, but now they have the ability to randomly pick a name and place it in the “TO:” field. Imagine Fred calling Bob upset about the virus he actually received from you. To minimize your risk turn off the “Preview Pane” & “Auto Preview” features for e-mail (found under View) and stop using Microsoft Word as your e-mail editor (found under Tools –> Options).

As in the case of “SULFNBK.EXE” “Spunkball” or “Bud Frogs Screensaver“ the purpose of the HOAX was two-fold. First people deleted valid files by mistake and then mail servers were overloaded once people started forwarding the warning message. If you do receive information regarding a potential virus or other newsworthy items you can check to see if that information is true at the following websites:

http://vil.nai.com/vil/default.asp – This site contains information about real viruses AND hoaxes.
http://www.snopes2.com – This site lists many urban legends, Internet spread rumors, etc.

E-MAIL TIP – Before you simply forward an e-mail message be sure to clean all the previous mail headers. Nobody needs to be bothered scrolling down a page reading other e-mail addresses and “>” symbols only to find a paragraph that’s four sentences. My advice, if you’re sending e-mail to a bunch of people who don’t know each other personally use the “BCC:” field (blind carbon copy). You’ll keep your friends & coworkers from being added to numerous spam lists and avoid the one person who’ll use their names to get a jump start with Amway.

The BCC: field is turned off by default in Outlook & Outlook Express. If you create a new message and select “VIEW” from the menu bar, there should be an option to view all headers. This will show you the BCC: field.

SPAM PREVENTION TIP – Have you ever received a spam message and it contained a removal link?

DO NOT use that link (or the e-mail address provided) to remove yourself from the spammer’s list. Thanks to a loophole in the Anti-Spam legislation when you submit the remove request not only have you told the spammer your e-mail address is valid he’ll simply delete you from “List A” and automatically subscribe you to “List B”.

My advice, learn how to setup rules in your e-mail program. Most programs (including Outlook) let you setup spam filters so you can delete the offending e-mails without ever reading them. Be sure NOT to setup a blind filter that says “Delete messages where my name is not in the ’TO:’ field”; you might just have a friend who’s smart enough to send messages using Blind Carbon Copy.

Did I ramble on enough for ya?

Now I know some people say “I just don’t get computers, this is all too hard for me” and hey that might be true. But I’m of the opinion that you can choose to stay unaware and hope that “it never happens to me” or you can take a moment to educate yourself with these simple steps.

Me? I can always use the bandwidth. *chuckle*