Phishing, Scams, Viruses and Trojan Horses - How to Protect Your Computer


With the proliferation of electronic devices that connect to the Internet, it becomes harder and harder to protect yourself and your computer from the possibility of dangerous or malicious programs destroying data or stealing personal private information. The problem is real, it is not an imaginary conspiracy theory made up by someone to sell you something. Businesses can receive hundreds or even thousands of malicious emails and other potential infections every day. Individuals, depending on the type of connection they have to the Internet, may see relatively few invasive attempts or as many as a business.

Genealogists may not be any smarter than the average computer user, but they have a lot more to lose. What would you do if your computer crashed right this instant?

To understand the problem, you first have to understand the terminology used to describe the problem, so some definitions are in order. Here are a few terms that are essential to understand:

Computer Virus: A computer virus is a program that can replicate (copy) itself inside one computer and also spread from computer to computer. The term is commonly used for all types of malicious and destructive computer programs, but technically the term only applies to programs that can spread by replication. Computer viruses work by attaching themselves to existing legitimate programs.

Malware: Short for "malicious software," malware is a more general term than "computer virus" used to refer to all types of destructive or harmful programs and schemes.

Adware: Advertising-supported software or adware is any software package that automatically plays, displays or downloads advertisements to a computer. You may see these routinely as "pop-ups" or windows that pop-up when you go to a website. You can turn these off in your browser, but you may or may not determine that blocking pop-ups is more trouble than it is worth.

Spyware: Programs that appear to be innocuous, but are designed to gather personal, private information from your computer. If the program is designed to capture login and passwords, it is sometimes called a keylogger.

Keylogger: A program that is designed to log keystrokes on a computer in a manner that the user is unaware of the data capture, record them and transmit the information to another computer for use in a variety of ways. Some companies use this method to monitor their employees' computer activities, but it can be used for illegal and malicious reasons.

Worms: Unlike computer viruses that use an existing program to spread, a computer worm can use a computer network to send copies of itself to other computers (nodes) on the network. Worms are always harmful even if they do nothing but copy themselves because they can ultimately use up all of the computer's memory.

Trojan Horse: A program that seems desirable or even useful but is in reality designed to steal information or harm the computer system. The term comes from the Greek story of the Trojan War. Adware is a form of Trojan Horse program. The Trojan Horse often gets into your computer when you click on an unsolicited ad or email to download a "free" copy of a program.

Spyware: Also called privacy-invasive software, a type of malware that is installed on a computer to collect small pieces of information without the owner's knowledge.

Scareware: A program designed to send you a message, typically that your computer is infected with various viruses or other problems. Never, never, never, respond to an unsolicited message about the status of your computer, your bank account, your Internet connection, or anything else about you or your computer. These messages are all scams.

Phishing: An unsolicited, fake message or email that appears to be legitimate asking you to send personal, private information such as credit card numbers, phone numbers, birth information (birth place, birth date), affiliation information (for example, when you graduated from high school), or any other type of information. These messages may have a genuine-looking logo or look like official letters. Again, never, never, never respond to an unsolicited message from anyone with any kind of information. Just clicking on the link may give the remote computer your personal information or, at least, tell the sender that they have a valid email address or that you are too naive to avoid their scam.

Crimeware: A more sophisticated system of stealing information from computer networks. Usually directed at businesses and larger networked organizations.

Rootkit: A program installed on your computer to allow someone remote access to your computer without your knowledge or permission. This can be as simple as a relative or member of your family that uses your computer without your permission by stealing your password and then using it to set up an account or user on your computer. Be aware of your computer's use and activity.

This isn't all the different problems but it will get you started with understanding the scope of the issues and problems with computer security.

Who are these people and what are they trying to accomplish? They are criminals, like vandals and graffiti artists, and they are doing one or more of the following:

  • Data Theft: Retrieving your computer passwords or credit card information.
  • Installing bad software on your computer.
  • Stealing files from your computer.
  • Random destruction, such as modification or deletion of files.
  • Crashing computers

There is no way to completely describe all of the variety of malware out there in the world today, but there are several simple rules you can observe to stop a great deal of the problem.
Rule #1: Have an up-to-date, reliable malware detection program on your computer. There are some programs that are provided by the operating system manufacturers, such as Microsoft, but there are also commercial programs commonly available.

Rule #2: Don't be stupid. Use common sense. Don't open unsolicited email, just delete it without opening. Don't respond to pop-ups advertising programs you didn't want. Never download a program without checking the reviews to see if it is a legitimate program or not.

Rule #3: Always have a more-than-adequate backup system for your files. Don't routinely keep personal, private information, like credit card numbers, on your computer.

Rule#4: Don't share your passwords. From time to time, change the standard passwords you use and make sure you record them off of your computer, on paper.

Rule#5: Keep your computer systems up-to-date and monitor their usage. Know who is using your computer, when it is being used, and how much.

You could go on and on with suggested rules, but fundamentally, you need to understand what you are doing when you go online.

Have a sense of balance about the whole problem of malware. Don't get so caught up in worrying about computer security that you stop using your computer productively. Don't burn down your house to stop the junk mail. Just learn to discern what is junk and what is not and take appropriate action. If you reply to unsolicited spam email, you are asking to be a victim.

This article is a re-post of an earlier blog post submitted by James Tanner on October 18, 2011.


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