April 1, 2008 Computer scientists observe that the people most at risk for the loss of private information and other computer problems are those who create easily guessed passwords and user names. They advise creating and regularly updating complicated passwords that contain upper- and lower-case letters as well as numbers. They also recommend running regular virus checks on the computer.
If you have a computer connected to the Internet, watch out! You'll be surprised to learn how often it's being attacked by computer hackers. Ivanhoe explains how to protect yourself and your PC.
It can strike at any time and can attack and destroy your computer. A virus hit Nicole Gentile's PC with a vengeance. "It was terrible," Gentile recalls. "It destroyed most of my files." And it also left her with a mess to clean up.
"It was a horrible feeling," she says. "I felt invaded and it caused me a lot of time and money to get everything fixed on my computer."
Nicole's ordeal is common. Computer scientists now reveal that computer hackers are using the internet to attack your computer every 40 seconds! "He or she will get on your computer and then see what is interesting on your computer." Michel Cukier, Ph.D., a computer scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park, told Ivanhoe.
Hackers can use disc space on your own computer and steal credit card numbers and personal info. Computer scientists also discovered hackers try common usernames and passwords to break into computers. "If you have a weak password, it will take a few minutes for that password to be found." Dr. Cukier explains.
Consumers should avoid easily guessed usernames like "test," "guest" and "info," and easy passwords like "1-2-3-4-5-6," "password" and "1-2-3-4." Instead, use longer, complicated usernames and passwords with random numbers and upper and lowercase letters.
"You try to make something as complex as possible." Dr. Cukier says. Changing usernames and passwords more often can help guard against future attacks. Also, anti-virus software may help keep computers hacker-safe.
"I bought a lot of virus protection software for my computer, so let's hope it works," Gentile says.
Hackers also break into large numbers of unsuspecting computers to control and manipulate the computers remotely for fraudulent purposes like identity theft, to disrupt networks and corrupt computer files.
HOW DO COMPUTER VIRUSES DAMAGE PROGRAMS? There are several different ways a computer can become infected. A virus is a small piece of software that attaches itself to an existing program. Every time that program is executed, the virus starts up, too, and can reproduce by attaching itself to even more programs.
When contained in an email, the virus usually replicates by automatically mailing itself to dozens of people listed in the victim's email address book. Unfortunately, viruses don't just replicate, they often cause damage. There is usually a trigger -- a command or keystroke -- that causes the virus to launch its "attack." This can be anything from leaving a silly message to erasing all of the user's data. For example, whenever the current minutes on an infected computer's clock equaled the day (for example, at 6:27 pm on the 27th of any given month), the Melissa virus would copy the following Bart Simpson quote into the current document: "Twenty-two points, plus triple-word-score, plus 50 points for using all my letters. Game's over. I'm outta here."
WHAT ARE WORMS? Worms are a different type of infection. A piece of worm software uses computer networks and security holes in specific software or operating systems to copy itself from machine to machine. Because Microsoft's Windows platform is so pervasive, for example, many hackers design their worms to exploit security holes in those products. In 2001, the worm Code Red spread rapidly by scanning the Internet for computers running Windows NT or Windows 2000. In contrast to a worm, a Trojan horse can't replicate itself at all: it is simply a computer program pretending to be something harmless -- a game, for example -- but instead does damage when the user runs it, often erasing the hard drive.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM COMPUTER VIRUSES:
1. Buy virus protection software and keep it up-to-date.
2. Avoid downloading programs from unknown sources; stick with commercial software purchased on CD-ROMs.
3. Make sure that the Macro Virus Protection feature is enabled in all Microsoft applications.
4. Never double-click on an email attachment containing an executable program. These will have extensions like .exe, .com, or .vbs.
5. Consider switching to a more secure operating system, like Linux.