Safety issues in the Internet

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The purpose of this web site is to help the elderly beginners to surf the web efficiently and safely to get specific information, or conduct some business (such as paying bills online), or just for fun. My purpose is not to teach you computer science or technicalities of the Internet. I have already given you some idea about the Internet and the Worldwide Web. If that is too difficult for you to assimilate, just forget it. We will use the term Internet and Worldwide Web interchangeably here, although I have told you they are not quite the same thing.

Before you start to surf the web, you must learn a few things about Internet safety. Internet safety consists of two things - your personal safety, and your computer's safety.

I'll first talk about your computer's safety, because unless you know it, your personal safety may also be in jeopardy.

Aside from using a good surge protector to safeguard your computer from damages caused by electrical surges, you should do three things:

1) Install a good anti-virus software such as Norton or McAfee to guard your computer from virus attacks and update the software frequently by connecting to the manufacturers web site and downloading the latest virus definitions. Keeping your anti-virus software up-to-date is of paramount importance because new viruses are discovered almost everyday and the anti-virus software manufacturing companies prepare the antidotes against these almost everyday. The list of known viruses along with their antidotes is often called virus definitions. Try to update these virus definitions at least once a month, if not more frequently. Automatic updating options are offered by good manufacturers these days. Read more about virus protection here.

2) Install a personal firewall. These are software that protect your computer from hackers. Hackers can send programs that can enter your computer clandestinely and steal your personal information like your credit card number, bank account number, social security number, etc. Hackers are using more and more sophisticated ways to enter your computer when you are online and there are generally no visible clues for you to know that somebody (some program) has entered your computer through its unguarded doors. A firewall prevents unauthorized entry into your computer by guarding its doors. Not installing firewall is like sleeping with the doors of your house open at night and hoping thieves will not enter!! (I use Zone Lab's ZoneAlarm. You can down load a free version of it from Download.com.)

3) Download and install Windows critical updates from time to time. While connected to the Internet, click on Start and then click on Windows Update. If your start menu does not have the Windows Update option, go to http://www.microsoft.com/, and when you come to Microsoft's home page, click on the link that says Windows Update. Basically, when you connect your computer to Windows Update, Windows will automatically check and display what updates are available for your version of Windows. Some of these updates will be marked as critical. You should at least select those for downloading and installing. These critical updates are usually security concerns. Microsoft sometimes discovers that one or more aspects of their operating system are vulnerable. These may be threat to your online safety or may be weak points through which viruses may enter your system. The critical updates are usually fixes or patches to block the entry of external threats. Windows 98 does not usually need critical updates. Windows XP is very vulnerable and needs critical updates quite often.

I know, as a new computer user, you might find it hard to follow any of the above advises. But my purpose here is to make you aware what might happen to your computer and what you can do to prevent it. Take help of a family member, or a friend, or a neighbor to implement these initially. Soon a time will come when you can handle these tasks yourself.

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Now, let's talk about your personal safety in the Internet. Here are a few rules of the thumb:

1) Never disclose your full identity (i.e., full name, address, age, sex, marital status etc.) to an unknown person in the Internet. This includes e-mail, chat rooms, instant messages, bulletin boards, and guestbooks.

2) Never assume that the other person is telling you the truth.

3) If you shop through the Internet, first research and make sure that the merchant you are dealing with is well established and reputable. Make sure you have an exact street address and telephone number of the merchant's store or office. Learn about their return policy.

4) These days people do shopping online, pay bills online, and purchase airline tickets or complete vacation packages online. You can even order take out food online. Any of these activities need payment online. Before you give your credit card number or bank account number online, make sure you are on a secure server. Look out for the closed padlock picture in the bottom right corner of your monitor. Additionally, the http:// part of the URL should change to https://. When you are on secure server, the information you give online is coded before it is transmitted over the wire so that even if some unscrupulous person intercepts the information, he will not be able to crack the code and steal your personal information. This kind of coded message is called encrypted message. Encryption gives you security and protects you from thieves.

5) To conduct various kinds of business online (such as booking an airline ticket) you often have to open an account with an establishment, and you will need a username and a password to access that account. Do write down the username and password (because you are bound to forget them if you are a human being), but keep it in a safe place preferably under lock and key. Never disclose your username and/or password to anybody. It is for your own security. Protecting your account from others is your responsibility. Also, remember that passwords are often case-sensitive (which means 'A' and 'a' are not the same thing).

6) When creating passwords, first read carefully the instructions given on the site for creating passwords. Passwords should usually be alphanumeric (combination of letters and numbers) and should be the longest possible (if the site says passwords should be 6-8 characters long, make it 8 characters long). Don't make something obvious so that others can guess it (such as names, telephone numbers, etc.). Avoid common dictionary words. Deliberate misspellings of common words preceded and succeeded by some numbers are good passwords which are hard to crack. Also, it is a good idea to mix upper case and lower case letters, AND use one or two punctuation marks (like ; . , : ? ! etc.) or symbols (like @ # % ^ * etc.) within the password to make it difficult to crack! Hackers use password cracking software. Easy passwords can be cracked in minutes by these software. If you make a password by following rules I just outlined, it might take them hours to crack. Chances are a hacker will give up by then and try to attack some other person hoping that he/she has a easy password!

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Now let's talk a little bit about spyware and what can you do to prevent spyware infection or to remove spyware from your computer. I have already given you some idea about spyware in the glossary section of this site.

The first thing you should know is how spyware get installed in your computer without your knowledge. Most often they come through freeware or shareware that you download from the Internet. That is why you should try to avoid downloading software from the Internet specially from dubious sources. If you do not know who wrote the program, do not download it. Download only prestigious brands of software and only from renowned and reliable sources. Many software (specially freeware) come bundled with spyware. When you install those software in your computer, the spyware also get installed. In many cases, these are not totally illegal also. The agreement governing the use of the software, which you must accept before the software can be installed in your computer, generally says in very fine print which almost nobody can read, and in much twisted legal language which almost nobody can understand, that some form of spyware will be installed in your system if you install the software that you have downloaded. But hardly anybody ever reads those lengthy, legal agreements. Secondly, do not visit those dingy, sleazy, pornographic sites. If you do, you will invaribly be infected with some kind of malware. Thirdly, spyware spreads from those so-called peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. But seniors who are learning from this site and who are using free-standing home computers are less likely to engage in such practice.

I have already stated above in connection with your computer's safety that you should install a good anti-virus software in your computer and keep the virus definitions upto date to protect your computer from viruses. In addition to that you must also install a good spyware remover and scan your computer regularly for detection and removal of malware. Before you scan each time, you must update your spyware definitions by connecting to the spyware removing software manufacturer's site. (Don't be afraid, it is an automated process. You just have to click on the Connect or Update button on the software's page). Newer spyware are surfacing everyday. Accordingly, the manufacturers of the spyware remover are also updating their databases everyday. That is why it is important to get the latest files from the manufacturer before scanning your computer everytime. The following are some of the renowned and trusted brands of spyware remover that is available today:

Ad-Aware
Spybot - Search & Destroy
Spy Sweeper

The above are just a few leading brands. There are many more available in the market.

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Note: It is not a bad idea to have more than one spyware remover installed on your computer's hard drive. But do not have more than one spyware remover run in the background all the time as there may be conflicts between them. If you are using a late version of America Online (AOL), it automatically comes with its "Safety and Security Center" software installed in it which includes AOL Virus Protection, AOL Firewall, and AOL Spyware Protection. Now if you already have other antivirus, firewall, and antispyware programs running in your computer, you should disable AOL's Safety and Security Center as there may be conflicts with the other security programs that are already running in your computer. For example, in my new home computer, I use Norton Internet Security 2010 as my antivirus, firewall, and antispyware program (all-in-one). I also have AOL 9.1 in my computer. But I have disabled AOL's security program in my computer so that there may not be any conflict between it and Norton Internet Security.

Browser hijacking is also menacingly increasing these days - thanks to the increasing number of unscrupulous and greedy Web site owners and merchants in the Internet, careless surfing habits of people, and ignorance of the general public about the dangers of the Internet. If you suspect that your browser has been hijacked, try one of the above spyware removers first. Sometimes more than one scanning may be required to get rid of the spyware. It is also a good idea to scan with more than one spyware remover, such as Ad-Aware AND Spybot - Search & Destroy if scanning with one spyware remover does not get rid of the problem. If still no luck, a software called Hijack This may have to be used to remove the browser hijacker. Download it from this link and install it. Instructions for using this software can be found here. This software is really for the professionals or very experienced computer users. After you scan your computer with Hijack This, make a copy of the logfile (instructions for doing this can be found here)and post it at Bleeping Computer discussion forums. One of the moderators of Hijack This forum will look at that logfile and will walk you through the entire process to remove the browser hijacker from your computer. Sounds scary, but doable. By the way, before you can post in the Bleeping Computer forum, you have to be their member. It is totally free. All you have do to become a member is to create an username and a password for yourself. You can, of course, read the postings in the forum without becoming a member. By the way, since prevention is better than cure, I strongly urge you to read this to learn how to prevent browser hijacking.

When I first published this site, I intentionally avoided discussions of any length on spyware, browser hijacking etc. so as not to scare the seniors who are trying to learn only the basics. But with each passing day, these menaces are increasing. So I thought it would be an injustice to the seniors if I don't at least give them an idea about the dangers that exist and how to counteract them. Just keep the above information in the back of your mind if you cannot handle spyware removal or browser hijacker removal at this time. Smile. Just knowing what dangers are lurking out there will help you in some way, I am sure.

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