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    Spam alert: don't go on any Internet phishing expeditions

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2004 First published in Business in Vancouver May 26-31, 2004; issue #761-- High Tech Office column

    As I write this, news headlines report the arrest of an 18-year-old German accused of authoring the Sasser computer worm. This won't stop the spread of Sasser or other computer infections, however.

    Sasser infects Windows NT, 2000, XP and 2003 server systems, and unlike most recent infections, isn't spread via e-mail attachments; it spreads to unprotected computers across the Internet and computer networks. At-risk computers are protected if they've been patched with the latest Microsoft critical updates or if they are behind software or hardware firewalls.

    Despite the seeming ease of protection, many home users were infected, as were a wide range of organizations, including American Express, the British Coast Guard, and the B.C. Ministry of Education's PLNet.

    How to explain the infections at large organizations?

    Many IT departments are wary of being quick off the mark to install Windows patches, and with good reason. Windows Hotfix - KB835732, released in mid-April, prior to the Sasser outbreak, for instance, causes problems for users of the popular Oracle database. IT managers are forced to choose between risking infection and installing patches that may cause other problems with their systems. There's no easy answer to this dilemma.

    With most business networks protected behind firewalls, the most common point of vulnerability is notebooks carried from work to home and back. It's no coincidence that many worms and viruses, like Sasser, are released on a Friday afternoon, infecting users working on the weekend. Monday morning, the now-infected notebooks are plugged into the network; they then spread the infection from within the firewall.

    Organizations need to mandate standards for software firewalls for notebook users.

    Spam has been estimated to account for 60 per cent of the e-mail messages being transmitted. Despite that growth, many users are seeing less of it in their in-boxes. This is due to increased use of spam filtering both by individual e-mail client software, and more effectively, by network managers and Internet Service Providers.

    Shaw, for instance, recently began quietly offering junk mail filtering to users of their cable Internet service. As a Shaw customer I didn't become aware of it until I logged onto Options available from the webmail toolbar include tagging, holding for 14 days, or immediately deleting suspected junk mail. I picked the "hold" option, enabling me to periodically check the Junk folder for valid messages falsely tagged as spam.

    After a month or so of use, I'm pretty pleased. Shaw's filters seem to be catching most of the spam coming my way; most of what's left is caught by the filters built into the e-mail clients I prefer: Apple's OS X Mail and Eudora Mail. Outlook 2003 also has spam filtering, though the popular Outlook Express doesn't. I haven't found a single message falsely labelled in my Shaw junk mail folder. Between the two levels of spam filtering, I'm getting a mere handful of junk messages a week.

    Shaw's filtering is off by default; turn it on.

    While most spam is merely annoying, so-called phishing messages can cost you. Phishing refers to e-mail messages that appear to be from a financial institution or other corporation to try to get readers to go to a website and divulge account numbers and passwords (see my column in BIV 735). Personally, I've received messages appearing to come from Internet companies eBay and PayPal and from the TD Bank. In all cases, links in the messages went to web pages appearing to be for those companies, but residing on computers in Russia.

    The latest generation of phishing messages makes it harder to track the location of the destination website.

    Security firm MessageLabs recently reported that between September 2003 and January 2004, the number of phishing e-mail messages they monitored grew over 1,000-fold, from 279 to 337,050. Protection is simple. Don't ever give out personal, especially financial information in response to an e-mail message.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan