computer virus protection plan is less effective than you think
Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business
October 30-November 5, 2007; issue 940
High Tech Office column
It’s been a couple of years
since computer virus or worm outbreaks have been front-page news, but
that doesn’t mean that malware has disappeared.
This year has
brought us a host of variants of the so-called Storm Worm. It got its
name early in 2007 with a barrage of e-mail messages claiming to offer
advice about dangerous European winter storms.
A link in the
e-mail led to a website that installed software turning users’ systems
into “bots” in a network used to distribute spam. The ruse was
effective; Symantec reported that a single weekend’s mass mailing
accounted for 8% of virus infections worldwide. Later, the e-mail
come-on mutated, with messages reporting genocide, missile strikes,
reports of Fidel Castro’s death, Saddam Hussein’s survival and more,
all with links to websites that turned users’ systems into spambots.
More recently, Storm-related messages have promised users online
greeting cards viewable after users downloaded a so-called Microsoft
data access program. Oops, no greeting card? Congratulations, your
computer is infected.
Other variants offered e-mails apparently
from lonely young women and recently, included links to what claimed to
be an ‘awesome’ YouTube music video. As many as 10 million computers
may have been infected and added to spam distribution networks.
Storm Worm’s effectiveness is partly a result of its ability to use a
wide range of pitches. But a recent survey conducted by security
vendors McAfee’s Avert Labs and the U.S. National Center for
Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) suggests that many users may be
falsely assuming that they have up-to-date antivirus software
installed. As a result, these users may feel safer online than they
According to the survey of 378 U.S. home Internet
users, the number of people who think they’re running updated antivirus
protection has been growing over the past years: 92% of the users
surveyed believed that they had antivirus software installed that
updated itself weekly or daily. While that sounds good, apparently 49%
were wrong. They either did not have any antivirus software installed
or software was installed but was out of date.
survey reported that 73% believed they have a firewall up and running
on their computers and 70% believe they have anti-spyware software.
Again, users are often mistaken. Although operating systems such as
Windows XP and Mac OS X have firewalls built in (and other firewalls
are available from security software vendors), only 64% of the survey
respondents had their firewalls enabled. Only 55% had anti-spyware
software in place.
Only 27% reported having anti-phishing
software installed, but that was more than double the 12% who had such
protection up and running. (Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox
2.0 versions both include phishing protection, but users need to seek
out the option and enable it.)
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, as a result:
•54% of the people surveyed reported that their computers had been
infected with viruses;
•15% were unsure whether they had been infected; and
•44% believed that their computers are infested with spyware or adware.
seems to be widespread confusion between the different sorts of
security protection needed. A firewall (if turned on) provides no
protection from computer viruses or spyware. Antivirus software is not
a replacement for a firewall or anti-spyware software. While there are
currently no viruses, worms or spyware aiming at systems running Mac OS
X or Linux, Windows users need the full gamut of protection. (And Mac
or Linux users booting to Windows are just as vulnerable as any other
Home users have access to a number of reputable
free options – but don’t trust anything you see advertised online! –
right now. AVG Anti-Virus is the No. 1 download at download.com, while
Avast Home Edition is No. 7; both work well and are free for home use. •