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    Your computer virus protection plan is less effective than you think

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2007 First published in Business in Vancouver 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.

    The 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 really are.

    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 They either did not have any antivirus software installed or software was installed but was out of date.

    Similarly, the 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.

    There 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 Windows user.)

    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, while Avast Home Edition is No. 7; both work well and are free for home use. •

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

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