Chapter 24 - Play it safe

If your only exposure to the Internet has been through news reports, you might be a bit tentative about spending too much time online.

Reports of viruses destroying data, e-mail pyramid scams bilking users out of money and credit card fraud have all garnered some headlines.

But don't let a few bad incidents scare you away. The Internet is pretty much a microcosm of the world we live in. There is a lot - and I mean a lot - of good, useful stuff out there. There is also some bad.

Yes, there are risks, but they're not pervasive. The important thing is to separate fact from fiction. This chapter is written to help you learn about all the stuff most Net newbies learn the hard way.

Content

Even if you are not searching for it, you will likely stumble upon some content from time to time that offends you. One of the most publicized examples of this occurs frequently with computer users looking to find the office of the President. The official government site is www.whitehouse.gov, but users who accidentally typed .com some years ago got an eyeful. (It was a porn site.)

Easiest thing to do is to move on to another site, just like you would change the channel on your TV when you don't like what's on.

If you're concerned with children or others stumbling upon such content, there are several filtering software packages that will attempt to weed out the bad sites. As with any automated filtering system, it will occasionally block out some sites that you might have actually wanted to browse. Censorship is a double-edged sword.

The important thing is not to let the fear of the Internet prevent you from tapping into its benefits. There's too much useful content to avoid it all together.

Common Internet myths and hoaxes

Many of the things that scare new Net users are simply false.

Remember chain letters? They were a real annoyance back in the old days when they just told you to send a copy of a letter to five people or you'd encounter bad luck.

They're just as annoying in the online world. In general, any message you receive with a phrase such as "send this to everyone in your address book" is an online chain letter. There are several ways these letters trick new users into passing them on.

One method is to guilt you into following them with some tragic story. One that often makes the rounds says that a girl suffering from cancer has six months to live, and her last wish was that a chain letter reach as many people as possible.

It's a hoax. If this were true, why would the same girl with just six months to live be sending the same letter for nearly eight years?

Another method is to scare you into following it by telling you of a major virus and begging you to spread the word. The most popular hoax warned of the fictional Good Times virus, which was supposedly making its rounds in an America Online e-mail. It warned that if you receive a message with the subject "Good Times," delete it immediately. Of course, it also encouraged you to send this to everyone you know. There was no such virus.

Chain letters might not seem like a big deal, but an e-mail that has been forwarded one million times could tie up e-mail servers and slow overall Net access for everyone.

I have another theory about online chain letters. When people forward messages, they usually contain a list of other e-mail recipients. When the same e-mail is forwarded over and over, it could contain more than a hundred valid e-mail addresses. Those addresses are valuable to someone building e-mail lists to sell to online marketers. You could just be opening yourself up to more spam.

Heed this advice. If a letter encourages you to forward it to others or begins with "This is not a chain letter," then it probably is.

For more info on hoaxes, check out Hoaxbusters from the Computer Internet Advisory Center: hoaxbusters.ciac.org.

Viruses

Software bugs are accidental glitches due to programmer error or oversight. Viruses are malicious, intentionally created mini-programs from hackers wanting to mess up others' computers.

To avoid catching a virus, make sure you run virus protection software such as Norton AntiVirus from Symantec or McAfee VirusScan. Programs such as these can detect a virus as soon as an infected floppy disk is inserted or an infected e-mail is encountered. A warning message will pop suggesting you delete or quarantine the file.

Viruses fall into four major categories:

  • Boot viruses: Your hard drive is modified so that the infected program is run when your machine starts up.
  • File viruses: These attach to executable programs and infect when the program is run.
  • Macro viruses: Attach to documents and can infect them if you've enable macros (tiny routines that memorize keystrokes) in your word processor or other office suite software.
  • Worms: These are programs that find their way to other computer systems by attaching themselves to e-mails or spreading over network connections.

Viruses are a legitimate threat, but you can minimize the danger. In addition to running virus scan software:

  • Don't open any executable attachments (files with extensions such as .EXE, .COM, .VBS, etc.) unless you've asked for the file from someone you know.
  • Back up your data often, so if a virus does wipe out your system, you can recover without losing too much.
  • Disable macros in your word processor and other office suite programs or set the macro security to high.

Note that you can't catch a virus from reading straight e-mail or opening an image. That said, some virus creators have named viruses to look like images to trick you into opening them.

The most widespread example of this became known as the Anna Kournikova virus, which spread as an e-mail promising revealing pictures of the tennis star. To most who received the e-mail, it looked like an image. Closer inspection of the file, named "AnnaKournikova.jpg.vbs," would have revealed that it was actually an executable Visual Basic file. This particular worm got access to Outlook users' address book to send itself to friends and family.

To separate these real virus threats from hoaxes, always check with the mainstream online computing magazines or any other reputable sources for virus related info. Here are some good places for real info: Symantec: www.symantec.com and McAfee: www.mcafee.com.

Firewalls and routers

If you're accessing the Internet through a cable or DSL connection, you don't want to plug your computer's network card directly into the modem. A personal firewall device or router will offer some additional protection from the online outside world.

You connect it up through an Ethernet cable and the devices can often protect your computer from hackers. You can often choose some type of balance between security and access for your situation.

Online privacy

How anonymous are you while surfing the Web? Well the Web is not like "Cheers," where everybody knows your name.

But sites do record your IP address - a number that looks something like 192.168.0.1 - when you visit.

On most online services, your IP address actually changes constantly while your online. ISP subscribers are typically assigned an IP address when they dial up and keep it for their online session, but it will be different every time they call.

If you're using cable or DSL, you might be assigned a permanent IP address or one that changes every few months or so.

Sound kind of scary? Don't fret too much. Most sites are not monitoring the names or specific IP addresses of who's dropping by. They're looking at overall traffic patterns to see how search engine listings are working and which sites are referring Web surfers to their pages.

It's like you're constantly part of a market research survey, but you're not being individually identified.

Cookies

Web sites also use "cookies" to personalize content.

PROTECTING YOUR PRIVACY (Figure 24a)

Outside of cookies and IP addresses, Web sites know only what you provide them. Here are some other ways you can better maintain your privacy:

  • If your online provider offers the ability to have to more than one e-mail address, create two. Use one to converse with friends and family, and the other for giving to businesses and Web sites. That way, you could always delete or change the second one if you started receiving too much spam.
  • If a particular Web site wants you to provide too much information in order to access its content, decide if it's worth it.
  • Read the site's privacy policy (most major sites have them) to see how they pledge to use any information they may gather. Avoid sites that might sell or share your information with other companies.

Unfortunately, they're not sweet and tasty. An online cookie is a small data file a Web sites stores on your hard drive for use the next time you visit that site. (Don't worry: cookies can not contain viruses.) The files might store site-specific information such as when you last visited, your layout preferences or which pages on the site you've viewed.

Our Web browser also uses cookies. If you encounter a site that requires a user name and password, it will ask if you want a cookie it to remember it so you don't have to retype it the next time you visit.

Online shopping security

If the Web site you're buying from is properly configured, I consider online shopping as safe as giving your credit card number to a catalog store over the phone.

Sites that process online orders should be using SSL or secure socket layer. That ensures that transmission of your credit card information is encrypted so someone can't snatch it during transit. Never send credit card information by e-mail. It is not secure.

NEXT - Chapter 25 - Troubleshooting