Worms, Viruses, Spam, Oh My!

Hands and Royal manual typewriter
At times like these I almost wish that I still had that old Royal manual typewriter. It was portable, ran forever without electricity or batteries and it was immune to worms, viruses and hacker attacks. And the only time I had to worry about privacy is if I forgot to tear up all those crumpled sheets of paper I left on the floor.

Compare that to computers, which during August let a lot of people down. First there was the MBlast worm which crashed hundreds of thousands of Windows computers. That was followed a few days later by the Northeast power blackout, which put millions of people off-line. Then the Sobig worm started circulating through e-mail, once again affecting millions of Windows users.

Now that the dust has settled from all those catastrophes, it's time to think about what can be done the next time the worm bites, the virus infects, the hacker attacks or the electricity fizzles.

Damage from worms and viruses can usually be prevented if you use anti-virus software. All the major brands, including McAfee, Symantec, Trend Micro and Panda seem to do a good job. The key to using anti-virus software is to make sure it's running and that it's up-to-date.

I used to use Symantec's Norton Anti-Virus software, but I just switched over to Trend Micro's PC-cillin. The $49.95 program is both an anti-virus program and a firewall, which means it protects against viruses and hackers trying to break into your computer. The product is easy to use and install and can be configured to update itself automatically. Also, it doesn't bother you much once it's running. If it finds a virus, it blocks it and isolates it without your having to do anything. The firewall feature will occasionally ask you if it's OK to run certain programs that access the Internet but it doesn't bother you as much as some firewall programs do.

Norton Internet Security ($69.95), which includes Norton Anti-Virus, does an equally good job but you have to know more to configure it. Norton AntiVirus, the firewall protection, cost $49.95. PC-cillin is a better value. Of course, prices vary depending on retailers; so you might be able to get either product cheaper.

Symantec has just released the 2004 version of Norton AntiVirus that adds additional features including the ability to detect and remove "non-virus threats" such as "spyware" and keystroke loggers. Spyware, which is installed automatically and without your permission by some programs and Web sites not only invades your privacy but slows down your computer. Download.com offers free programs, including "SpyBot Search and Destroy" and "Ad-Aware", that eliminate spyware from your computer.

Be careful about offers for anti-virus software that come via e-mail. Some unscrupulous e-tailers are selling pirated or out-of-date copies of Norton AntiVirus. Don't buy anything that's advertised via spam, even if it's a good deal. You don't want to encourage spammers.

If you don't have a DSL line or cable modem and go online by dialing into AOL, MSN or another Internet service provider, then the chances of your computer being invaded by a hacker are relatively low. But if you do have an "always on" connection to the Net, then you should run firewall software. If you don't have a firewall built into your anti-virus program, you can download a free copy of ZoneAlarm (www.zonealarm.com). You don't have to pay for it as long as you're using it on a personal (not business) system.

Still, even with anti-virus and firewall software, viruses, worms and hackers still have a negative impact on the Internet and on the performance of PCs and corporate networks. Even if the anti-virus software keeps the worm and viruses from doing any damage, you may still have to download them, which can clog up your e-mail if you get a lot of infected files.

The MBlast worm entered computers all on its own. Any computer that had not been patched (you can get all the latest Windows patches at windowsupdate.microsoft.com) could become infected just by being online. You didn't have to download anything. The worm found you. In the case of Sobig, you had to open a downloaded file. In the old days, I advised people not to open attachments from strangers, but that's no longer good enough. Worms like Sobig can spread by sending themselves to people in the address book of infected computers so you could get the worm from someone you know.

My advice is not to open any attached files unless you're expecting them. I also think it's important for people to limit the number of attachments that they send. I get a lot of e-mail with attached Word files or other attachments and it's just not necessary. In addition to increasing the risk of a virus, they waste Internet bandwidth. In most cases, there's no need to send an attachment. Just send a regular text message via e-mail. If you're with a company and need to provide people with graphics, you can do that by posting the graphics to the Web and just sending a link. If we all minimized the use of attachments and only clicked on attached files that we were expecting, we could dramatically reduce the spread of worms and viruses.

For access to software and more of my tips about viruses and PC security, visit security.pcanswer.com.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid