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Internet can harbor a tangled web of trouble

Local experts recommend you safeguard yourself with range of software
By: Justin A. Lawson Journal Staff Writer
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In a down real estate market filled with short sales that can be anything but short, Susan Hamilton didn’t need anything to slow down negotiations. But the Auburn real estate agent was at the mercy of a hoax virus on her computer last month that halted sales in their tracks.

“It really was causing me problems because I couldn’t get in with any of my negotiating things, Equator, short sales, with anything. So I was like, ‘Oh no,’” said Hamilton, an agent at RE/MAX Gold.

Hamilton’s woes are shared by countless people each day, who find themselves under attack by viruses, spam, malware, spyware and more when they innocently peruse the Internet. Local professionals say that while there is no way to be 100 percent safe on the Web, you can arm yourself with the right tools to keep beyond harm’s reach.

“The most reliable way is to just keep all your software, antivirus, all that stuff up-to-date and just be careful about what you download and install,” said Bob Davis, site systems administrator at Placer School for Adults. “Make sure you know where you’re getting it from and they’re reputable.”

Although antivirus software is continuously updated, hackers have become increasingly resourceful. Computers are susceptible to damage through Internet surfing of unsafe websites like pornography or fake websites that look similar to the real ones, often found in spam emails.

The hoax virus Hamilton had on her computer used a pop-up screen that said she needed to download something to combat a virus in her system. It also wouldn’t let her run a scan or switch to safe mode.

Hamilton took her computer to Davis, who also runs the local computer repair company PC Artistry. He had to perform multiple scans to even get to safe mode to restore her computer.

Hamilton isn’t exactly sure where the virus came from but said it was likely from a spoof email.

“Viruses can be attached to pretty much any kind of file that you have to click on to open,” Davis said. “So a notepad document, a picture, music, you get any of those they can attach a virus to that.”

The good news is that there are plenty of paid and free options to keep you safe on the Internet. Norton Antivirus is the big name of the bunch but local experts said free options like Avast, AVG and Microsoft Security Essentials are just as good if not better.

If your computer is running slow, it is likely for a reason such as a virus, but don’t be fooled into the ads on TV that claim they will clean out your computer.

“I think the worst thing I’m seeing as far was what people are paying for on their computer is these tune up for free things on TV,” said Vince Russell, owner of Computer Addiction in Auburn. “Horrible, horrible, horrible. People are getting sucked into doing this stuff for free and finding out for $500 they can get their computer cleaned out.”

Other measures to ensure your computer’s safety are to use antispyware software in addition to antivirus, ensure you update Windows regularly and secure your home Internet with a pass code and either a wi-fi protected access

(WPA) or WPA2 encryption instead of wired equivalent privacy or WEP, said Davis.

“The FBI at this hacking conference, they showed that with free software off the Internet they were able to hack a WEP wireless in less than three minutes,” Davis said.

Now that her computer is back to normal, Hamilton has returned to business as usual but said she is a bit more skeptical when it comes to Internet safety.

“I’m not opening anything unless I definitely know for sure someone sent it,” she said.

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Looking to protect your computer? Here are free antivirus programs:
Avast
AVG
Microsoft Security Essentials
All are available for download at Download.com