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Source: The Ledger Online

Posted on May 9, 2007

      Would you give a complete stranger access to your personal letters, tax returns and bank account password? No, probably not. But that is exactly the kind of information criminals are stealing from people who connect to the Internet without safeguarding their computers.

      And the threat from these criminals, who are increasingly well-organized, is growing. Nine out of 10 computers are infected with some form of invasive program installed without a user's knowledge, according to a 2006 survey by Webroot Software, a Boulder, Colo., company that makes a popular anti-spyware program.

      "It makes you feel like you're being violated," said Bob Hochderffer, a real estate agent and mortgage broker from Santa Rosa, Calif., whose 2-year-old computer was derailed by malicious programs installed without his knowledge.

      The need for security software like anti-virus and anti-spyware programs has become as necessary as oil in an engine or a lock on your door, computer security experts say.

      People who think they remain out of harm's way by simply minding what e-mail attachments they open are mistaken. "Web sites can infect your PC by just visiting them," said Gerhard Eschelbeck, chief technology officer for Webroot Software. "Your computer might not show any signs to you. It all happens pretty much in the background."

      Criminals now have more incentive to crack into computers and steal information than they did only a few years ago.

      People are increasingly accessing information such as bank accounts and stock portfolios online and are using credit cards to make purchases from Internet retailers. During tax season, more than 20 million submit tax forms full of personal information from a home computer.

      Cybercrooks have developed a range of software programs to rip off unsuspecting victims. Malicious software programs, known as malware, exploit weaknesses in common programs like Internet Explorer to install destructive or intrusive programs like viruses and spyware without a person's knowledge.

      Spyware is a more recent mutation of malware. It lurks in the background to capture personal information that it later uploads to criminals, who can use the information to commit identity theft or sell it to other criminals. A common form tracks people's keystrokes to capture passwords, accounts and credit card numbers.

      "Spyware as it started out four years ago was different than it is today," Eschelbeck said.

      In the beginning, spyware would often only monitor users' habits, perhaps with the intent of selling the information to marketers. And it might also include what is called adware, which would pop up annoying advertisements soliciting users or demanding payment for the problem to go away.

      But spyware has evolved from an annoyance into a threat.

      "The goal now is to be as quiet and as stealthy in the background as possible so it can continue to harvest data ... anything that can be stolen and used for resale purposes. That is what we are dealing with today," Eschelbeck said.

      The problem of computer invasion for the average person has progressed from one of annoyance to one of real financial risk. Identity theft has become the number one complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, far surpassing other forms of fraud.

      Once confined to old-fashioned techniques like stealing mail and sifting through garbage, identity thieves now have a high-tech way to grab personal information off your computer.

      "Lots of people think that because their computer is running relatively well they don't have anything," said Rod Linzman, owner of Xtreme PCs, who rid Hochderffer's computer of malware. "The bugs themselves have gotten more complicated."

      In Hochderffer's case, which occurred in December, his computer slowed to a crawl, making him think something in his computer was physically broken. It turned out to be malware leeching all his processing power and crowding his computer's memory.

      Computer repair shops say ridding machines of malware is a growing share of business. Costs range anywhere from $85 to $150, with some shops simply charging by the hour.

      "I don't mind paying someone who is good and can fix it," Hochderffer said. "I've got client information on my computer. I run all those (security) programs when I close down my computer. But even then - even then - every now and then it gets penetrated. It's frustrating."

      Even the best programs cannot fully protect computers, because spyware is being rewritten on an hourly basis to exploit newly discovered holes, said Eschelbeck.

      Companies such as Webroot use search engines designed to crawl around the Internet discovering the latest malware. When it finds a new one, the company's software engineers work to quickly analyze it and create a fix. It then releases an update to users.

      Webroot has identified more than 500,000 potentially malicious Web sites.

      Companies like Microsoft also release patches after they discover security holes.

      "It is critical to install those patches as quickly as possible. And keep your spyware updated," Eschelbeck said.

      In almost all cases, people can set their computers to automatically check for, download and install new patches and updates.

      As a result of the increased threat, sales of security software is growing too. Consumers and computer companies spent $2.6 billion in 2006 trying to block or remove spyware, according to Consumer Reports magazine.

      "From what I'm hearing, spyware is just exploding," said Stan Schatt, a vice president and analyst with ABI Research, a technology market company.

      Software security companies have an incentive to exaggerate the threat of malware, but there is no doubt it is out there, Schatt said.

      Some computer users have it easier than others. Apple's Mac series and computers running Unix-based operating systems do not run into the same problems as Windows-based computers.

      Part of the reason is that malware writers want to target the greatest possible audience and Windows has about 90 percent market share. Also, most tech experts consider operating systems like Apple's OS X and Linux more secure than Windows.

      The message from security experts is clear: Protect your computer and personal information from a dangerously evolving threat.

      "The early stuff was almost like graffiti or vandalism," Eschelbeck said. "Now it is burglary and theft."

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