Walt Mossberg

Some Safety Tips To Help You Avoid Latest Theft Scams

If you’re running a Windows computer, you must install an array of security software to fend off an international collection of crooks, hackers, vandals and sleazy business people who aim to invade your PC through the Internet.

You need a good antivirus program, a strong firewall program, an effective antispam program, and a program that specializes in stopping spyware and adware. Or you could just buy an Apple Macintosh, which isn’t significantly affected (so far) by these threats, other than spam email.

But the fastest-growing computer-security problem isn’t viruses or other traditional malicious programs, and it can’t be entirely defeated by using security software or by buying a Mac. It’s called “social engineering,” and it consists of tactics that try to fool users into giving up sensitive financial data that criminals can use to steal their money and even their identities.

Social engineering is a broad term that includes “phishing,” the practice by which crooks create emails and Web sites that look just like legitimate messages and sites from real banks and other financial companies. It’s closely linked to a newly named category of malicious software called Crimeware — programs that help criminals steal your private financial information.

These terms are confusing and overlapping, but the threat is real. Increasingly, common-looking scams are combined with secret installations of software that help criminals spy on you and steal your data.

Here are a few tips to help you avoid these schemes:

1. Don’t trust email from financial institutions. Email is so easily manipulated by crooks that you simply should never, ever consider any email from a financial institution as legitimate. The message may bear a bank’s or a broker’s logo, but you should never respond to such an email, and never click on any link it contains.

There is a very high chance it’s a skillful fraud, and that the link will take you to a clever fake Web site designed to capture passwords and account numbers. The site may also silently install on your PC a program called a key logger, which records everything you type and sends that information back to the crooks.

2. Never respond to unsolicited commercial email, or spam, or even click on a link in an unsolicited commercial email. In the old days, responding to spam just got you on more spam email lists. Today, it might also result in the secret installation of a key logger or other malicious software.

Besides, any company that has to resort to spam as a sales tool isn’t likely to have a very good product to offer. Do you really think that if someone had invented a pill that enlarged penises and breasts, he’d be selling it through spam? He’d have sold it to a big drug company for billions. And nobody in Nigeria needs your bank account to store stolen millions.

Would you buy a stock touted on the street by a complete stranger? If not, why would you buy one touted in a spam email?

The only safe response to spam is to ignore it and delete it.

3. Don’t download or use free software unless you’re sure it’s legitimate. Sites offering free cursors, for instance, can secretly install all sorts of bad stuff on your PC. This is especially true of free security software, which is sometimes just malicious software posing as a security program. If you suddenly see a security program pop up on your PC, don’t trust it.

There are many legitimate free programs, including some good free security programs, like SpyBot or AVG Anti-Virus. But check them out before downloading. Look them up on the CNET or PC Magazine Web sites, which review most software. If they’re not covered there, assume they’re not legitimate. You may pass up some free programs that are real, but it could save you from huge grief.

Earlier, I said that buying Windows security software, or using a Macintosh, can’t automatically protect you from social-engineering schemes, and that’s true. But they can help. An antispyware program can’t prevent you from entering sensitive information on a fake Web site, but it might block the installation and operation of spying software from that site. A Macintosh owner can foolishly give up her bank account number, but most malicious software that crooks try to install won’t work on a Mac.

And there are some new security programs aimed directly at social-engineering scams. McAfee’s Site Advisor program can tell you if a Web site seems bad. A new add-on for the Firefox Web browser, called Shazou, can tell you where a Web site’s server is located. If you think you’re on the Bank of America Web site, but Shazou tells you the server is in Russia, that’s a clue that you’re being scammed. And Symantec plans a new product this fall called Norton Confidential that will tell you if a Web site appears to be a fake. Also, forthcoming new versions of Firefox and of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser will have built-in warnings that sites may be fake.

The best defense against social engineering, however, is to be smart and careful.


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