Computers

Common sense remains a basic line of defense against viruses

gilster@mindspring.comNovember 18, 2012 

Just when it seemed the computer security issue couldn’t get any more bizarre, along comes news that John McAfee, an expert on viruses and Internet security who heads the company that bears his name, is hiding from police in Belize. Claiming innocence in the death of a neighbor, McAfee evidently intends to stay underground for now, moving in the background like one of the viruses his software attempts to isolate, an unwelcome and so far undetectable presence in a country that would now like very much to find him. Security experts can be hard to catch.

We’ll eventually learn what happened in Belize, just as we’ll eventually find out the who, what and why of the Petraeus business, another tale involving computers and people that monitor them. But it may take a while, and early perceptions may be far off the mark. We’ve all brought computers into our homes, and with them the unwelcome but inevitable consequences, ranging from viruses and trojans to compromised information extracted by hackers or government. Just as the telephone is now the conduit for any pollster or huckster with a credit card to sell, the PC is an entry vector for everyone from teenage hackers to east European thugs with a botnet.

‘Ransomware’

In times like these it seems appropriate that the PC attack of the moment is called “ransomware.” This malware works through classic shakedown methods, extracting money from its victims by locking up their computers and flashing a message demanding payment for some infraction. Its authors will pretend to be a government agency or corporation trying to convince you that you’ve been spotted committing a crime and now have to pay up.

Amazingly, playing off our sense of guilt, ransomware seems to work. Security company Symantec says it has found at least 16 different versions of the malware, and 2.9 percent of all the people affected pay ransoms of $50 or more. Way back in March, a form of malware called Win32/LockScreen locked up computers and accused victims of watching child pornography, while other ransomware targets include companies whose data are encrypted, with the malware demanding a payment before the information can be restored to usability.

Although Symantec estimates that at least $5 million is being extorted by various gangs using ransomware each year, its report says the real number is probably higher. The most common wrinkle now seems to be a locked PC with a message claiming to be from a branch of law enforcement threatening to keep the PC locked until the user pays a fine for illegal online activities. Of course, clicking the supplied link to pay the “fine” does not result in your PC being unlocked. The only way to do that is to remove the malware with anti-virus software.

Multiplying malware

So keep your security software up to date, and bear in mind that virus writers are no longer targeting just PCs. John McAfee may be on the run, but the company he founded has issued a new report saying that malware has been multiplying at a faster pace now than at anytime in the last four years, with a growing trend of attacks on Apple devices and Android smartphones. The Android operating system is the most popular mobile target, a sign that anti-malware protection is going to be needed on any and all devices we use to access the Internet, mobile or not.

Meanwhile, common sense remains a basic line of defense. A new worm spreads through Skype instant messages by displaying a message saying “lol is this your new profile pic?” Click on the attached link, and your computer gets infected, installing a ransomware strain that demands $200 and threatens to delete all your files. Prevention should be obvious: Keep your programs, including anti-virus software, updated with the latest versions, and don’t click on random links.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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