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Some methods of protecting your system while surfing the web.

By Dick Hillenbrand

Most of us use PCs with Microsoft operating systems and this discussion shall target this group only.  I know practically nothing about Apple Macintosh nor Linux nor UNIX operating systems.

If you surf the Internet and use email you are very aware of the huge amounts of SPAM that show up in your inbox.  Some of the things discussed below will probably help lower the amounts of SPAM that you receive but better than that these things will eliminate many of the behind the scenes things that are going on within your system that you may not be aware of.

If your system has been online for a while I will guarantee that you have many SPYWARE programs operating on your machine.  Some of these are small utilities that just monitor your surfing habits to target advertisers’ assaults; however some of these little programs are much more vicious and can monitor all of your actual keystrokes which would give people access to your passwords, credit card numbers, and actual messages.

If you were caught up in the free music craze or file swapping from NAPSTER, or LIMEWIRE, or KAZAA, or any one of several Peer to Peer (P2P) online systems you will absolutely be loaded with adware, spyware, and possibly some really really bad little deamons.  It seemed like a great idea at the time.  The idea that there was no way that you could be caught (hah) was very attractive to many and I will admit that I did try it for a while and totally stopped when the good little devil on my right shoulder beat out the bad little one on the left.  Many people that were big time users of this feature are now being arrested, fined or perhaps even prison terms are in the offing for some.  It is not worth it and you automatically opened up your computer for the whole world to use if they knew how.  I will describe below some of the ways that you can clean your system up after using any of these networks.

There are some general rules that I follow and would urge everyone else to do so also, such as NEVER open any attachments unless you ABSOLUTELY know what it is and who it is from and that you are expecting it.  Even then you should save the file to a folder and then scan it with your anti-virus program before opening it.

NEVER click on a popup ad!  It will perhaps fulfill your curiosity or provide you with a (good?) deal on a specific item, however it very likely will plant a cookie on your system that might be benign or it might be very malicious.  If the item interests you enough you would be better off to search Google or some other search engine for a similar item than to click on a popup ad.

If you have been online for several months or even years without attempting to clean out your system then probably your machine is running noticeably slower and strange things happen at odd times.  Sometimes your machine may take an unusually long time to open a file or program, sometimes even the characters on the screen will seem to appear slowly, sometimes the machine will just hang and sometimes it will just turn off for no apparent reason.

Here are some of the things that you might try to help get your ship in order.

First; get an anti-virus program that is currently up to date and run it often.  Mine is set to run automatically every day.  I have had some vicious bugs over the years.  One of them actually stopped me from accessing any part of the Internet.  The anti virus program I was using could not be updated and I actually ended up getting a new computer and starting all over.  Funny thing I tried that machine again recently and it was able to access the web, so I downloaded the updates and I did get it cleaned up.  Perhaps the virus or worm that was causing the original problem had a time out feature built in but in any case I was able to salvage it and now it is one of my networked machines again.

You can purchase many excellent anti-virus programs such as NORTON, McAFEE and many others, however you may also go on-line and download some very good free programs that will do the job and can be updated.  You might have to put up with some banner ads but the program use is free.  You might want to try AVG from http://www.grisoft.com or HOUSECALL from http://housecall.trendmicro.com which is a free service where their computer will hook up to yours and scan your machine for you.  This is a way to be sure that you have the very latest data base of known varmints.

Second:  Use a FIREWALL.

A FIREWALL is a utility that you can download and install which will help to monitor and reject randomly automated or direct attacks on your system.  While you are online many ports are normally open to hackers.  A FIREWALL closes these ports and may be able to be configured to notify you when there are attacks.

The one that I use is called ZONE ALARM PRO, however a free version may be obtained from http://www.zonelabs.com , and another very good free one is available from http://www.sygate.com  .  There are others but either one of these should help you immensely.

Third:  Use a program that monitors and blocks and removes bad cookies and registry code that allows others the information from your web surfing habits.

I loaded and ran a program called PEST PATROL and it found several hundred known or suspected adware, spyware utilities and cookies that most likely were troublesome or malicious.  There is a way to sort through them and keep the ones you want but you would have to know a lot more about computers than I do to decide which is which, so I just deleted them all to no apparent deleterious effect, and lo and behold I got my old high speed system back!

These cookies are planted on your machine to legitimately enable the website provider to gain statistical data for their own business use and calculations and to allow you to access the site quicker the next time you visit.  They also can be used nefariously by hackers and certain advertisers that might want to send you a lot of SPAM or annoying pop-up or pop-under ads.  You can set your own Internet Security Options to not accept cookies but then you will not be able to view some website content.  I prefer to set my options to Medium and use PEST PATROL often to clean out the suspected culprits.

Fourth: (and optional,) you might be so disgusted with SPAM that you are ready for the brute force method of using a full blown SPAM eliminator program.  For what it is worth I tried a couple and they were more trouble than they were worth, but I will explain some parts here for your own edification.

www.spamarrest.com is a good program and actually receives your spam for you, however I found that I was missing mail that I wanted to receive as well as many of the subscription services that I receive on a daily basis.

Another is Coffee Cup Spam Blocker available at http://www.tucows.com/ .  This is one that I have not tried but is the highest rated one at my favorite shareware download site www.tucows.com .   I have been using many utilities and programs from this site and find that they have all been tested and there are usually review comments.  I also have never received any viruses from anything that I have downloaded here, or not that I know of that is.  \grin./

The latest method that I now use is to almost NEVER use Internet Explorer.  I have installed three other free browsers that I use almost excluively.  One is called OPERA, a free download available at http://www.opera.com , another is NETSCAPE available at http://browser.netscape.com/ns8/ , and my favorite is Mozilla's FIREFOX downloadable at http://www.mozilla.org .

I am not one of theses know-it-alls that bashes MICROSOFT, as a matter of fact I love MICROSOFT, this is still a marvelous world that they have helped create and where would we be without the Internet?  It is just that the bastards that write all of the malicious code target MS just because they can.  So far there are very few attacks against the browsers I mentioned above.  You may find some webpages that you might not be able to read ALL of the information on or use all of the bells and whistles that particular site might offer, but you have to ask yourself, "Is it really worth it, punk" \g/ to use IE?

The end result is that if you want to use this magical thing called the Internet, you will have to put up with the nuisances involved but you can fight back and protect yourself “somewhat” by using these methods.

Good luck and happy surfing.

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