Is Your Computer A Zombie?

[This article is reprinted from the February 2007 issue of Triona's Tech Tips. I continue to see many zombied computers on my daily rounds, so be sure to keep your antivirus and other protections updated. See the sidebar (below right) for Windows and Mac security options.]

It seems a strange time of year to think about monsters, but there could be a zombie lurking right in front of you. Your computer is a prime target in the botnet wars, waged by criminals making money at your expense.

Zombies are compromised computers, organized into so-called botnets and offered to the highest bidder. Advertising, spam, spyware–most of it comes from zombied computers, their owners blissfully unaware. Security experts estimate there are up to 3.5 million zombies active worldwide, and at least 250,000 are added daily. Fifty percent of the targets are home computers, and new attack variants are up 536% from last year (according to Ciphertrust). The statistics alone are scary.

If that weren't enough, it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad. I almost flipped the first time I saw one of those commercials on TV, offering to "stop computer viruses". It was from a company that has been known to distribute spyware! How is the average consumer supposed to know whom to trust? It's hard enough for an IT pro like me to keep up.

So let me tell you how you can protect yourself and your computers from this nightmare. The best defense is prevention. Once your computer is infected, the only sure way to disinfect it is to reinstall from scratch. The standard safety rules apply: use a firewall, and keep your protection software up-to-date. As I've mentioned, you should avoid opening attachments from people you don't know, or that you're not expecting. You'll want to curb your enthusiasm for e-cards and those cute PowerPoint presentations that make the rounds on any given holiday.

Know who makes the software and services you use. Symantec and McAfee may have their quirks, but they're not going to install spyware on your computer. (Or if they do, a la the Sony BMG fiasco a while back, people are sure to find out!) Just because a company has a slick website or a special offer, does not make its product reliable. You should know that there are some nefarious companies out there masquerading as their legitimate counterparts, down to copying the same logos and color scheme. They sometimes use Web addresses that are misspelled versions of the true address. This happens with banks, too, and it's called phishing, a term you've probably heard. Such ploys can be very convincing. When in doubt, you are always wise to type your destination manually, instead of clicking a link.

Please be careful when using public network connections, such as WiFi hotspots or Internet-cafe computers. Your data could easily be captured in transit. I would particularly avoid using a credit card number on any public system. There are programs called keyloggers that record every key you type, and they're waiting for such juicy morsels. Your own computer could be infected with a keylogger, too, if you wind up with one of the nastier spyware versions out there.

How do you know if you're faced with a zombie? The most common symptoms are slow performance, and tons of pop-up ads. If this sounds familiar, it's time to update your software and run some scans. Zombies can be notoriously difficult to destroy, so you may need to call upon a professional exterminator like yours truly to be fully rid of them.

Posted byTriona Guidry at 7:11 AM  

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