August 5, 2008

Viruses, Phishing Rampant Online: Computer Maladies Costing Us Billions, Magazine Reports

By Tracy Turner, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Aug. 5--Even the most innocent-looking Web site can hide dangers -- and the cost remains high for computer users who fall into such traps.

"I've seen people who downloaded a SpongeBob calendar for their kids and end up with a virus," said Craig Brasmer, president of PC Guys, a Worthington-based computer-repair store. In fact, 70 percent of computers brought in for repairs have been infected with viruses.

"Phishing and ID theft has gotten way out of control."

A new study puts a dollar figure to the damage.

Computer viruses, spyware and phishing schemes cost consumers nearly $8.5 billion over the past two years, a Consumer Reports study released yesterday has found. Yet many computer users still aren't using appropriate antivirus software to protect themselves.

More than half a million computers have had to be replaced in the past six months -- and 2.1 million over the past two years -- because of infections brought on by spyware, according to the study, which is published in the magazine's September edition.

"While overall problems with online viruses have slowly declined over the past two years, it's still a pretty significant problem," said Jeff Fox, a technology editor at Consumer Reports.

If there's any good news, it's that the chances of becoming a victim have declined a bit.

He said consumers have a 1-in-6 chance of becoming a cybervictim, down from 1-in-4 in 2007. The biggest problem is with so-called phishing scams, which seem to be unabated, Fox said. People receive an e-mail from a seemingly legitimate source, which asks for personal information.

"It'll take a lot of consumer education to stop the problem, especially considering that these e-mails and scams are pretty slick and professional looking," he said. "People have fallen for noncomputer cons for centuries; scammers are now just using newer methods."

The study found that 6.5 million consumers, or about one in 13 online households, provided personal information to phishing scammers, with 14 percent of them losing money as a result.

One problem is that most people aren't inclined to take the time to figure out what is going on with their computers or with the latest scams, said Matt Curtin, founder of Columbus-based Interhack, an information-technology security firm.

As a consequence, people have a harder time telling a real message from a scam, Curtin said.

"People want to do things quickly without having to think about it, so by design their computer systems wind up being unsafe," he said. "It also just becomes too complicated because (many people) want to buy (a computer) and be done with it and don't regularly update it.

"That's a big problem that leaves them vulnerable to viruses that in any cases could be solved by simply updating their software."

The report found that phishing scams alone cost consumers about $2 billion in the past two years.

"If (a scammer) can send out couple hundred thousand e-mail messages that fool at least 1 percent of the people into sending their user name and passwords, then it was worth (their) time," Curtin said.

The billions of dollars the schemes have cost cover everything from charges run up by scammers to the sums consumers have spent to fix or replace their computers.

Online scams have become more sophisticated because most are run by organized crime rings overseas, said Steven Titch, a telecommunications policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a nonprofit research organization based in Los Angeles.

And many people seem to think they are immune.

"There's a certain attitude that 'this isn't going to happen to me' or 'it's something I don't need to worry about,'" Titch said.

The best way to avoid a phishing scam is to not respond to any suspicious e-mails and to never click on attachments from people you don't know, he said.

"Never answer an e-mail that asks for personal info," Titch said. "Most legitimate organizations won't do that."

Another way to protect yourself is to know which Web site you are viewing, Brasmer said. He said that many consumers aren't aware of how insidious the viruses can be.

The problem many have is that they may have an antivirus program, but it's not updated regularly, Brasmer said. The company offers to clear a computer of viruses for $129 or complete reinstall the operating system for $179.

"But ultimately," he said, "consumers have to be careful of the sites they view and the e-mails they open."

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