INTERNET brings dangers new and old, and prevention is easier than repair

Friday, August 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Considering the dire warnings lately about viruses, worms and Internet identity theft, Americans may be tempted to unplug their gadgets just to keep them safe. In reality, common sense and a few basic tips can keep Internet surfers secure.

The fundamental tip for people with computers, handheld devices, laptops and cell phones is, don't panic. While the hype surrounding this week's return of the Code Red worm was designed to get Web computer administrators to guard against it, the public's fear of viruses may have gotten out of hand.

``There are people who run out and reformat their hard drives, because they think that's what people are supposed to do when there's a virus,'' said David Perry of Trend Micro, an antivirus software maker.

As with diseases of the body, computer viruses are best fought before they occur. That can start with the computer's software.

Antivirus software is a must, and it should be updated at least once a week to recognize newly released viruses.

People with broadband Internet connections, such as cable or a DSL modem, should also have a firewall. These protect the computer from attacks by hackers and can be in either software or hardware form from companies like LinkSys, 3Com, NetworkICE or ZoneAlarm.

Then it's time to think about computer habits. Unlike old viruses, which spread only through shared diskettes, the Internet brings viruses straight to the e-mailbox. If e-mail with an attachment comes from an unknown sender, or unexpectedly from a known sender, it should not be opened.

The recent SirCam virus spread through e-mail attachments, and the Anna Kournikova and Naked Wife viruses duped users with suggestive subject lines.

``People are somehow less suspicious of e-mail than they are of a package that comes to their home with odd handwriting,'' said Steve Trilling, director of the Symantec Antivirus Research Center. ``It's amazing how easily people are duped into opening e-mails.''

Trend Micro's Perry takes a Draconian approach. ``I delete everything that has an attachment to it, even if it's from my own boss, unless I'm expecting it,'' he said. ``If it sounds spurious, it's gone. I don't wait to find out what it is.''

On receipt of an unexpected attachment from a friend, Trilling suggests a telephone call to make sure of the mail's source before opening.

Don't forward e-mail virus warnings. Almost all are hoaxes, Perry said, and only create needless worry.

Some Internet dangers are just old scams using new technology. Identity theft was around long before the Internet, but the information age increased its reach as people fill out forms with credit card and other personal information on various Web sites.

The Federal Trade Commission says almost 70,000 Americans were victims of identity theft between November 1999 and June 2001, usually resulting in credit card fraud. More than half the victims who contacted the FTC said they gave information about themselves to the scammer.

Usually, a scam involves the theft and use of someone's credit card information. In more serious cases, a victim's entire identity is absconded with, and the criminal gets new credit cards and loans in the victim's name. Obviously, this can be a nightmare for the unwitting person who must deal with credit issuers and reporting agencies.

Mike Bush, a senior vice president of Equifax, one of the major credit reporting firms, said in such cases victims find themselves ``in the position of having to prove they didn't do something.''

Bush and others suggest that people get a copy of their credit reports from each of the three major agencies every year and check it for accuracy. Also, care is required with personal information. The agency obtaining it should be asked how it would be used and told definitely that the information must not be shared.

A person who suspects identity theft should contact financial institutions and credit reporting agencies immediately. Chances are most of the fraudulent charges will be removed right away, and a ``fraud alert'' can be placed on the victimized credit report. Most of the time, however, people dare unaware they are victims until damage is done.

To help consumers keep credit reports current, several of the reporting agencies offer e-mail notification services whenever new items _ legitimate or not _ are added to files.