from Florida Realtor Magazine, September 2007 | by Rick Broida | page 40
Which One of These People is a Thief?
Stop us if you’ve heard this one: A real estate professional walks into a coffee shop. He fires up his notebook, connects to the free Wi-Fi network and spends a couple hours working, checking e-mail and visiting Web sites. The next day, his computer goes haywire: pop-ups all over the place, a hijacked Web browser, maybe even some corrupted files. A few weeks later, a credit card bill arrives with thousands of dollars in mysterious charges.
This is no joke. Cyber-attacks like this happen frequently, usually unbeknownst to the user, and not just to those who frequent coffee shops. Viruses, spyware, hackers and other threats are constantly lying in wait, looking for the slightest opening so they can gum up the works, destroy data, steal passwords or worse. And don’t forget outright theft: Notebooks are easy prizes for thieves.
Fortunately, there are fairly easy fixes for these and other maladies of modern computing. With a little knowledge, the right tools and some good old-fashioned common sense, you can protect your data, your privacy and your PC.
Identifying the Threats Just what the heck is spyware? And phishing? A firewall? Before you can take steps to protect yourself, you need to understand your enemies—and the tools that fight them. Here’s a quick glossary of key security terms:
• Adware. Advertising-supported software that automatically plays, displays or downloads advertising material to your computer after the software is surreptitiously installed on it. It’s mostly an annoyance, except when it crosses into the realm of spyware, in which case it tries to gather information about your activities. • Phishing. An attempt by a criminal to obtain sensitive information—usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, etc.—by masquerading as a legitimate entity, such as a bank or a well-known Web site like eBay or PayPal. • Spam. Junk e-mail. Initially just an annoyance, spam is now also a security concern, as most phishing attempts are conveyed via e-mail. • Spyware. Currently, the Web’s most serious security problem, spyware is covertly installed software designed to intercept or take partial control over your interaction with the computer. Spyware programs can collect various types of personal information, but can also interfere with the computer in other ways, such as installing additional software, redirecting Web browser activity or stealing advertising revenue by diverting it to a third party. • Trojan horse. A seemingly innocuous program that unleashes a flood of spyware and/or viruses when it’s run. This can be loaded on your computer when you download shareware, games or freeware from Web sites. • Virus. A computer program that can copy itself and infect a computer without your permission or knowledge. Some viruses are programmed to damage programs, delete files or even reformat the hard drive.
Who’s at Risk? Just how vulnerable you are to various kinds of security threats depends in part on your PC’s operating system (OS). Mac users generally have the least to fear because they’re the smallest fish in the pond: Nearly 95 percent of the world’s computers run some variant of Windows, so that’s where hackers target their attacks.
And sure enough, Windows XP and earlier versions tend to have the worst security records. But Microsoft is making progress: Vista, the latest version of Windows, comes with numerous safeguards designed to keep out hackers and spyware and even to keep you safe from phishing attempts. These are good reasons to consider switching to Vista, though your best bet is usually a new PC with the OS preinstalled. An upgrade version is available for existing PCs, but unless your system has ample memory and processor speed, you might not be pleased with Vista’s performance.
If switching operating systems isn’t an option right now, there are still steps you can take to protect yourself. Start with a Web browser upgrade: Internet Explorer 7, a free download from Microsoft (http://tinyurl.com/3242ra), offers most of the same antispyware and antiphishing tools found in the Windows Vista version. Another browser, Firefox 2 (firefox.com), provides similar protections, and it’s free as well.
Believe it or not, that simple browser switch can make a big difference in the security of your PC. However, it won’t protect you from the likes of hackers, viruses and other threats. Let’s take a look at some other security essentials you should employ.
Security Essentials Any PC that’s “in the wild” (meaning connected to the Internet) is vulnerable to security breaches. These can take the form of hackers covertly connecting to the PC, viruses that slip in via e-mail, spyware that breaks in when the user visits a certain Web site or installs certain software and so on. Sales associates who frequently connect to the Wi-Fi hotspots found in cafes, libraries and other locations face greater dangers, as these networks usually lack the security features that are standard in office networks.
Install a firewall A firewall is a software utility designed to block your computer from outside intrusions. If your system is running Windows XP SP2, you’ve already got a pretty effective firewall. Just make sure it’s running, which you can do by launching Control Panel and then clicking Security Center.
For even stronger protection, consider installing a program like Zone Alarm (www.zonelabs.com), which also blocks any spyware or viruses that may be hiding on your PC from communicating with the Internet.
The freeware version of the program provides robust security, though you may want to invest in the $30 Pro version as it adds protection against spyware incursions, identity theft and unknown networks.
If you find all this firewall talk daunting and don’t want to mess with complex software, there’s a plug-and-play security solution you may find more appealing: Kensington’s Personal Firewall for Notebooks (www.kensington.com). This $50 gizmo plugs into one of your notebook’s USB ports and provides all the advantages of a firewall—without the need to install software.
Another great option is a VPN, or virtual private network. When you connect to a public hotspot, all the data you send from and receive into your notebook—e-mails, instant messages, files and the like—floats around the ether for anyone to intercept, even if you’re using a firewall. A VPN is essentially a protected Internet “tunnel” that secures your inbound and outbound communications.
Many real estate offices provide VPNs to employees who work at home or other offsite locations. If yours doesn’t, you can create your own by installing iPIG (www.iopus.com). This software utility (the amusing name is short for iOpus Private Internet Gateway) offers surprisingly strong encryption—256-bit AES, the same kind used by corporations and government agencies—to keep your data safe.
A great feature is that it requires almost no configuration—it’s either on or off. Even more amazing, the program is free of charge.
Speaking of free, the aforementioned public networks—those that don’t charge for access—tend to have little or no security. However, if you’re willing to pay for Wi-Fi access, like the kind offered at most Starbucks stores, you can enjoy fairly bulletproof Internet connections.
T-Mobile HotSpot, the pay-to-play service offered at Starbucks, Borders, FedEx Kinko’s and other popular spots, relies on special software (T-Mobile Connection Manager, which you must install before getting online) to ensure that your data is encrypted and your connection private.
Laptop Lockdown And, if you didn’t have enough to worry about, there’s physical security as well. Thieves are increasingly on the lookout for unattended notebooks, and in the time it takes you to cross a coffee shop and refill your mug, your machine can disappear.
There are numerous LoJack-style services designed to help police recover stolen notebooks. SyNET nTracker Anti-Theft (synet.biz) is one of them; the $30 software utility promises to help you track and locate your notebook if it’s stolen.
It’s better to prevent the theft in the first place, however. The $30 Kensington MicroSaver Portable Notebook Lock (www.kensington.com) combines a retractable 4-foot cable with a key-based T-bar lock; it works with any notebook that has a security slot (most models do).
Just attach the cable to your computer and wrap it around a bolted-down table leg or some other fixed point, and the chances are good a thief won’t even bother trying to nab your notebook.
Use Common Sense The last rules of hotspot safety are the same as the rules of everyday Internet safety: Keep your antivirus and antispyware software up to date; set your operating system to automatically fetch and install the latest security patches; create passwords that are impossible for cracking software to guess (made-up combinations of letters and numbers work best); and when typing these passwords into your PC, remember that you’re in public. A sharp-eyed hacker can learn your password just by watching you type.
You take steps to protect your home, your car and your money. A few extra steps are all it takes to enjoy safe, secure Internet access at the world’s Wi-Fi hotspots—and in your own office.
Rick Broida is a freelance writer and the co-author of “How to Do Everything with Your Palm Powered Device,” 6th edition. Broida does not have any affiliation with the companies mentioned. The Florida Association of Realtors® and Florida Realtor® magazine do not endorse any products mentioned in this article.