NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, September 2007
Safe Computing with Consumer Reports
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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In the several years I have been writing this column, it is very unusual for me to write about a magazine. I subscribe to several print magazines, and quite a few online versions, but there is one magazine I especially look forward to each month, and that one is Consumer Reports. While best known for its evaluations and ratings of appliances, motor vehicles, and countless household items, it occasionally does cover computer and other technology products. For those interested in computer security and safety for the layperson, the September 2007 issue is a keeper. If you can find it on the news stand after reading this, I strongly urge you to purchase a copy; if you can not find a copy for sale, then it will likely be worth a trip to the library to read.

What makes the September 2007 issue so applicable to us and our computing safety and security is the cover story “Stop ID Thieves – 19 ways to protect yourself online”. The bulleted subtitles on the cover are: “New threats to avoid”; “Best software for viruses, spam & spyware”; and “Don’t get hooked by a ‘phish’”. About a dozen well written pages in this issue on computing security and software provide the reader with a wealth of useful and easy to comprehend “non geek-speak” information on the topic. Following the security articles are reviews and ratings of popular desktop and notebook (laptop) computers, which add to the usefulness of this edition. There is also a wealth of other non-technical information in this issue, including such wide ranging topics as ratings of popcorn to health insurance providers to dark chocolate. In a section titled “Protect Yourself Online – State of the Net ‘07” (pages 28 – 34), “Net Threats” are explained. Identity theft opens the article, with a statement credited to Symantec, that identity thieves are paying from $14 to $18 for every stolen identity, with a cost in 2006 to businesses and consumers of a staggering $49.3 billion, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. A survey conducted by Consumer Reports found that an individual’s chance of becoming a “cybervictim” is about 1 in 4, as consumers continue to fall victim to internet criminals. About 8% of us revealed sensitive personal and financial information in response to bogus emails. Other material findings of the survey indicated that despite the wide availability of antivirus and anti-spyware software, we are still being victimized by the virus and spyware threat. Over the past two years, 38% of us had our computers infected by a virus, while in the six months preceding the survey, 34% reported a spyware infection. It was estimated that 1.8 million of us replaced a PC not because it was obsolete or worn out, but because they were virus infected. Spyware infections caused us to replace an estimated 850,000 computers! Despite the ominous threats, 17% do not have antivirus software installed, and 33% do not have spyware protection.

It was also estimated that 3.7 million US households with broadband internet go online without the benefit of a firewall, a hardware or software product that can provide significant protection from online intrusion by hackers. In a finding that I have personally demonstrated locally, the survey found that fully half of all wireless internet households do not implement even the simplest precautions, such as enabling wireless encryption. No wonder so many of us are victimized by internet crooks.

As most of us can attest to, spam (unsolicited commercial or junk email), is still a significant annoyance, with one-half of the respondents reporting high levels of spam (page 30). While many computer users reported that their computers had been infected by viruses, one-fifth of respondents had a major virus problem that was costly to resolve, costing an average cost per incident of $100, with an estimated total damage of $3.3 billion. While more common than viruses, spyware was also costly to remove with about 9% of respondents saying that it cost them an average of $100 each to eradicate, for a total cost of $1.7 billion. Sadly, despite frequent warnings in this column and elsewhere, 1 in 81 respondents lost money from an account by being a victim of phishing (a common form of identity theft using spoofed emails and websites), with an average loss of $200; that still totaled an estimated $2.1 billion (page 31). Consumer Reports does an excellent job presenting the solutions to these common internet problems and threats, this information well justifying the purchase of this issue.

Many of us sell or donate our old computers after we no longer need them. What many do not consider is the personally sensitive information that may still reside on the hard drive, and how that information can be illicitly purloined by identity thieves. Consumer Reports has a recommendation on a free software product (Eraser) which can safely delete information from a hard drive before disposing of the obsolete computer.

The media and computer gurus should be shouting out the 19 tips that Consumer Reports calls the “Best ways to stay safe online” (pages 32 and 33). Many of the tips should be familiar to readers of this column, and are common sense to many who surf the net. The tips include such items as activate the protection already provided by your operating system and browser, updating and renewing the operating system and security software, turning off the computer when not used for long periods, consider a Mac, watch downloads, consider an integrated software security suite, run antivirus software, run two anti-spyware programs, use credit cards appropriately, protect personal information, and other great tips.

I am frequently asked for my recommendation on security software. While we all have our opinions based on personal experiences or anecdotal information, the September 2007 issue of Consumer Reports actually tested many of the products available. It is especially noteworthy that some of the best sellers at retail came out in the extremes of the testing, either at the top or bottom of the ratings. Trend Micro’s PC-cillin Internet Security 2007 was the top performing security suite (page 36), and Trend Micro also had the top performing antivirus program (also integrated in the suite). Trend’s free standing anti-spyware product took top honors (page 38), as did its antispam product (page 39). For those considering renewing an existing security program or purchasing a new one, these reviews and ratings may provide much valuable information.

I do not think that I have ever previously recommended a specific issue of a national magazine in this column. Now, I strongly urge you to get a hold of the Consumer Reports September 2007 issue with the “Stop ID Thieves” cover story. In terms of computing safety and security, this may be one of the most valuable and low cost investments you can make. A subscription to Consumer Reports, which has published other technology reviews in the past, would also be a great idea. Just do it.

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