NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, March 2006
New Federal Website Provides Users
with Internet Safety and Security Information

by Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; radio & TV show host
(click to email author)


The media has recently been rife with stories about internet scams, frauds, identity theft, pedophiles, and other malevolent occurrences that have happened on the internet. While there are many online resources providing informational websites to help prevent us from falling prey to internet victimization, a consortium of federal agencies has created “OnGuard Online” at http://www.onguardonline.gov. This consortium consists of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), United States Postal Inspection Service, the Department of Commerce (DOC), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Materials are provided on this website to inform and educate the computer user about several of the most nefarious threats that commonly assail us as we enjoy the abundance of the internet. Topics currently covered are spyware, identity theft, phishing, spam scams, online shopping, P2P (Peer-to-Peer) file sharing, and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol – internet telephony). There are also a series of online quizzes (http://www.onguardonline.gov/quiz) where the user can test his knowledge on the security risks associated with these topics. A series of videos and tutorials on related topics, such as “Viruses and Worms”, and “Protect Your Privacy, Family, and PC” are also available at this site (onguardonline.gov/tutorials). For those who have been victimized by internet miscreants, a resource is available to show the user where and how to file complaints with the appropriate federal and other agencies at onguardonline.gov/filecomplaint.html.

Spyware is defined at this site as “… software installed on your computer without your consent to monitor or control your computer use.” Spyware can be used to steal your identity or capture your usernames, passwords, and account numbers (keyloggers); compile personal surfing profiles for directed advertising or other purpose (some forms of tracking cookies); display unwanted pop-up ads, which may be pornographic (ad-ware), redirect the browser to other sites (browser hijacking); install unwanted links on the desktop or in the “favorites” or bookmarks; and a variety of other unwanted and possibly dangerous web related items. OnGuard Online provides links and information on removing spyware, and protecting your computer from spyware.

Identity theft is a scourge that may impact as many as 10 million Americans each year, according to some sources. The incidence of identity theft through internet tricks, such as “Phishing” (typically emails directing the user to an authentic looking but counterfeit website soliciting credit card information, PIN numbers, etc.); “Pharming” (changing data files or “hosts” on the computer to redirect intentional visits to financial or commercial sites to counterfeit sites where valuable personal information is illicitly obtained) accounts for an increasingly significant portion of identity theft. OnGuard Online provides information on how to protect yourself from Phishing scams, and how to protect your identity while online, as well as instructions on dealing with identity theft if victimized.

Some internet security companies report that the amount of spam, or unsolicited commercial email, can easily amount to 60 to 80 percent of all emails sent. According to this website, details are provided on the major spam scams currently in circulation. The top 10 spam scams are: The “Nigerian” Email Scam (may also appear to be from Russia, Columbia, England, or other sources); Phishing; Work-at-Home Scams; Weight Loss Claims; Foreign Lotteries (Congratulations, you are a winner in the Spanish / British / Canadian Lottery!); Cure-All Products; Check Overpayment Scams (I have a large cashier’s check – cash it, keep some, and wire me the difference); Pay-in-Advance Credit Offers; Debt Relief; and Investment Schemes (buy this penny stock – it will quintuple in a few days). Sadly, many gullible internet users still fall for these scams enriching the crooks, and typically receiving nothing worthwhile in return.

Millions of internet users shopped online during the holiday season, and still continue to do so at online retailers, or popular auction sites such as Ebay. While most online shoppers have been successful, and had few problems, there are also thousands who have been victimized to some degree by internet crooks. This site explains a series of safe shopping tips, including “Know who you’re dealing with; Know exactly what you’re buying; Know what it will cost (including shipping, taxes, and other charges); Pay by credit or charge card; Check out the terms of the deal; and Print and save records of your online transactions.”

“Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing allows users to share files online through an informal network of computers running the same software.” People, especially children and college students, use these P2P networks to exchange software, music, videos, and other files. While there is much material that can legitimately be exchanged, P2P is also often a source of spyware, viruses, and illicit and illegal copies of pirated software, music, and other intellectual property. This site lists many of the risks common with these P2P services, and how to safely utilize such services.

You have likely seen the ads on TV, as well as displays at the electronics and mass merchandising stores for “VoIP”, services that allow the broadband internet user to make local and long distance phone calls over the internet for a flat monthly fee. While expanding on popularity, the path has been bumpy, as some subscribers have been dissatisfied with the service. Issues and service such as “911” calls, while addressed in regulations, are still not universally implemented on many VoIP systems. The OnGuard Online website also explains what many local VoIP users painfully found out during the recent spate of hurricanes and other storms, that if there is no power, or internet service is otherwise inaccessible, the VoIP services generally do not function, leaving the user without phone service.

The OnGuard Online site “Stop – Think – Click: 7 Practices for Safer Computing” (onguardonline.gov/stopthinkclick.html) reiterates the oft stated common sense warnings that all computer users should be aware of, and implement:

    1. Protect your personal information. It's valuable.
    2. Know who you're dealing with.
    3. Use anti-virus software and a firewall, and update both regularly.
    4. Make sure your operating system and Web browser are set up properly and update them regularly.
    5. Protect your passwords.
    6. Back up important files.
    7. Learn who to contact if something goes wrong online. If the information on the OnGuard Online websites is utilized, we will all have a safer and more enjoyable internet experience.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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