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Computer villians after your term papers

by Archives September 17, 2003

Tim Larock and his girlfriend sat for two hours, drinking wordlessly, at a loss. When the computer screen flickered and the Windows 98 logo appeared they took deep breaths. When the Norton Anti-Virus logo popped up it came and went without any warning. And then the screen went blue. Control! Alt! Delete! Nothing. “We should have never hooked up from home,” says his girlfriend.

Like many students, Larock left behind the long line-ups at Concordia’s Internet terminals and hooked up to the Internet from home. The security of Concordia’s Internet access is almost like Fort Knox, but late at night lurking behind your home gateway to the Internet are hackers after your papers.

Third-year Concordia student Larock used to think that accessing the Internet from home was as easy as installing an anti-virus program. But that morning he woke to discover that his anti-virus software had been by-passed and his hard drive had been wiped clean. “My 122-page thesis, my personal files and all my applications were gone,” says Larock.

Adding insult to injury, when Larock used a Concordia terminal to check his hotmail account, his thesis was offered back to him at a bargain price, Visa and Mastercard only.

More students are discovering that home based access to the Internet is convenient and saves valuable time. But they are also discovering that they are considered “customers” for hackers looking to supply buyers with finished papers and thesis.

Just ask Gail Whil. Whil discovered that her 35-page honours thesis had been sold three times on readymadethesis.com, after some files on her hard drive had been wiped. “The very crooks that stole my paper e-mailed me and tried to sell it back,” she says.

The increase in home access nation-wide is on the increase. According to a Statistics Canada 2001 report, 49.4 per cent of Montrealers were regularly accessing the Internet from home.

It all started when Whil’s husband told her that the computer Gremlins have struck again! When she checked her computer she was greeted by an error message window that stated, “Virus data files are missing – unable to scan downloaded file.”

“When I deleted that window, another popped up stating, “Virus definition files are corrupted.”

Translated-we took your files.

As many have found out the Internet harbors its share of villains. The best targets for these hoodlums are big corporations. It gives them access to credit card numbers and PIN numbers. But there are those who are making big bucks from your hard work. Your 30-page honours thesis on the intricate relationship between swamp water and table water may not seem valuable, but it is tempting for hackers hoping to make a few bucks from your efforts.

Larock’s seemingly harmless paper eventually turned up at freethesis and cheappapers.net

Most experts recommend using anti-virus software and opening only e-mails from people you know. But as Larock discovered his security problem began with his Internet provider. Many Internet providers now offer an online tally giving you exactly how much consumption occurs when you are online. You can then keep track of your online tally.

“I was surprised to see that on days when I was not home, there were still amounts registered,” Larock said. “I can only assume someone was attempting to contact my computer on those occasions.” But when Larock contacted his provider, they defiantly defended their system as hacker safe.

“It is in their best interest to deny any security problems,” says Melissa Barret from Micron Computers in Val David. “In many cases hackers have deliberately set up phoney accounts with the provider and no thorough verification of who uses this account is made.”

Barret estimates that 20 to 25 per cent of her business comes from those who have been attacked. “Many of my customers are trying the Internet for the first time at home and are shocked to learn that even anti-virus programs are not security proof.” Barret adds that it is also easier for someone to lift your data and search it later. “Once inside your system a hacker wants to be out as soon as possible. The in and out grab is safest and no one is the wiser.”

Front-line defences like firewalls and anti-virus software are available but the key to protecting your data is a multi-level approach. Vulnerabilities in many computers include e-mail attachments, persistent connection (the longer you’re online, the more time attackers have to find and compromise you), outdated software and open ports are also points of entry.

Barret also recommends this multi-level approach but mentions that security can start as easily as informing other family members of the danger. “If Mom or Dad download a cute screensaver from a seemingly nice stranger, they could unknowingly provide a small gateway to your hard drive.”

Larock felt he had no choice and was ready to buy back his paper when he remembered that he e-mailed a rough draft to his supervisor. Whil shrugs and confesses that she created no back-up and had no choice but to pay six hundred dollars because she had already been given an extension. “It was that or fail the class,” she says.

She is unaware of who attacked her hard drive but she isn’t shy about sharing her experience. “Make it a regular practice to back up on a floppy disk,” she says. “It will save you a great deal of worry and stress.”

And six hundred dollars!

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