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Spyware-coming soon to a PC near you, unless…

VICTORIA, B.C. (CUP) — In the coming weeks, students across the country will struggle with computer problems. Some will be quickly resolved by nerdy friends, some by calling the computer help desks, and others by trading in a troublesome PC for an attractive and more expensive Apple computer.

VICTORIA, B.C. (CUP) — In the coming weeks, students across the country will struggle with computer problems. Some will be quickly resolved by nerdy friends, some by calling the computer help desks, and others by trading in a troublesome PC for an attractive and more expensive Apple computer.

But for Windows-based computer users, however powerful and versatile their PCs are, they are more susceptible to computer viruses, worms, and Trojans than their distant Apple cousins. The same is true for the relatively new binary pest, spyware-software that collects information about a PC user or the user’s machine without the owner’s authorization.

Spyware exclusively targets Windows-based PCs and ranges from innocuous pop-up ads to malicious crime-ware, which attempts to hack bank accounts and credit lines.

In August, researchers at Sunbelt Software, an international anti-spyware software company, discovered a massive identity theft ring. Thousands of computers across the world were transmitting information to a number of remote servers.

The collected data included bank account numbers, passwords, PINs, credit card numbers, personal contact information and social security numbers.

Spyware has afflicted PCs since 1999, when the first data-collecting Web game, “Elf Bowling,” harvested info from host PCs, but the sheer scope of what Sunbelt researchers found was shocking and caused many computer users to wonder how to prevent identity theft.

Internet security companies have developed a number of ways to deal with spyware and the good news is there are a number of free options.

Lavasoft premiered its “Ad-Aware” spyware detection tool in 2002, the same year German programmer Patrick Kolla released “Spybot -Search & Destroy.” Both programs were free, and Kolla’s remains so-called freeware, but many of the most sophisticated anti-spyware tools have gone commercial, ranging in price from $20 to $150.

Symantec, makers of Norton Antivirus, offer anti-spyware solutions, as do McAfee and Trend Micro, makers of the popular “PC-Cillin.” Victoria’s own ParetoLogic Inc. developed XoftSpy to detect and remove spyware and adware.

For basic security, all you need is a little quality time with your PC and a few megabytes of hard drive space. Follow these steps to keep yourself safe from the majority of malicious spyware.

Since spyware almost exclusively affects Windows-based PCs, it’s important to make sure that you keep your operating system up to date. Microsoft Windows Update is the semi-automated system that keeps Windows secure by providing critical patches and security updates, which address vulnerabilities and, more honestly, flaws in Microsoft programming.

Get those critical updates installed, one way or another-then you can move on to more advanced security.

Another reality of modern computing: anti-virus software is absolutely, positively necessary. Using e-mail or the Internet without a good anti-virus program running is just too risky. Imagine accidentally clicking on one unwanted spam e-mail and having your computer continually restart itself every 30 seconds, making it impossible to connect to the Internet long enough to download a fix. Powerful, free anti-virus tools are available from Avast.com and Grisoft.com. Both programs are reliable and won’t cost you a dime.

A firewall is a piece of hardware or software that hides your PC from the prying eyes of the Internet. All Internet-enabled PCs have something called an IP (Internet Protocol) address, a unique number that designates through which channels your PC is accessing the Internet.

It is very easy for any other Internet user to discover your IP, but your firewall will determine just how much they can do once they’ve got it. Although Windows XP has a built-in firewall which can be enabled via the Control Panel, you should take a look at third-party firewall applications from Zone Labs, TINY Software, Sygate or Kerio.

Zone Labs offers a free version of its popular ZoneAlarm program, which will provide valuable protection from Web-based intrusion and hacking.

It’s nearly impossible to manually remove most spyware. You’ll need an anti-spyware application to make sure your PC is clean, and regular spyware scans will keep it that way. Free trial and demo versions of powerful anti-spyware programs are available from lavasoft.com, paretologic.com, and symantec.com. Some are time-limited. Visit download.com to read reviews and find more downloadable anti-spyware tools.

Even with the anti-virus/anti-spyware/firewall trio protecting your PC, there’s no substitute for knowledge.

Understanding spyware and learning about the latest and most dangerous threats is the key to staying protected. Spend some time surfing the Web, look at sites like SpywareWarrior.com and SpywareInfo.com, and keep all your software patched and up to date.

To the unprepared, spyware poses a serious threat. Keep on top of it and you’ll be free to troll the Internet and laugh at LiveJournal kids as long as you like. You can even do homework. That’s always a good idea.

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