The Battle against Computer RobotsKim Boatman
When a friend’s father happened to mention that his laptop was running at a snail’s pace, Ron Plesco knew how he’d be spending part of his recent vacation.
Plesco, a cyber-security expert and CEO of the National Cyber Forensics and Training Alliance, examined the computer and found it had been hijacked by hackers. “There were 10 pieces of spyware and multiple bots,’’ Plesco says. The security software on the laptop had never been updated. “I spent about five hours that night downloading all the patches,’’ he says.
The computer's owner was a victim of bot-herding, a new form of computer crime.
Here’s how it works: hackers use the Internet to install dangerous software on your computer without your knowledge. This can occur through the transmission of computer viruses or spyware. The software is designed to make your computer perform automatic tasks -- that's how they got the name "bots" because the software makes computers act like robots. When many different computers are infected with this software, it's known as a "botnet" -- a network of bots -- or "zombie" computers.
When hackers control these "botnets" to commit crimes, such as identity theft or the mass distribution of spam or spyware, they're called "bot herders." Some signs that your computer is being controlled by a bot herder include the presence of unknown emails in your sent folder and an increasing slowness of your computer.
Computers Controlled By Thieves
Computer hackers have set up illegal businesses renting out botnets to criminals for use in a variety of computer crimes, such as sending out fake emails that are designed to convince recipients to divulge personal information. That information can be used by the criminals to perpetuate identity theft. That means the computer sitting in your home might be committing crimes for someone half a world away over the Internet, says John Levine, a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail and author of The Internet for Dummies.
“If your computer is a virus-controlled zombie, more likely than not, some crook in Eastern Europe is renting you out as part of a herd of zombies for 30 cents a day,’’ says Levine. He says that the best way to protect your computer from falling under the control of bot herders is to install anti-virus programs and keep them current. “The basic problem is that you want to keep your computer from being taken over by worms and viruses,” he says.
There are certain telltale signs of a computer that has been hijacked by bot herders. If your computer is operating slower than usual, or you notice unfamiliar messages in your email “sent’’ box, you’ve probably been victimized.
Fortunately, you can take a number of precautions on your equipment at home to avoid having your computers hijacked and controlled by bot-herders. Experts offer the following suggestions:
1. Install and subscribe to anti-virus and anti-spyware software It’s obvious, right? But most of us are too lax about updating regularly. If your software isn’t updated daily, its effectiveness is questionable, says Plesco. Too often, says Levine, we shrug off our computer’s potential value to others. “Anybody who assumes my little ol’ computer is too innocent and boring for bad guys to be interested in -- wrong. They want them all,’’ he says.
2. Always download software patches Don’t ignore the security patches companies issue when flaws are found in software operating systems.
3. Install a router A router is a computer accessory that is designed to connect more than one computer in the house to the Internet. Routers also have built in firewalls, which protect computers from hacking attacks. Levine says it’s worth buying a router even if you own just one computer. It offers inexpensive protection, and it doesn’t use up the computer resources a software firewall would.
4. Turn your computer off Bot-herding, in some ways, is a crime of opportunity. “Don’t leave your machine on and connected to a high-speed connection,’’ advises Plesco. Turn off your desktop computer every night or when you're not using it for an extended period. Don't assume your computer isn't vulnerable just because it's in sleep mode. Some computers have a function that brings them back to life as soon as an email arrives.
5. Avoid downloading free software Downloading free software can be risky. Unless it comes from a trusted source, the software you think you are downloading may actually be a program that allows bot herders to remotely control your computer. “Some of the free ones are actually spyware,’’ Plesco says. Spyware is actually bot software that allows control of your computer over the Internet.
6. Don’t open email from strangers It might seem like old news, but don’t click open unfamiliar email. “There’s a certain amount of common sense involved,’’ Levine says. “If you get email that looks weird, from people you don’t know, don’t open it. If an email says it’s a greeting card from an 'old friend,’ of course, it’s a virus.’’
7. Switch browsers and email clients Since Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Outlook Express are so prevalent, they’re targeted more often by hackers. Try Mozilla’s free Firefox browser and Thunderbird email program, or the free Eudora Internet Suite, suggests Levine. “You can dodge a certain number of attacks by switching,’’ he says.
8. Back up your data frequently If your data is backed up, then you’ll be free to wipe your computer clean if bot-herders do successfully hijack your computer.
“This problem isn’t going away,” Plesco says. “It’s growing.’’ But, he adds, you can protect your computer. “Vigilance is going to belay any worry.’’
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