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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

How to stay safe on the Web

Barely a week goes by without hearing about a brand new virus that is suddenly attacking computers and networks all over the world, or the latest phishing scam that has defrauded thousands of unsuspecting individuals.

Whether these attacks come from highly-organized cyber criminals or are initiated by amateur hackers , the threats are very real. Corporations lose billions through corrupted data and loss of productivity, and millions of Americans are at risk from some form of identity theft.

However, it’s not all bad news. While the bad guys always seem to be one step ahead, there are simple, affordable measures that we can all take to help improve our security.

But first, what are viruses and phishing attacks? And what are some of the other cyber threats that regularly make the headlines?

Viruses. A virus is a program or piece of code that can have unexpected and usually damaging consequences. Viruses can corrupt or destroy files or data and, like human viruses, they can spread –from machine to machine and network to network. A virus can be delivered via an innocent-looking e-mail or file, or from an infected web site. The harmful effects of a virus can be triggered immediately, or it can lie dormant waiting to be activated by some future event.

Phishing. Phishing attacks attempt to fraudulently acquire an individual’s personal information, such as passwords or credit card details, by masquerading as a trusted person or well-known source. Phishing attacks are becoming more sophisticated, often using social networking platforms and realistic-looking web sites to lure in unsuspecting targets.

Spyware. Spyware refers to a wide range of programs or applications that are designed to monitor or track activity on a computer. Spyware can be relatively benign, e.g. it can monitor web-browsing history for marketing purposes, or it can be installed with the intention of collecting personal information such as social security numbers and credit card details. Spyware can also be incorporated into some parental control monitoring programs.

Bots. Bots are software applications that run automated tasks over the Internet. Bots can be used for a variety of malicious purposes, including spreading viruses, orchestrating denial-of-service attacks, harvesting e-mail addresses, or modifying certain types of files.

Spam. Spam is a generic term for unsolicited and unwanted electronic messages. Spam usually refers to e-mail but it can also include instant messages, newsgroup posts, and other communications. Spam is one of the main delivery mechanisms for viruses and phishing attacks.

How do I know if my computer is infected?

Viruses and spyware can dramatically impact the performance of your computer, making it very slow to open and run normal applications. You might see endless pop-up windows or constantly be redirected to unknown or unwanted web sites. New and unexpected icons can appear in your computer’s toolbars or at the bottom of the screen. Random error messages may start to appear or regular applications may “freeze” or fail to respond.

What can I do to minimize the threats?

There are some simple steps that each of us can take to minimize the risk of being exposed to viruses or spyware. Here are a few tips for a more secure life online:

1. Get protection! Some kind of security software is a must. The latest versions of Windows and Mac OS have a number of built-in security settings. Take some time to get know them and make sure the settings are at appropriate levels. A number of third-party security programs will also provide additional protection against viruses, spyware, phishing attacks and spam.

2. Think before you click. Avoid clicking on links or opening files from people you don’t know. Those links and files could contain viruses or download malware onto your computer.

3. Shop safely. If you shop online, make sure you buy from a reputable online retailer. You should also look for a url that starts with "https" and has the lock symbol before you enter any credit card information.

4. Check web site privacy policies. Before you give out your e-mail address, check how it is going to be used. Does the web site have a privacy policy? Will they give or sell your e-mail address to third parties? The more you give out your e-mail address, the more vulnerable you are to spam and phishing attacks.

5. Be careful how you connect. Open networks are called open for a reason: anyone can connect, including attackers. Make sure your network is protected by a firewall.

Adopt these habits and you will go a long way to protecting your computer and sensitive online data. Make sure everyone in the family takes the same approach, particularly younger family members who tend to surf more and take more risks with their personal information.

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