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Protect your computer, and your family, from spyware

April 29, 2005|by Lisa Tedrick Prejean

"Protect your PC from sneaky spyware! Get the new and improved spyware blocker!"

The e-mail from my Internet provider was surrounded with a bright orange border and featured a woman peering over the top of her laptop, seemingly pondering computer concerns.

Perhaps she was trying to clean up the sticky trail left by little fingers that know their way around a keyboard, the Web, chat rooms and Instant Messenger. A child's apparent confidence in surfing the Internet, downloading music and other computer activities might cause a parent to proceed with caution, particularly when two generations share the same computer.

"Kids are fearless in the way they use computers," says Ted Werth, CEO of PlumChoice Inc., a provider of virtual computer support.

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As they visit Web sites, chat with friends, download screensavers and software, youths might unwittingly be offering access to their family's computer - and all the personal data contained therein.

How can that happen? A couple of different ways.

You know those pesky licensing agreements? A child might click on one and unknowingly grant permission for spyware to be placed on a computer. (Even if the child reads the agreement before clicking on it, that doesn't guarantee he'll understand it.)

Spyware also might be attached to a program the child downloads from a music or game site.

What's so bad about spyware?

Spyware programs can keep track of the Web sites you visit, the keystrokes you make on your computer and even gain access to your personal files.

An abundance of popup advertisements is one indication that you might have spyware on your computer. A computer that has been infected with spyware also might run slower, might not allow the user to browse certain sites and might alter the default settings. Spyware could lead to an unfunctioning computer or even identity theft.

Werth estimates that about half of his business is a direct result of children not using features properly when surfing the Web.

"This is one of the technologies that kids know more about than adults," says Werth, whose company is based in Boston. "Spend time understanding what your kids are doing with the computer."

Here are some other suggestions from Werth:

· Put the computer in a location where you can keep an eye on your child's activities. (Yes, you've heard this one before, but it is worth repeating. Accountability is a good thing, even for adults.)

· Explain to your child the importance of not sharing personal information over the Internet. Tell him not to click any licensing agreements or other popups unless you read them first.

· If you have two computers, reserve one for your family's financial and personal files. The other computer can be shared by the children.

"I always recommend a separate computer for kids," Werth says.

· Avoid visiting gambling, gaming, pornography and music sharing sites. These types of sites notoriously are a high risk to your personal security.

· Install an anti-spyware package on your computer.

What is virtual computer support? When contacted by a computer user seeking technical support, a technician is granted access to the computer system via a broadband Internet connection. Once connected, the technician can run a series of diagnostic tests, determining the problem so he can fix computer, software and network configurations remotely. For more information, go to www.PlumChoice.com on the Web.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at lisap@herald-mail.com.

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