Ages & Stages: 11-18 years: Is Your Family’s Computer a Zombie?

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At Halloween, no one is surprised to find miniature zombies at the door. Give them treats and they go away. A zombie computer is not at all cute and much harder to dismiss. Yet, according to the FBI, over one billion American computers have been converted into zombies, robots that follow the commands of remote and invisible masters.

Why would anyone want to turn your family computer into a zombie? Simple. Criminals now link together hundreds and even thousands of computers into powerful botnets. These botnets send about 80% of all spam, including those “tips” about stocks that are intended to manipulate the markets and viruses that infect other computers.

Botnets also are used to extort money because they can generate enough traffic to crash a target website. Finally, botnets harvest personal information and send it to secret locations, often in other countries where identity theft is hard to prosecute.

Obviously, no law-abiding citizen would be involved in this kind of activity. Yet often owners don’t know their computers have been hijacked according to James Finch, deputy assistant director in the FBI’s cyberdivision. The telltale signs are easy to overlook: The kids may complain about programs that run slower or strange messages that pop onto the screen. There may be e-mail messages in the “sent” folder that weren’t written by anyone in the family. You may get messages accusing you of sending spam.

Anyone who’s watched a horror movie or two knows it’s hard to kill a zombie. Instead, take these precautions to keep your family computer out of the clutches of online criminals.

Turn it off. A computer that’s always on is a more appealing target. Turn your system off when it isn’t being used. At the very least, disconnect it from the Internet when you’re asleep or away from home. Hackers can’t get into a system that isn’t online.

Stomp out spam. Many viruses are embedded in e-mail with irresistible subject lines. One that’s currently making the rounds announces that someone you know has sent you a greeting card. “How nice,” your child thinks, “let’s open the card.” As soon as he or she clicks on the card, a virus is installed. Because the bad guys are very clever about coming up with intriguing subject lines, it’s best to screen out as much span as possible so no one ever sees it. Your Internet Service Provider offers a spam filter. Use it.

Discourage downloads. Kids are often seduced by offers of free games, smilies, toolbars and other software. Anything that’s free probably includes adware at the very least and a virus at the worst. Kids should get parental permission before downloading anything including files from online friends.

Be sure virus software is up-to-date. Hackers are working 24/7 to devise viruses that will infect your computer. Your system needs regular inoculations if it’s going to stay healthy. A list of top anti-virus programs including some that are free is available at www.antivirus.about.com. Be sure to enable updates when you install the software. And, if you subscribe to a paid service, don’t let the subscription expire.

Build a firewall. Like a doorman in an exclusive building, a firewall makes decisions about what can get into your computer. To keep your computer from becoming a zombie, you also need a firewall that will monitor what leaves your computer so it can’t possibly be responsible for spam. If you don’t even know whether you have a firewall, start with the FAQ at http://www.microsoft.com/protect/computer/firewall/faq.mspx

Check outgoing messages. Every now and then, look over the messages that have been sent by your computer. Not only is this a good way to know whom your child is in touch with, but it also alerts you to spam that’s being sent from your computer without your knowledge.

Create powerful passwords. Like a good lock on the door, a strong password may discourage criminals who want to get into your computer. Use different passwords for different devices and programs, and don’t store them on the computer. Ideally, a password will include numbers and symbols as well as letters. Help your kids create strong passwords they can remember by using the first letter of each word or syllable in a favorite phrase. For example, “I love! to read Harry Potter books” would become il!2rhpb.

If you suspect that your family computer may already be a zombie, you can confirm your suspicions with a free online scan like the one available from Panda Software. (Go to panda.com and look for the “free scan” button on the left side of the screen.) Use their recommendations to update your defenses. If you suspect that your computer has been responsible for sending unauthorized e-mail, contact the FBI to report its misuse. A form is available at http://www.ic3.gov/.

All of this may seem like a lot of trouble, but computer security needs to be taken every bit as seriously as home security. After all, you don’t let criminals sell drugs out of your living room or use your car as a getaway vehicle. So why would you let them use your family computer to commit crimes? Learning to protect your family’s online security—and teaching your kids to do the same—is one of the most important things you can do to become a responsible online citizen. And what better time than Halloween to take a stand against zombies?