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Think PC security for Y2K


December 29, 1999
Web posted at: 2:24 p.m. EST (1924 GMT)

In this story:

Everything old is new again

Hackers are interested in you, too


By D. Ian Hopper
CNN Interactive Technology Editor

(CNN) -- Once your computer and software are Y2K compliant, there's one more thing to be concerned about over the New Year's weekend.

It has been predicted by computer security professionals that the rollover will see a surge in viruses and malicious hacks. The concern is so great that several U.S. government Web sites, most notably military sites, will be taken down in order to protect them from attack. One would hope that administrators use that downtime to update and secure the servers against later incursions.

You can do the same, spending a little time to protect your PC against unwanted attacks.

Everything old is new again

Do you have an anti-virus program running on your home computer?

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It's a pretty safe bet that the new year will bring a few new viruses that haven't yet been discovered "in the wild." While you can't really protect yourself against those yet, you can still batten down the hatches against viruses that have already run their course and periodically reappear.

ExploreZip, a worm that e-mails itself out in order to infect more users, made at least two more appearances after it devastated computers around the world in June. It was discovered on U.S. Marine computers in October, then reappeared as a compressed version called MiniZip in late November.

Worse yet, the W95.Babylonia virus masquerades as a Y2K fix, and propagates itself primarily through Internet Relay Chat rooms, targeting home users.

If you don't already have an anti-virus package -- such as Norton AntiVirus, Dr. Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit or McAfee VirusScan -- download one immediately. There are shareware versions of several major anti-virus programs, and while they don't have all the bells and whistles of the full version, they're better than nothing at all. Just make sure to pay for a full version eventually -- it's worth the cost.

Users who have a virus package installed should be sure to update their programs. These updates, sometimes referred to as virus definition files, are the code that identifies certain viruses to the anti-virus software so the viruses can be found and removed. Updates have been released for ExploreZip, Melissa and many others.

As usual, but especially this season, it's important to be careful with incoming e-mail. Don't open an attachment from a person you don't know. If you do know the person, scan the file with your anti-virus program before opening it. Little executable files showing blinking lights or an animated snowman are popular around the holidays, but some of them contain malicious code along with the Christmas cheer.

Unfortunately, it has been proven that it's possible to transmit a virus in an HTML-coded e-mail message. While this technique hasn't been widely used, it's still a good idea to take the precaution of heading to Microsoft's security Web site and downloading updates to Outlook and Outlook Express, which are susceptible to this scheme. While you're there, you might as well download the rest of the patches that will better protect your e-mail program and Internet Explorer -- which has been shown to have widespread security flaws.

Hackers are interested in you, too

While your home computer may not be as inviting a target as, say, Equifax or Sprint, there are still plenty of reasons a hacker with too much time on his hands will want to poke around in your PC.

Your personal data can be resold, especially your credit card numbers or banking information that may be held in your PC banking software or Internet data. Or he could grab your network passwords -- watching your computer work as you type them -- to wreak havoc on e-commerce sites or your own company servers if you connect from home. A hacker could even use your computer to stage further attacks, protecting him from authorities and leaving you holding the bag.

It's not even that hard to do. At thousands of hacker sites, you can find ready-made programs that unskilled mischief-makers can use to break into other computers. These people, frequently referred to as "script kiddies," run these programs to scan many Internet users at a time looking for an opening in which to take control.

If you've already taken the steps mentioned to protect against viruses, you're halfway to protecting yourself against hackers. Most attempts are based on the user accidentally downloading a "Trojan horse" program, a catch-all term for a program that masquerades as another. These Trojan horses can reside in the background, running and waiting for a trigger to deliver their payload. In this case, that payload is allowing a remote hacker to have more control over your computer than you do.

If you have an always-on Internet connection like a cable modem or DSL, consider getting a personal firewall like NetworkICE's BlackICE Defender. This $39 downloadable program requires no configuration and automatically blocks and logs both scans and genuine intrusions. With the log, you'll immediately know how you were scanned and who did it. You can even forward that log to the suspected hacker's ISP. It protects against all types of scans for open ports and installed Trojan horse programs -- even remote access programs like PCAnywhere or Back Orifice 2000.

By following these simple steps -- practicing good download habits, downloading the latest updates and bug fixes, and protecting your broadband connection -- you can feel pretty safe from anyone who'd like to ring in the new year by wrecking your computer.

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Dr Solomon's Online
Microsoft Security Advisor Program
Network ICE
CERT Coordination Center
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