You decide to make an online purchase from a reputable Internet site, so you add the items to your virtual shopping cart and head to the checkout. You enter your billing address, your credit card number, your card’s expiration date, even your card’s 3-digit authorization number. Without even knowing it, you could have provided an identity thief all the information he or she needs to rack up charges on your account if your computer is infected with a type of spyware known as keyloggers.
Keylogger software keeps track of every letter, number, or symbol you type. Then, the information is transferred from your computer to a third party. While keyloggers are bad enough, they are only one of over a dozen types of spyware being used by hackers and identity thieves today. What’s worse is that your computer could be infected at this moment, and you may not even realize it. In October 2004, America Online and the National Cyber-Security Alliance conducted a survey about spyware. Eighty percent of respondents found spyware on their computers and 89% of those individuals never knew it was there.
While some spyware is relatively harmless, other examples can leave you vulnerable. For example, in August 2005 Sunbelt Software discovered a spyware scheme using a program known as CoolWebSearch which was allowing information from a user’s computer to be sent to a central collection point without his or her knowledge. The type of information collected included Internet activity, credit card numbers, instant message conversations, travel plans, and more. Thousands of people were potential victims of identity theft thanks to this one program.
Now how do you stop yourself from being sucked into a spyware scam? There are two answers to that question.
First, you should install anti-spyware software on your computer. This type of software can detect spyware and can help you eliminate it from your system. However, you need to realize that even the best anti-spyware software is not full-proof because identity thieves and hackers are always revising their spyware so it won’t be detected. Keeping your anti-spyware software up-to-date can help reduce this risk.
Second, you need to practice safer Internet behavior. For example, only download programs from trustworthy websites and never agree to install anything on your computer unless you know specifically what it is. Keeping your Internet Explorer updated is also a good idea because security weaknesses in the browser are often used by spyware to gain access to your personal online activities.