Jewish World Review May 30, 2003 / 28 Iyar, 5763


Living a spam-free life, Part II: Virus-,
pop-up-, ad-, hacker- and hoax-free

By Phillip Robinson

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | (KRT) Are you living spam-free?

Last week I explained how you can avoid spam through some simple service and habit changes, without spending anything extra on special software or services.

Living virus-free, pop-up free, ad-free (or at least ad-lite), hacker-free, and hoax-free is just as easy.

Let's talk viruses first.

Just as I don't hate spam with any passion because I don't see any day-to-day, I can't really say I hate viruses.

I hate the people who create viruses, sure. The creeps ought to be put in jail. But I don't spend much time on the hating because viruses to me are really only news stories or academic exercises. They don't hit home. Guess how many viruses I've had in the past month? None. Past year?

Still none.

And without using an anti-virus program.

Oh, the Internet service I use, and run, automatically runs a spam and virus filter on any messages coming my way. But I don't pay any extra for that and don't even think about it. I also don't automatically trust it to be complete and thorough, as I wouldn't trust any outside filter. What about pop-ups, those advertising windows that some websites shove in your face, covering up what you wanted to look at.

I rarely see a pop-up. Or a pop-under. Or any of the other variations.

And I do it without using any special anti-pop-up software.

I also see far fewer ads during a typical online day than most people do. And without using any ad-blocker software.

Hackers haven't invaded my computer during that year, and I have the records to prove it.

And I haven't fallen for or spread any hoaxes.

How?

First let's talk viruses.

I switched away from Microsoft Office (for word processing and such), Microsoft Internet Explorer (for web browsing), and Microsoft Outlook Express (for email).

Instead I use OpenOffice (free from www.openoffice.org for word processing, etc.) and Mozilla (free from mozilla.org for web browsing and email).

And viruses are now someone else's problem.

You see, nearly all viruses feed on Windows Outlook Express and Windows Microsoft Office. Without those programs, most viruses can't start or spread.

I also avoid email attachments and I installed a firewall, as insurance.

It helps to avoid opening any email attachments because that's how most viruses travel. Simply never open an attachment, even if it comes from someone you know and trust, unless it's something you're quite specifically expecting. When you see an attachment, call to see if it was really meant to come your way.

A firewall is a program that doesn't allow any other programs to connect to the Internet without your specific OK. It's like a lock on the only door to your house, a lock with an intercom. Nothing connects in or out without your say-so. That stops hackers who want to secretly slip in through your Internet connection and stops viruses, worms, and Trojan horses you might receive from calling out to their makers.

So even if a virus gets into my life, through some other means than Outlook Express, that virus is going to find itself in a dead-end, locked up and unable to spread. For my Windows computers I simply download, install, and generally forget the free ZoneAlarm firewall from zonelabs.com. The only time I think about it is when a window appears asking if I want some program to be able to this-time or always access the Internet. Unless this is a new program I know that I just installed and that I want to have some Internet access - such as the latest free update of my Mozilla - I say "no, never." Oh, and periodically I look at the ZoneAlarm log to see the number of denied unauthorized access attempts from the outside, often from other countries such as Korea. But that's just for curiosity.

What about pop-up ads? Switching from Internet Explorer and Outlook Express to Mozilla or Netscape not only gives viruses the antiseptic scrub, it also gives you the option - in the Edit, Preferences menu - to stop any extra browser windows from popping up or under. Lately I've been seeing a few rare popups that get around my Mozilla block, but I bet the next version of Mozilla will kill these too.

What about regular ads, the banner ads and link ads so increasingly common on websites? If you're phobic about them, you can buy "ad blocker" software that tries to filter out all graphics or just all advertising. But these don't work with some websites, aren't free, and deprive even reasonable-ad-amount websites of the advertising money they need to survive. I'm content just to use search and portal sites that have fewer or no ads. I don't mind if the NYTimes site has ads, for instance, because there's plenty of good information there I can find between ads. But the bargeloads of ads at sites such as MSN, along with the way ads and news and search-results are all mixed together so I don't know what is honest reporting and what is hype, drives me bonkers.

Or more accurately, drives me to sites such as Dmoz.org (an online directory with no ads), MyWay.com (a Yahoo-like portal but without ads), or at least Google.com (where there are a few ads but they're clearly separated from the search results and are actually relevant and useful).

Hacker-free? The firewall does most of that. I also stick to good password habits. I make up passwords that include letters and numerals, I don't base them on basic personal information anyone could look up(my age, birthday, mom's maiden name, and so on), I don't tell them to anyone even if that person claims to be emailing or calling me from customer service, and I don't write my passwords down on paper. How do I remember them? They're all variations on a theme, making it somewhat easier to guess what I used even for sites I haven't visited in a while.

And I store them all in one file on my computer, which is itself protected by a password. Plus I don't worry about forgetting. Far better to forget a password and have to replace it than to have a hacker find or guess it. Finally, I definitely don't trust them to a system such as Microsoft's Passport. Talk about a tempting target for thieves. When Passport is hacked - and Microsoft admitted just last week that it was embarrassingly easy to break in - you lose all of your security in one moment. It's as if everyone's financial, medical, personal, military, insurance, and tax records, account numbers, signatures, and ATM cards-with-PINs were all kept in one office with only a small lock on the door. So dumb.

Finally, what about hoax-free? That's easy. I don't forward any email and I don't believe any email that's forwarded to me. Result: no frauds on me and I'm not spreading any to anyone else.

You see, you don't need to spend anything extra to live spam-, virus-, pop-up-, ad-, hacker-, and hoax-free. You can do it with free software and a few new habits. In fact, switching to the free stuff - especially OpenOffice - will save you hundreds or thousands over buying the virus- and pop-up-friendly Microsoft stuff.

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Phillip Robinson is founder of the $7.95 OpenMinds.us Internet service. Comment by clicking here.

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