Computer Security Resources: Is it Safe to Download?


The Internet, a network of interconnected computer networks, provides a wealth of information for just about every purpose imaginable. Students can access pertinent information regarding their courses, children can watch streaming cartoons, corporations can conduct e-commerce transactions, and independent artists can promote their latest album. The multi-media aspect has attracted millions of visitors around the world to download the latest songs, albums, movies, ringtones, ebooks, video games, software, and more. The temptation overwhelms most people considering most of these items are available at the click of a mouse. Criminals understand the enticing effect these multi-media treasure troves create, which likely has some salivating over the infinite possibilities to steal financial information and personal identification records.

Internet surfers need to take the appropriate steps to safeguard their computer from these anonymous thieves. Internet surfers can reclaim their vanguard position against these shadowy threats with an edge of technical savvy, small collections of the appropriate software and hardware, plus the ability to exercise common sense.

Viruses and Worms

Viruses and worms have made Internet users uneasy over the last few decades; however, emerging threats continue to evolve with each technological advancement. Spyware, spam, and phishing scams have exploded in today's market. Viruses and worms still present a real threat in cyberspace, which can disrupt computer usage entirely, depending on the infection.

A virus is a small computer program that infects and replicates existing code. A complex virus can delete or corrupt existing files, change computer settings, and cause the computer to crash. On the other hand, worms self-replicate without attaching to another program. A mass-mailing worm uses email to replicate itself and then scans personal computers for email addresses. An existing worm may also place one of the addresses into the "from" field of the infected email, which makes it seem as if it came from a different source.

Spyware, Adware and Key Loggers

Adware uses software to display advertising while using it. There are a lot of free utilities and applications that use the adware model to raise money via donations and affiliate programs. Most adware updates the advertisement displays through an Internet connection, while some actually track Internet activity through the PC's cache folder in order to target advertisements to the PC user's interests.

Spyware uses an anonymous software program to track Internet activity without the PC user's knowledge or consent. Spyware may also come attached to some legitimate software programs. Other forms include clicking on pop-up dialog boxes in order to clear the screen of excess advertisements. Spyware may install a key logger, a stealth program that tracks everything a user does, including every key stroke, which leaves the PC's security and personal privacy vulnerable to the discretion of the creator.


Phishing scams include gathering email and web addresses to try to seize personal information, including bank and credit card numbers, PINs and log-in passwords. Some phishing scams include screen shots of the individual's personal banking institution with a customized memo dictating to respond to the message immediately or face repercussions. The link within the message will redirect to a fraudulent website that appears to look like the legitimate financial institution's homepage. Once entering any personal information into the designated fields, the phisher will have full access to all accounts. Phishing scams can be quite elaborate and may look completely legitimate to an uniformed user. Internet surfers need to beware of all email notifications and log-on to the financial institutions web branch by typing the URL into the address bar or calling to verify the legitimacy of the notification.


Most people regard spam as a nuisance, but rarely consider the impact it has on an individual's PC performance. In fact, many spam emails are littered with web bugs; invisible graphics with tracking codes attached that act in the same manner as spyware. Additionally, an inbox flooded with spam may cause the user to act illogically. A single click on the wrong email will open the flood gates for scammers.

Browser Hijacking

Hackers may use certain programming tools masked as scripts to modify a target's browser's default settings. This can come in the form of new link additions to a target's favorites or bookmarks. Other changes may include home page rerouting, registry changes, and auto-running programs. The goal of browser hijackers is to continuously lure potential customers to a particular website in order to boost business. The browser hijackers may also employ other forms of malicious software to potentially increase business.

Family, Friends and Colleagues

A computer without password protection will leave it open to spying eyes. Most people will have the curiosity to search an Internet user's history or private files to see what the secret is all about. It's a good idea to password protect all files to keep financial information, secret journal entries, Christmas purchases, and anything else that needs to remain a secret. The biggest threats to privacy and security may just come from the people you know too well.

First-Person Shooters and DoS

Internet users who only play video games or use empty software are still at risk. Most scammers, hackers, and virus writers could care less about the information stored on a personal computer. In fact, most have the same idea as most Internet users aiming to protect themselves: privacy. These criminals need an anonymous platform to launch attacks and collect highly sensitive data. An agent or daemon, a hacker's piece of code to remote control PC's without warning, can be used to launch attacks on more alluring targets. These Internet criminals can align thousands of remote-controlled PCs to launch Denial of Service (DoS) attacks to bring the Internet or a host to a standstill.

Building a Toolkit

Internet users will need to pay for top-notch security. There are some handy free tools available, but even the greatest software defenses may leave a user vulnerable on a difficult day. A few of these tools include having a good antivirus or Internet Security program, such as Avast! Internet Security, Norton Internet Security, Kaspersky Internet Security, or Norton Antivirus. A spam blocker, such as Ella, EmailProtect and Norton AntiSpam will help filter out unwanted mail. Additionally, a firewall will monitor incoming and outgoing traffic between the target's personal computer and the Internet. Firewalls also guard against unauthorized activity, such as "zombification", spyware and key logger installations. A software program aimed at protecting passwords will help secure all personal information, including personal passwords, PINs, serial numbers, and account numbers. A toolkit consisting of all the aforementioned software programs will likely cost around two hundred dollars.

Additional Tips and Suggestions to Combat Viruses, Worms, and Similar Threats

Experienced Internet users will likely switch to a non-Microsoft email program, since many mass-mailing worms are written to exploit existing vulnerabilities in Outlook Express. Choosing an open-source client, such as Thunderbird or Eudora can help curtail email dangers. Another helpful suggestion includes the refusal to open attachments. Opening email attachments can lead to irreversible damages if targeted by the wrong bandits. Simply right-clicking on an attachment and then scanning it with an existing antivirus program will help lessen the probability of infection. Turn the reading preview pane off to avoid displaying infected code in this window. Conduct a full system virus scan each week at a minimum in order to prevent the spreading of any infections currently on the PC. 

Spyware and Adware Prevention

Opting for premium software that safeguards against spyware and adware will usually trump against free, unsupported versions. Do not surf on fringe, porn, cracks and warez, peer-to-peer, and other questionable websites geared towards unscrupulous people. Stay away from Internet Explorer since it has proven to be susceptible to attacks and intrusions. An open-source browser, such as Firefox will help protect against these attacks. Refrain from clicking 'OK' on a pop-up window. Instead, press ALT, CTRL, and Delete at the same time to display the Task Manager, then select the pop-up titles in the list of programs before hitting "End Task."

Phishing Scam and Hijacker Prevention

Never click on links from an unknown email or forum post, especially if the content within the form asks for sensitive information. Instead, type the URL into the address bar located on the web browser. If the content of the form asks for private financial information, then go straight to the website by typing it into the address bar or directly call the firm and ask for verification. Never buy anything as advertised in spam emails, and never divulge personal information on unsecured websites. Use a non-Microsoft browser and turn off ActiveX and JavaScript programs to avoid browser hijacking.

Additional Links Related to CyberSecurity:

CyberCoyote: How To Download Software (Safely): A comprehensive resource guiding and informing prospective software downloaders of safer methods before clicking 'OK.'

Northwest Learning Grid: Download Stuff: A basic tutorial guide to downloading files sensibly without contracting a computer virus.

Microsoft: Get the Low Down on Downloading Safely: Microsoft presents invaluable information on how to safely download files off the Internet and onto a hard drive.

Eastern Illinois University: Illegal Downloading: An article addressing the growing trend of illegal downloading and Internet piracy.

Community College of Allegheny County: IT Security and Online Safety: A comprehensive guide introducing the various threats posed when downloading files illegally.

Messiah College: Internet Literacy: Internet Downloading: A question and answer format addressing the hidden dangers behind Internet downloading.

Northwestern University Information Technology: Stay Aware on the Internet: Northwestern University offers suggestions to browse and safely download off the Internet without contracting a computer virus.

Towson University: Using the Internet Effectively: A Guide to Safe and Secure Web Surfing (PDF): An extensive and comprehensive resource guiding Internet users through the necessary steps to secure their browsers against Internet dangers.

Gettsyburg College: Socializing Safely on the Internet: A useful list of tips and suggestions to follow before engaging in social activities on the Internet. After all, certain viruses are linked through social networks and instant messenger services.

Princeton University: Twelve Steps to Safe Computing: A comprehensive list to covering twelve core areas vulnerable to viruses, malicious intrusions, phishing, and other forms of Internet dangers.

Washington State University at Vancouver: Safe Email Practices and Consequences of Being Unsafe: A resourceful list of tips and suggestions for email security and the consequences of failing to adhere to these guidelines.

Brandeis University: Download Safety LTS: A brief overview of downloading safety.

University of Oklahoma Police Department: Internet Safety: A comprehensive resource covering all Internet dangers, including identity theft, email spam, scams, viruses and malware.

Goucher College Technology Knowledge base: A guide to Internet safety, including the appropriate tips and suggestions to implement safeguarding procedures against hidden cyber world dangers.

Jefferson College of Health Sciences: Internet Safety: A brief article covering the hidden dangers of Internet surfing and downloading.

Harvard University: Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies (PDF): A series of manuals addressed to the Internet Task Force to implement safety measures against Internet threats on social networking websites.

University of Missouri: Cyber ethics: Downloading Music from the Internet: The University of Missouri presents websites highlighting the ethics behind downloading music.

Emory University: Downloading Files and Programs from the Internet: A brief overview addressing the dangers of Internet downloading.

Vermont Law School: Internet Downloading Information: The Vermont Law School presents resources to legally download music, instead of using illegal platforms.

University of Indiana: Peer-to-Peer (P2P) File Sharing and Copyright Safety: This step-by-step instructional will allow users to install and operate P2P software safely.

Goodwill Community Foundation: Staying Safe While Browsing (PDF): An extensive resource providing pertinent information to help secure browsers for Internet surfing and downloading.

Tor: A free software package aimed at securing anonymity while browsing the Internet and downloading files.

Get Safe Online: Be Careful with Peer-to-Peer File sharing: A resourceful website providing helpful tips and information while using P2P file sharing software.

Federation Against Software Theft: An anti-piracy organization aimed at protecting members from Internet piracy.

The Federation Against Copyright Theft: An anti-piracy organization based in the United Kingdom with aims at curtailing counterfeiting, copyright and trademark infringements.

Georgetown University: Where to Download Music, Movies, and Software Legally?: A resourceful article providing credible reliable links to legal downloading platforms.

University of South Florida; Download Legally: A list of resources to legally download multi-media files.

Related Articles: Article last updated March 4, 2012.

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