However, it is wrong to assume that the danger to your computer and sense of security disappears as soon as you exit cyberspace.
While new break-ins can only take place while you're connected to the Internet, many computer viruses that sneak into your computer while you're logged on don't unleash their destructive fury until after you've logged off and opened a tainted file.
Viruses such as the "I Love You" or "Anna Kournikova" bugs are well-known to anybody who uses a computer as a part of their everyday life, and the damage such viruses unleash can be devastating.
Viruses are programs that replicate themselves inside a computer. After viruses replicate, many carry out damaging instructions that have been programmed into them.
The majority of computer viruses attack computers through e-mail attachments, so you should never open an attachment that contains a virus. The best way to find out whether an attachment is safe is to scan it with software that searches for viruses and then alerts you when one is discovered.
Antivirus programs detect viruses by scanning the files on your PC and checking them against a list of virus signatures that identify when a virus is present. If a virus is spotted, the software will alert you and warn you not to open the suspect file. It's important to consistently update the software, as new viruses pop up all the time and won't be detected by an out-of-date list of signatures.
Those who use online e-mail may already have this service provided to them for free. For example, all mail sent to Hotmail accounts automatically receives a quick scan from an antivirus program called McAfee. But those using such popular non-Web-based programs as Microsoft Outlook should consider purchasing highly regarded anti-virus software such as McAfee VirusScan (www.mcafee.com), Symantec's Norton AntiVirus (www.symantec.com) or Panda Antivirus Platinum (www.pandasoftware.com).
Antivirus software has become an increasingly necessary as viruses become more sophisticated - some viruses are even designed to attack Outlook address books, which means that the virus you unleash upon your own computer will instantly be sent to all of the computers of friends and loved ones. Scary stuff!
To stay on top of the latest viruses, check out the WildList Resource, a site that offers a list of the latest viruses gumming up computers throughout the world. The site also offers a place for you to help out your fellow Internet surfers by reporting viruses you may have discovered firsthand.
Viruses aren't the only threat connected to e-mail. The very messages themselves can fall into the wrong hands, creating a security breach that allows strangers to read your sensitive information or private thoughts. Again, the risk of this happening is very small, but it is possible.
Encrypting your e-mail is a good way to secure your messages. Encryption is a method where the letters in a sender's message are scrambled during transmission. When the message arrives in the inbox of the intended recipient, it is unscrambled. The process takes place via the use of keys. The sender's key is called a private key. Senders need to give public keys to whomever they want to have the capability to unscramble those messages.
There are two primary ways to create keys: through PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) software and digital certificates. PGP is available to home computer users as a free download and can be used as a plug-in with many e-mail programs, including Microsoft Outlook. This very popular software gets rave reviews for its efficiency and ease of use.
Perhaps the biggest problem with PGP is actually finding the right version for you. Type "PGP" into a search engine and you'll come up with scores of sites that offer versions of the software designed for different systems. You'll have to hunt around to find the best version for you.
Digital certificates also allow you to encrypt your e-mail and determine who will get readable versions of your messages. When you send a copy of your certificate to potential recipients, they can automatically receive any message you get.
Some companies offer digital certificate services to employees.
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