When on computer, best to avoid dangerous places


Q: I know not to click links in e-mails I receive from people I don’t know, or when the link looks suspicious. But what about those postings that come up in Facebook? There are so many, like: “21 things women should know about men; #7 is so true,” “Find out which state you should live in” or “You won’t believe what happens …”. These often appear by themselves as sponsored links. Sometimes they appear because one or more of my friends has “liked” it. They are links that take you to some website to show the advertised content, along with lots of ads and other potential links. Are these just harmless junk, or can they infect my computer with viruses, like those links in e-mails? — Tom Reese

A: Tom, it’s no different than any other link to an unknown location, and maybe a bit worse. It’s just not a good idea to click on the link. There’s no guarantee that the links are harmless just because they appear on Facebook or any other brand-name site.

Follow along with me for a moment. Imagine that you are in a large city you’ve never before visited. As you wander along by yourself, you enter an especially interesting area — the people are downright exotic, the music from the bars and restaurants is loud and strange, and there is a definite feeling that this could be a dangerous place.

Let’s assume for a moment that the idea of being robbed or injured does not appeal to you. In that case the wise will turn 180 degrees and walk back into a safer area. And the others who decide to wander even deeper into the shady side of the street? They may find more than they want.

It’s really no different when you browse along — clicking on this link, and then the next — on the Web. There are areas safer than others. But for times when you find yourself in a shady part of town, there are ways to act that lessen the chance of you ending up as the lead item on the 10 o’clock news.

Today I’ll walk with you as sort of a guide and do my best to point out places that are best left unvisited, as well as ways to act that will protect you as you wander the vast city that is the Web.

We’ll start with something very uncommon — common sense. There are some destinations on the Web that drip with danger in such an obvious way that you really shouldn’t need this warning. But I’ll offer it anyway. The chances of being the victim of a virtual mugging are highest when visiting pornography sites, as well as sites that use questionable methods — such as torrent downloads — to offer free commercial software, movies and tunes. Add to that list places that sell high-priced merchandise for a fraction of the cost.

Are all of these places run by crooks? Nope. But some are and the bad ones don’t look any different than the ones that offer no danger.

Next, it is a good thing to educate yourself on some of the ways hackers invade your computer while you browse the Web. Coincidentally, one of those ways is through a download of free anti-virus software. Here’s how that works. You are sitting happily at your computer, immersed in your search for a good recipe for veal marsala, when a frightening message flashes on the screen.

“Malware detected. Your computer is infected. Click here to remove the threat.”

If you get a message like that, it almost certainly isn’t coming from your own anti-malware software. Instead it comes from a crook who wants you to click that link and download his ugly payload. Once you do, it’s possible you’ll see another message saying that you’ll need to buy some new anti-malware program to clean up the mess. Here’s what has happened. Your machine has been hijacked — and you helped. Now you are being blackmailed into paying. To make things even worse, you often pay and still retain the hacker’s bad software.

Don’t pay. Instead try rebooting into Windows Safe Mode and running your legitimate anti-malware software. But this doesn’t always fix the problem. So you’ll need to get professional help to remove the mess. The real prevention here is to avoid that first step of responding to the warning message on your screen.

To make our walk on the wild side even more adventurous, there are times when perfectly legitimate programs add to the danger. Take Flash for instance. It is software used by some sites for playing games or enabling other features. It’s made by Adobe, a fine company. But my advice is to avoid using Flash entirely. If a website demands that you download and use it, walk the other way. If you have it on your computer now, remove it.

Sure you’ll miss out on some features, but you’ll also remove a possible danger. It’s such a hazard that Facebook’s security chief has asked Adobe to kill Flash, to stop distributing it. Who knows if that will happen but — when it comes to your own computer — you’re in control and can make it happen.

It’s also important to know that any suggested download should be regarded in the same way you’d treat a growling dog. Often times you’ll find a free Web service that offers to stream video, or convert file formats. But you’ll be told that some download is necessary to get the free service. It may be perfectly legit, it may not. Since you won’t be able to tell the difference, just don’t download the file.

My most important tip involves no technology at all. Instead it relies on your good sense. Be paranoid when you sit at your computer. In this case paranoia is not a sign of mental illness. That’s because people out there really are trying to get you.