Computer users face many risks along the Internet highway
Photo by Ralph Stewart
The explosion of computer viruses in recent years has Island computer service professionals hopping. That was particularly true during the past holiday shopping season, when Internet and computer usage was at peak levels.
Internet marketing websites are trumpeting the fact that one half of all American consumers bought something online during this holiday season. Globe Telecomm, an Internet service vendor, reported its customers' Internet usage spiked 50 percent between December 24 and 31, with a 70-percent spike on New Year's Day.
Many Island computer service centers contacted by The Times reported receiving as many as five computers a day suffering from compromised performance or in some cases, a shutdown, as a result of an infection by one or even a hundred different computer bugs. Developers of "malware," a collective name for computer viruses, create new viruses at a rate far greater than the computer industry's ability to combat them.
Malware is known in legal terms as "computer contaminants" representing intrusive, hostile, or annoying software programs or codes. Malware strains include computer viruses, worms, trojan horses, spyware, dishonest adware, scareware, crimeware and most rootkits.
Sophos, an Internet security firm, reported indentifying more than 186,000 new unfriendly viruses in August 2011 alone, many with designs on consumer wallets and identity information.
As Island computer techs explain it, Microsoft-based software on PCs (personal computers) are exposed to the majority of risk. Macintosh hard drives are less exposed because most malware is directed at the more popular PC.
While de-bugging computers is a brisk business, many Island techs wish there were less of it. "There has been quite a bit of virus activity in PCs, and having, or not having, virus software doesn't seem to help much. Macs don't get infected. They get bombarded but the processor has a pass code which doesn't allow the virus in," Frank Herbert, owner of Mac/PC Sales and Service in Vineyard Haven, told The Times.
After 30 years in the computer service business, the last 14 operating Mac/PC Sales and Service, Mr. Herbert faults the efforts of the PC industry to protect consumers.
Mr. Herbert said that Microsoft declared four or five years ago that it would introduce a better virus-resistant system. "Where is it?" he said. "We still haven't seen it."
Worldwide, the cost of de-infecting computers is estimated at $13 billion, according to Computer Economics, a publishing and consulting company.
Virus outbreaks seem to come in waves, said Gary Barlett, vice president at MV Tech on State Road in Tisbury. "It's terrible right now," he said when this reporter walked in with an infected PC not long ago. "For example, you're the fifth customer we've had in here today, mostly customers we've never seen before.
"There's no exact fix. Free or expensive anti-virus packages, they still get infected. The worst people are doing (malware), sending e-mails that look like legitimate notifications. Macs pretty much don't get it; this is essentially a Windows problem."
MV Tech is not a licensed Mac service center, but it does employ authorized Apple technicians, and the company plans further expansion into the Mac field. He said PC users should, "Keep the computer clean. Disconnect when you're not on the Internet. Know the sites you're going to and read the information on the website you're going to."
The bogus Internet marketing industry is a worldwide, multi-billion dollar business. Though firm estimates of the revenues of the illegal computer industry are hard to come by, recent prosecutions of fraudulent firms indicate the scope and sophistication of practitioners.
Recently, for example, this reporter along with 320,000 other PC users, received nominal checks, ranging between $15 to $20, in settlement of a successful suit brought by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Innovative Marketing Inc. and 12 subsidiaries with offices in Russia, Belize, England, and Canada, and in Maryland, Ohio, and California in the U.S.
The FTC suit alleges that the scareware scheme netted the companies at least $40 million in sales of its bogus $39.95 virus "fix." Additionally, the average cost of removing malware from an infected PC can easily top $300 to $400, according to estimates from sources at Island tech companies.
While Internet messaging and social media such as Facebook and Twitter are cited as the main highways for infections to reach personal computers and commercial networks, sophisticated hackers recently attacked the U.S. Treasury database.
And a malware commodity industry has developed in which operators offer to infect computers with a specific malware scheme in exchange for a dollar rate per thousand infections. One example Mr. Barlett said, "You may be downloading product coupons and wind up on a porn site, then receive an email warning of adult material on your computer and offering an anti-virus to remove it."
The long-term solutions to safe computer usage will likely be fought not only on the individual user's hard drive but also in the "Cloud," according to Dan Carbon, general manager of the EduComp computer and business center in downtown Vineyard Haven. But there are other short-term solutions, he said.
"I listened to a podcast on Internet security the other day – five serious 'propeller heads' talking tech, including several Microsoft higher-ups," Mr. Carbon said. "The discussion was focused on what people could/should do to stem the tide of virus attacks. They recommended upgrading operating systems to Windows 7 with 64bits and to always apply patches. They said there are far fewer viruses that can penetrate the new OS, particularly the 64bit version.
"This seems to hold true after looking at my walk-in repair statistics. By far, the older machines running Vista or XP are the ones getting viruses. The people making viruses are so sophisticated now, they are finding ways around anti-virus software.
Customers ask me 'How could this happen?' Unfortunately, it's a numbers game. While infection used to occur to one in a 100 machines, now it's one in 10. The only sure way is to unplug the computer. The Internet is the highway for viruses. We have a big service group, seven people year-round, but if it weren't for anti-virus software, we'd need 20.
"We're shocked at the sophistication of these viruses. They are deadly and sticky. Often, instead of hiding in the hard drive, they hide elsewhere in the computer and relaunch. It can take four hours to find them them and remove them. The most difficult part is to tell someone with a computer worth $300 or $400, that it's not worth it to them to fix it. You don't feel good about paying money to fix your computer that has been infected by some jerk you don't know. But we have to tell them.
"Probably half of our walk-in PC business have infections but almost zero of Macs. Macs have malware but they are less invasive. Malware in Macs is not viral, the intent is to watch, to mine information on where you go and what you buy.
"Often malware is "pull" technology. The user goes to a website, does something intentionally and pulls in a virus. For example, people go to chatrooms and blogs for information. They are great resources for our lives, but someone has invented a way to embed code in otherwise valid postings that launches when you read it.
"Anti-virus programs are as good as they can be. (Malware) is outpacing anti-virus's ability to combat them. Older viruses are less dangerous."
Like his colleagues, Mr. Carbon mentioned NSS Labs as the best anti-viral product right now. "Kaspersky and Malware Bytes (free) are top anti-virus performers today, along with Norton and McAfee, but the most effective products vary from year to year," he said. "Norton may be best this year, next year it may be someone else."
While a fast anti-virus fix may be for PC users to switch to Macintosh products — at $1,200, more than double the price of PCs today — both Mr. Carbon and Mr. Barlett see long-term anti-virus solutions not in software but in where user data is stored.
"I believe the industry is moving away from the personal computer and towards protective applications on handheld devices such as I pads which store data externally, with capacity and an hosted web-based server, not on your hard drive," Mr. Carbon said. "That method is called 'The Cloud' because your data is not in the computer but on the Internet, in the clouds."
Both men acknowledged that the downside of the cloud is loss of control of data should the Internet go down."You don't have complete control of your data anymore," Mr. Barlett said.
Mr. Carbon concurred. "You just talked about the U.S. Treasury, one of the most secure organizations on the planet, so data in the clouds has to lead us to believe there is risk," he said.
Every tech interviewed said that data backup, the oldest admonition in the computer age, is still the most critical preventive step. "This is the reality of having a computer today," Mr Carbon said. "We are more and more dependent on them. Don't be naive. If you're not backing up your data, you're out of your mind. You're gonna get burned."
Editor's Note: This article has been corrected since it first appeared on mvtimes.com and in the March 15 print edition of The Martha's Vineyard Times. The original article mistakenly described MV Tech, a computer services company, as a "licensed Mac service center." It is not, although MVTech employs "authorized Apple technicians."