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Spam e-mails a gigantic issue

Spam is no longer just a few nuisance e-mails in your mailbox.

MercuryNews.com reported that in January, Cisco Systems Inc. tracked 400 billion spam e-mails sent in one day. Symantec, producer of Norton Anti-Virus, reported in February that spam now accounts for 90.2 percent of all e-mail received in the United States. Pharmaceutical, financial and adult content e-mails are the top offenders.

Since the World Wide Web took hold more than 15 years ago, spam has developed from inexpensive person-to-person advertising to an inescapable barrage of solicitation.

And to add insult to injury, many of the unwanted e-mails may be sent out from our own personal computers. Through the use of Botnets, criminals use e-mail-sending capabilities of thousands of unsuspecting computer users.

Botnets (robot networks) plant spam-distributing viruses on the computers of e-mail recipients. In this way, spammers can send masses of prohibited e-mails without using their own return address.

Recipients more readily open the Botnet e-mails since they come from a familiar sender.

Defenses against spam include deleting all e-mail that is not expected or easily recognized. Use your e-mail provider’s spam-blocker. By telling it which e-mails are not legitimate, it will learn to recognize spam for you. By occasionally checking the junk e-mail file, you can be sure that good e-mail is not being snagged.

Only open attachments from known senders, and then only when you know the contents are valid. Botnets can send mail with a malicious attachment, and it will look as if it is sent by a friend. Anti-virus software can be used to check e-mail for viral content.

Spammers know that they need to continue to improve their techniques.

The newest push is to tailor the spam to its recipient through “social engineering.” By tracking your surfing, social networking, or online shopping habits, or simply by knowing their e-mail address source, solicitors can bait recipients with familiar “teases.” Entire lists of addresses might include first names, allowing spammers to address us personally.

“They’re pretending to be giving you what you want instead of forcing it down your throat,” said Henry Stern, a senior security researcher at Cisco System’s IronPort team.

Computer users must continue to educate themselves. Awareness of hackers’ tactics is our best line of defense.

For helpful tips on safer surfing and e-mail use, go to the About.com Guide for Antivirus Software. Find Mary Landesman’s article on the top 10 ways your online habits leave you at risk. Find further details at MercuryNews.com in the article entitled “Spammers Adjust To Security Trends.”

Patty Harshbarger, owner of Computer Renaissance in Bradenton, can be reached at patty@cr-bradenton.com or (941) 753-8277.

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