RESCUECOM Advises People About file Sharing Sites in Seattle Times

File Sharing Sites and Downloads Are Main Source of Computer Viruses

By Angie Dyer
Special to The Seattle Times:


Computer plus student a recipe for icky virus, spyware trouble

Sending your children to college is hard enough. It can be even harder dealing with what they've often left behind: unpaid cellphone bills, mounds of discarded clothes ? and infected computers.

Many parents find that the home computer they try to reclaim after Junior's departure runs as slow as molasses and is plagued by constant pop-ups, thanks to swarms of viruses and malicious spyware, also known as malware. And with the departure of their tech-savvy offspring, they may be clueless about what to do. Just how serious is this problem? Consider:

Every fall, the technology department at Seattle University typically fixes more than 1,000 computers of mostly incoming freshman and sophomores, with the trouble usually stemming from viruses and spyware. The problems come mostly from downloaded or installed software that forces the computer to run pop-ups or records personal information and sends it to unwanted places.

On one particular computer this year, the techies found a staggering 7,480 spyware infected files.

  • Last year, eight months after the initial cleanup, the tech team found 72 percent of the PCs were open to viruses because of file-sharing programs on their hard drives and because they weren't updating the antivirus software installed by the technology department, says Melissa Mullinax, Seattle University's chief information officer.

    The techies tracked one virus that started with a single computer and began spreading through the network, which forced them to update and reboot every computer on campus ? more than 1,800 in all.

    Across town at the University of Washington, many students suffer the same problems, mainly with new computers that use Microsoft Windows.

    Daniel Schwalbe, lead security engineer at the University of Washington, says that because the newer computers have sat on the shelf for so long waiting to be bought, patches installed to keep the computer and its operating system safe become outdated.

    Come on in

    That makes the computers vulnerable to bugs or viruses.

    And because the computer that comes to campus is plugged into a large network, it is vulnerable to viruses released since the last update of the operating system.

    Not surprisingly, the students' parents suffer the same kinds of woes on their computers back home.

    "Once it starts, it never ends," says Bo Vieweg, technology director at Seattle University, on the growing occurrences of viruses and spyware.

    You might wonder why the kids didn't notice something awry before they left the ailing computer behind. Vieweg notes that some viruses work in the background so that your teenager has no clue. Alex Hertz, another Seattle University team member, adds that students get complacent because they rely on what they believe is their computer's surefire antivirus software.

    Problem: Sometimes the software is just good for a trial run of 90 days. And sometimes teens just ignore trouble signs (and maybe don't want to admit to what dicey sites they visited or file-sharing programs they downloaded).

    What's behind problems

    Which leads us to why the file-sharing sites, along with infected e-mails and file transfers from social-networking sites, are the biggest sources of problems, according to Julie Mason, owner of a Seattle-based Rescuecom franchise, a national computer-repair and support company.

    File-sharing sites often open the way for viruses to be unknowingly downloaded onto a computer and, of course, even simple e-mails can carry viruses or spyware.

    Many of the larger, corporation-based Web sites such as Yahoo!, Google and eBay have reportedly spent millions of dollars to make sure their sites are clean and safe. But links to Web sites through e-mails can cause trouble. The e-mail can even be sent by someone you know, but the link can lead to a Web site that is infected.

    What's the cure?

    Experts recommend you check your computer to see if there is antiviral software installed. If there is, make sure it updates daily. The program will then search the entire computer and wipe out viruses or spyware.

    You may need to reinstall your operating system (e.g. Windows XP) if the virus is strong (seetheaccompanyingtip.)Mason adds, "If you have the most up-to-date antivirus software, most sites and programs are OK to use, as the software will often catch potential threats and quarantine them."

    An associate of Geek Squad, a computer-support task team in Best Buy stores, agrees that the best way to prevent further infections is to update your antivirus software almost daily.

    Parents should also get their children's personal computers checked out before they leave home, suggests Mason.

    "The last thing on a college student's mind is whether they've got the latest and greatest tools to protect their computer, their work or even their identity," she says.

    "So it is critical to ensure that their laptops, desktops or any technology has been given a complete check-up, and they have what they need to be safe."

    More reclaimed territory

    And now that you have scoured and reclaimed your child's computer, the next thing to do is to clean out the kid's room and turn it into that guest bedroom you've been waiting for since he became a high-school senior. ...

    Angie Dyer will be a senior this fall at St. Mary's Dominican High School in New Orleans and lives in Harvey, La., where she relocated after being forced from home by Hurricane Katrina. She participated in a Seattle University high-school journalism workshop that was partially funded by The Seattle Times.

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