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Staying safe online: there are steps you can take to cut down on spam, viruses and spyware.

If Bill Gates hasn't found a way to get rid of all his junk e-mail yet, chances are you're still receiving unwanted e-mail, too. About 80 percent of all e-mail is estimated to be unsolicited commercial messages called spam. The FTC has estimated that as much as two-thirds of spam is fraudulent. Most computer users now see only a relatively small amount of that spam, because most network administrators and Internet service providers (ISPs) use spam filtering programs that are effective in screening it out. But spammers continually are finding new ways to get their messages past filters and to Internet users.

Spam is more than a nuisance; it often carries more serious threats to computer users--viruses, worms, spyware and other kinds of "malware." Viruses can corrupt your computer's programs and files or even destroy all the information on a computer. Worms spread to other computers, often through a user's e-mail address book, and replicate themselves until they slow or shut down system resources. Spyware is software that is downloaded to a computer, often without a user's knowledge. It can track online activities or collect personal information, change settings on computers, or cause advertising messages to pop up on computer screens.

Your legislative computer is tin doubt well protected, but there are steps you can take that will help you cut down on spam, viruses and spyware on your home PC or your personal laptop.


Protect your e-mail address. You can reduce the amount of spam you receive by limiting the release and availability of your e-mail address--on Web sites, on subscriber mailing lists, and when purchasing items or subscribing to services.

Legislators' e-mail addresses often are posted on legislative Web sites, personal and campaign Web sites, and in newspaper articles and directories of public officials. But e-mail addresses on Web sites are automatically "harvested" by Web crawlers or spiders--software that spammers use to collect e-mail addresses. You probably want your official e-mail address to be as accessible as possible to constituents, and many legislatures use Web forms for email or apply other techniques to minimize harvesting, but there are additional steps you can take to protect your e-mail address.

Protect your personal e-mail address by not posting it on Web sites or in discussion groups, or set up one or more e-mail addresses and control how you use them. For example, keep one e-mail address to give to family, friends and colleagues only. Set up a separate e-mail address to use just for subscribing to mailing lists, for Web sites that require one for access, or for making online purchases. Change the e-mail address if you begin receiving too much spam.


Use spam filtering and anti-spyware software. Your official legislative e-mail account almost certainly will have spam filtering software, although it will never stop all spam, in addition, you can choose an Internet service provider that offers spam filtering. Anti-spyware software can identify if spyware has been downloaded to your computer, and may be able to remove keystroke-logging programs or other spyware that may be tracking and recording your online activities. However, some anti-spyware software is fraudulent and actually downloads its own spyware rather than protecting your computer, so be sure to go to legitimate sources, such as PC World magazine or others that review this type of software before installing or purchasing anti-spyware software.


Use a firewall and anti-virus software and regularly update both. A firewall is hardware or software that blocks unauthorized users and materials from accessing a computer. It is especially important to use a firewall if your home computer has a broadband (high speed) connection to the Internet. Newer operating systems and software, such as Windows XP and AOL's 9.0 Security Edition, come with firewalls, but it is important to be sure the firewalls are activated and set up properly. For older computers, purchase and install firewall software. Anti-virus and virus-detection software scans incoming files and messages for viruses and will warn you if you have accessed a program with a virus. It is estimated that there are hundreds of new viruses and worms each month, so you should update your firewall software frequently to detect the new versions of viruses. Keeping your other software up-to-date by installing patches or regular updates also is important, so check the company's Web site frequently to be sure you have the most recent.


Block instant message spam. "Spim"--spam sent via instant message--is sent through your Internet messaging program or via text-messaging on your mobile device or cell phone. The major instant messaging services provide ways to block spim, so it's just a matter of taking the time to identify people you want to hear from via instant message. Another form of spim is "messenger span]" that uses Microsoft's Messenger Service (not to be confused with Microsoft's Instant Messaging software, MSN Messenger). Microsoft initially set up Messenger Service to allow network administrators to send administrative messages. However, spammers began using it to send advertising messages or viruses directly to computers, bypassing e-mail. Microsoft's Web site provides information about when and how to disable Messenger Service.


Don't click on links in spam messages or in pop-up windows. Spammers often include links in their messages--links that may contain an encoded version of your email address. When you click on the links, you essentially confirm that your e-mail address is valid and that you've read the e-mail. Clicking on links in spam or popups may also infect your computer with spyware or a computer virus. "Phishing" seams use links in e-mail messages that claim to go to one site, but which actually send you to a different site that only appears authentic, but asks for your personal or financial information that might be used to commit identity theft or other crimes.


Block images or graphics in e-mail messages. Spammers frequently use Web "bugs" or Web "beacons"--small pieces of html code that are inserted in spam messages. Most Web beacons are so small as to be effectively invisible, but when an end-user opens or even previews an e-mail containing a Web beacon, it sends its signal back to the spammer, indicating that a valid e-mail address has been reached. Web beacons also can he exploited to transmit viruses. To avoid Web beacons, you can configure your e-mail software to view all messages in plain text. Recent and updated versions of Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express are preset to stop pictures from immediately downloading in e-mail from people who are not in your address book. You can also check privacy options on Web e-mail accounts like Yahoo! to opt out of e-mail containing Web beacons.


Be cautious of e-mail attachments and offers of free software. This advice is everywhere, but bears repeating. Never open an email attachment from someone you do not know or even from someone you do know if you don't know who created the attachment. Many viruses are spread through email attachments, and the viruses are often launched when the file attachment is opened. There also are many offers of free software programs and downloads. However, many of these free offers include more than the feature advertised--they can include spyware. Avoid downloading free screensaver software, animated graphics and other software until you're sure it's from a legitimate source. And again, use anti-virus software and keep it updated.


Read privacy policies and end-user licensing agreements. Before providing your email address to a Web site or on a contest entry, or before downloading software, read the company's privacy policy or the end-user licensing agreement. If you can't find a privacy policy or if the licensing agreement is difficult to read or understand, hold off on providing your e-mail address or downloading software until you've had time to research the company's policies and reputation.


Forward spam to your ISP and other authorities. Your ISP may ask you to forward spam so that you can help it identify and filter it out from its network. If you receive fraudulent spam or spam that asks for your personal or financial information, forward it to



A scam that involves Internet fraudsters who send spam or pop-up messages to obtain personal information (credit card numbers, bank account information, Social Security number, passwords, or other sensitive information) from unsuspecting victims.


Unsolicited commercial e-mail, often sent in bulk quantities.


A software program that may be installed on your computer without your consent to monitor your use, send pop-up ads, redirect your computer to certain Web sites, or record keystrokes, which could lead to identity theft.


Programs that, when installed on your computer, enable unauthorized people to access it and sometimes to send spam from it.


A program that can sneak onto your computer--often through an e-mail attachment-and then make copies of itself, quickly using up all available memory.


A program that reproduces itself over a network and can use up your computer's resources and possibly shut your system down.


Home computers that have been taken over by spammers who then use them to send spam in a way that hides the true origin.

Source: Federal Trade Commission,,


Federal Trade Commission, Spam E-mail Web Page, edcams/spam/index.html.

United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), Cyber Security Tip, Reducing Spam,

The National Cyber Security Alliance (a public-private partnership of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Trade Commission, and many private-sector corporations and organizations),

Pam Greenberg is an NCSL expert in legislative information technology.
COPYRIGHT 2006 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Author:Greenberg, Pam
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2006
Previous Article:Keeping in touch: responding to constituents' requests and concerns is time-consuming but key to representative democracy.
Next Article:As they see it.

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