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Source: Philly.com

Posted on September 30, 2011

Viruses, worms, Trojans, phishers, bots. The list of computer threats never shrinks, and the number of devices at risk only grows. Now we have to worry about security on smartphones and tablets along with personal computers and laptops.

But could one of the biggest threats to your online safety have two legs, a smart mouth, and a carefree attitude? That's one implication of a recent survey conducted for Trend Micro, a leading computer security company.

Forty percent of respondents said they suffered damage from clicking on links "leading to an unexpected place" online, at a cost that averaged about $42. More than a third of those blamed a child for the error.

Security experts say a key problem is that threats increasingly target not the innards of machines - their hardware and software - but the behavior of those staring at the screen, or what another security company, AVG, calls "wetware." It's a colorful and telling label: Blood-and-guts human beings, with all our shortcomings, are often the weakest link in any security scheme.

And kids may be the weakest links of all, because fearlessness is a hallmark of adolescence, says Natalie Severino, Trend Micro's director of consumer product marketing. So when your 10-year-old sees an offer for a "free iPad!" flash on the screen, or your 13-year-old sees a warning, "Your computer is infected," he or she may react more impulsively than you would. Rather than immediately suspecting a malware download, your child may click on the bait.

"Kids don't think that way, because they're not the ones who have a credit card and have to deal with the consequences," Severino says.

The malware market is vast, large enough to become a province of organized crime. In the highest-profile cases, hackers have gone straight to the spigot for cash, targeting ATMs, banks, and other financial institutions.

But home computers, as well as smartphones and tablets, also remain in their crosshairs, according to security experts. Earlier this year, another security company, McAfee, reported a 76 percent jump in malware targeting devices that use Google's Android mobile operating system. And yes, there are now apps to protect you - including some offered free of charge.

Here are highlights of advice from Trend Micro and other security experts:

Vigilance is still the biggest key. Despite scary warnings about "drive-by downloads," in which you get infected simply by visiting a website, computer infections are typically contracted the old-fashioned way: You click on a file or link that isn't what it appears to be.

For clients of Michael Serdikoff, a Wyncote computer consultant, today's biggest problem is "scareware" - fake antivirus software. "You suddenly get a warning, 'Your system is infected. Send us $39.95 and we'll protect you,' " he says. "It's like the Mafia - a modern-day protection racket."

Serdikoff says the old advice - stay away from bad neighborhoods - is no longer sufficient on the Web. "It used to be that you told people, 'Don't go to porn sites, don't download pirated music,' " he says. But now that ads are delivered anywhere by third-party ad networks, you can't just steer clear.

Social-network sites present new risks. Members assume sites such as Facebook are trustworthy, but Stein says some malware writers have learned how to automate the process of creating new Facebook accounts, and then friending everybody in sight. If a "friend" sends you a link to that new celebrity tell-all video, are you more likely to click on it? Yes, and that's what they're banking on.

Drive-by downloads are scary but can be avoided. If you keep your operating system and programs up to date, you can avoid the kind of security flaws that lead to infections you don't inadvertently invite. Microsoft, Adobe, and other companies offer automatic updates for their software. You're a fool not to take them up. Serdikoff also advises using a Firefox browser extension, NoScript, that blocks JavaScript from running except when you specifically allow it. JavaScript, which enables websites to execute programs on your computer, is a common malware culprit.

Macs remain safe - mostly. You may have heard about "Mac Defender," fake antivirus malware that targeted Macs earlier this year. Though some experts warned that Mac users faced a new wave of attacks, so far it hasn't happened. Apple's tightly controlled system apparently has its benefits.

Security software is essential, but you may not have to pay. Serdikoff advises his business clients to buy a security suite - Malwarebytes is his personal favorite - but says home users can get by with the free versions of that or of other well-regarded programs such as AVG or Avast.

Other experts recommend downloading Microsoft's own free programs, Microsoft Security Essentials or Windows Defender. And since last year, Comcast has offered its broadband customers a free subscription to one of the top-rated (and costliest) anti-malware programs on the market, Norton Security Suite.

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