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There's a story I've been reluctant to share, because I'm a little ashamed of myself.
I work on a computer most of the day, and I need to surf the Web to do research for my job. I use social networking sites at home, and I recently signed up for Twitter (Just recently? Yeah, I'm a dinosaur). As for computer security, I watch for alerts and updates and have antivirus software and firewalls installed on all my computers.
Yet, in spite of it all, I shamefully allowed my personal laptop to become infected with malware.
At least, I think it was malware. It might have been a worm or a virus. Once I got over the horror and shock of my mistake, I was so concerned with scrubbing my laptop clean, I didn't really look too closely at the infecting vermin.
The shameful infection happened about six months ago when I clicked on a link that popped up while I was browsing the Internet. The link said something like "updates are available."
It was a slick little pop-up, with a logo that looked professional enough to have come from Bill Gates himself.
I can't tell you exactly how, but I realized before the "update" was finished loading the software update came from an imposter. Within less than two minutes I knew I was in trouble, but that's all it took.
This imposter effectively blocked me from accessing my usual home page and, as I recall, just about every other Web site on the Internet.
I was still sitting on my living room couch, pondering whether or not to dust off the reinstallation disks that came with the laptop when helpful news arrived moments later that announced all my systems could be "restored" to normal. I simply had to remit $49.99 to a certain online company. I really don't recall which one.
The payment instructions and Web site link came in the form of, you guessed it, a popup window.
Wouldn't you know it, that Web page would load on my computer, although no others could.
"Give us your money, and we might go away," seemed to be the offered deal.
Instead, I was able to go to a backup point on my computer and save my data. Eventually, I cleaned up my mess and was able to update my laptop.
I'm sharing this story with you now because Nina Wilson, the 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, family readiness group leader, came to me about a week ago to share a similar experience. She too had been a victim of a malicious online poser. This time, the imposter pretended to offer a fix to her supposedly outdated antivirus software.
Again, the logo and the message seemed legitimate, and the thieves got away with $130. Potentially more problematic, they got her credit card information as well.
Wilson had to cancel her credit card. She also did a "real" update of her antivirus software to clean up the computer. She's now in the process of filing a claim to get her money back, which she was told should take about a month.
Although Wilson was frustrated because she allowed herself to be bilked out of the money and had to go through the hassle of updating her computer, my colleague is much more upfront than I am.
"Sure, use my name," she said, explaining she just wants people to know such dangers exist.
I appreciate Wilson's candor. Her chief concern is that others learn from her mistake, our mistakes.
In spite of my own computer hijacking experience just months ago, I've probably relaxed my posture at home when it comes to verifying the origin of the update notices.
I do appreciate that the computer updates at my office are seamlessly pushed through the server like magic, rarely interrupting my productivity or the flow of information in and out as I share news, calendars and photographs. All this happens uninterrupted as the professional Soldiers and civilians of the 59th and 507th Signal companies make my computer and our servers safe.
"Updates are available…are ready…are imperative." Sometimes the message balloons that popup on my personal laptop and home computer seem urgent.
When I look at my home computer's history, I see hundreds of popup messages are regularly blocked. I can't help but wonder how many were malicious.
Sometimes, in my haste to do the right thing, I fail to verify messages are from trusted sources.
Like the old science fiction show robot said, "Warning. Warning. Danger, Will Robinson." I can picture the robot running around inside my hard drive, urging me to heed his alert message.
However, there are steps you can take to protect your home computers, some of which don't cost a cent.
For Soldiers, family members and Department of Defense civilians with access to Army Knowledge Online, there's a free home user program that offers antivirus protection. A link is provided on the U.S. Army Alaska internet home page at http://www.usarak.army.mil/main/