Posted by: reformedmusings | September 2, 2008

Protect yourself from malware

Over at The Register, Jesper M. Johannson wrote Anatomy of a malware scam, an excellent analysis of a popular Internet scam. Every Microsoft Windows user should read this article in its entirety. It isn’t technical at all, and while this isn’t the only scam around and certainly isn’t the newest, it is somewhat indicative of the extensive social engineering that scammers use to dupe people. The crooks get better every day, so Internet users must remain ever vigilant.

The real answer to these types of scams targeting Windows is to simply switch to Linux. Between the security of built-in Linux and a properly configured Firefox browser, these problems practically vanish. Linux simply doesn’t need anti-virus, anti-adware, or general anti-malware protection. All that stuff drags down even a fast Windows box, but you need all the protection that you can get under Windows. There are threats to Linux, but they are rare and quickly fixed when discovered.

Case in point. I occasionally get phishing and malware attempts in email like everyone else, even with spam filters running. But, since Thunderbird doesn’t support scripting or any kind of executable in email, these are harmless here. Thunderbird also works under Windows, and if you haven’t replaced your Outlook email with it yet, you should. I was using Firefox and Thunderbird long before I switched to the Kubuntu Linux operating system. Today we received an email that said that our airline tickets had been successfully charged to our credit card in the amount of something over $600 and that our itinerary was attached. That was disconcerting, especially because we’re not going anywhere. Of course, the attachment was something like “itinerary.doc.exe” which would have executed the malware when double-clicked under Windows. In Linux, it does nothing.

Before the Olympics, I received a number of emails with anti-Chinese titles like “The Chinese Genocide Olympics” with messages about the Chinese’ poor human rights record. Attached were Excel spreadsheets that supposedly contained lists of human rights abuses. They were really tugging at the old heart strings. The good news is that under OpenOffice.org, the malware scripts in the spreadsheets don’t do anything. I would never open attachments under Windows that I wasn’t expecting or from folks I don’t know.

Peace of mind on the Internet can come from through taking prudent defensive measures. First, using a secure operating system like Linux minimizes your chances of getting hit with effective malware. Under Linux, root permissions are required to install anything, so the chances of getting hit by silently installed malware are vanishingly small. Silent installs are easy under Windows, even Vista. But if you stick with Microsoft Windows, you should bulk up on anti-malware programs (some good ones are free, like Avast, AVG, Ad-Aware, SpyBot, Spyware Blaster, Spyware Guard, etc.), keep them up to date, and use non-Microsoft applications like Firefox, Thunderbird, and OpenOffice.org, which are all free and secure. You should also educate yourself and stay current on the scams and malware targeting your money, data, and system.

Use a good firewall, especially a hardware one. A good router can double as a hardware firewall, and they are inexpensive and easy to set up. The built-in software firewall in WinXP SP2 and higher is actually quite good and probably sufficient for the average user. I’m not familiar with Vista’s, but I assume it is about the same as XP’s. Use Shields Up to probe your firewall periodically to ensure that all your ports are stealthed and that a hole was not opened either unintentionally or maliciously. Gibson Research also has some great educational material on that site. Monitor the firewall exceptions on a regular basis, and allow only the bare essentials. Do not allow file sharing exceptions. Don’t use AOL, which turns your computer firewall into a sieve. Linux uses iptables, which can be run from the console or though GUIs like Guard Dog. I generally run a software firewall behind my hardware one, just because I’m paranoid. šŸ™‚

The number one survival tool is your brain. Educate yourself and stay current. Be suspicious of everything that comes across your fiber, wire, or desk. Educate your family. My wife actually received the airline ticket scam. Bless her heart, she didn’t open it, instead coming straight to me about it. Phishers and scammers are counting on a victim’s greed and naivete. My philosophy is “trust no one,” and it was so long before the X-Files. You would be smart to do likewise.

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