First there were viruses. Then came spam, then adware and then spyware.
Now comes "crimeware," the growth of which is really scaring some security officials because it parallels the growth of online banking and the growing practice of entering credit card data online.
It gets on your PC when you click on a link in an e-mail, via an attachment, via an infected instant message or via an infected Web page. What it does is log your keystrokes when you log on to a banking site or other secure location and send that data to a crook over the Internet.
I know; you're tired of hearing more about crime on the Internet. But consider that your computer is basically a window on the world. And the world has good parts and bad parts.
What can you do to protect yourself?
Never, ever respond to an e-mail from a financial institution by clicking on any link. If your bank sends you something and you think it's legit, type the address into your browser directly. Never click on a link.
Install an anti-virus program. If you don't buy one, use a free one like AVG or Avast.
Keep your PC up to date. This is critically important for Windows PCs, which have far more security holes than Apple or Linux machines. For Windows, use the Windows Update site (www.windowsupdate.com) regularly and install all critical updates.
Turn on the Windows firewall at least or install a second party firewall.
Use Mozilla's Firefox browser instead of Internet Explorer. Firefox, though not perfect, has far fewer security issues. Some sites will require Internet Explorer so you need to hold on to it. But use it only when you have to.
Pick a secure password. It needs to have both letters and numbers, scattered throughout. Don't make it something like "password" or "password11." Make it something like "rt56pz41we."
But make it a code you understand. On the first of every month, change your password for every banking site you use, plus sites like eBay, PayPal and your credit card sites. Each change should take only a few moments, and it's those moments that may save your good name someday.
Get your credit report and see what's on it once a year. You can get a free copy of your credit report (but not your score) from each of the three major credit reporting agencies at a new Web site, www.annualcreditreport.com. It is a good idea to keep an eye on this to assure no one is using credit that you did not apply for.
Once you use your PC for sensitive information, such as doing your income taxes, burn the data onto DVD or CD, then delete the data files from your hard drive.
If your PC is slow and you see lots of pop-ups and you're obviously infected, you need to clean it up. If you lack the know-how, hire someone to clean it up and install some software to keep it that way. That way you can be sure you are not sending any data to criminals on the other side of the world.
When you travel, keep your laptop in the safe in your hotel room or use a security cable.
WEEKLY WEB WONDER: Interested in selling items at auction on the Internet? Check out the Auction Guild (www.auctionguild.com) for up-to-date info on the latest sites and the controversies therein.
James Derk is co-owner of CyberDads, a computer repair company, and a computer columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.