Safety first

In the old days, like 10 years ago, one of the only ways to catch a computer virus was to transport it from hard drive to hard drive via corrupted files on floppy disks, as the viruses were embedded in files and programs.

These days everyone and everything is online, and virtually every 13-year-old kid with a mischievous streak and a computer in the den can start a global virus panic. Things will likely get worse before they get better as computers and the Internet become more and more synonymous.

A lot of people are already connected to the Internet around the clock, leaving themselves open to all kinds of unwanted visitations. You can pick up a virus by downloading and opening untested programs and files, through your e-mail system, or through almost any contact with the outside world. Hackers have found ways to break into your home computer, which leaves them free to plant viruses or, worse, to access your personal information.

There are more than 2,300 different viruses in circulation, most of which are just variations of a group of very basic viruses. Some are intended to annoy, and others to destroy.

There are dozens of antivirus applications on the market that can scan incoming information for viruses, but with new viruses surfacing every few weeks, you’re really only as safe as your last upgrade or patch. Fortunately these patches come down the pipe every few weeks as well.

The problem is that you can’t really protect your computer against viruses that don’t yet exist. You can adjust your security settings to alert you of potential problems, and many security programs can recognize the viruses that are similar to other viruses, but at the end of the day you’re going to want to stay on top of things. An ounce of prevention could save you a pound of cure. And a bundle of money.

To learn more about viruses, visit Webopedia, an online encyclopedia for the Internet. From here you can jump to a variety of virus-related Web sites. Here are just a few examples.

The CERT Coordination Center is a division of the Software Engineering Institute, a federally-funded research and development organization operated by Carnegie Mellon University.

If there’s a new virus out there, or a security hole is discovered within software, this is the place to go to learn about it, and to find out how to protect yourself.

How real is the risk you ask? CERT began tracking security incidents back in 1988. There were six that first year. The following year there were 132.

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