A Few Bytes of Prevention: Why anti-virus software is a must for browsers and e-mailers

I used to think I was protected against computer-virus attacks.

I had a Norton anti-viral program running all the time to catch them before they could cause damage. Then one day I received an e-mail informing me that I had been sending around an e-mail virus. I was shocked.

Up to that point I had believed the only way to pick up an e-mail virus was to open an e-mail attachment. But a new type of virus was created that attaches itself to the signature field of an e-mail. All you do is open the e-mail message and you have the virus, which then attaches to the e-mails you send out and infects other computers. The virus went totally undetected by my Norton software. Fortunately, the virus was relatively harmless. It would only shut down a victim's computer on the first day of the month after 6 p.m. until midnight. Norton finally did update their virus signatures to detect this virus, but too late for me.

Imagine my popularity when I had to inform everyone about the virus they possibly now had, thanks to me!

What makes e-mail viruses especially difficult these days is that they can come from people you know very well. The "carriers" won't even know they are spreading troubles. What can you do about the computer-virus risk? First, you have to have an anti-virus program running on your computer and update, at least once a week, its virus signatures—the types of code it recognizes as viruses. Frequent updates are necessary because new viruses, and old ones with new code mutations to disguise them, are always coming out. Next, you have to periodically check for security "patch" updates on the Web sites of the manufacturers of your Internet browser and e-mail programs. Had I done so with Outlook Express that I use for e-mail, I never would have gotten the virus mentioned above.

Is it enough to have an anti-virus program and the most recent software security patches? I thought so for a while. Then I began noticing the lights flashing on my keyboard. I began to suspect a virus and scanned for one, finding nothing. Then I read about how people can break into your computer any time you are connected to the Internet. Those connected for long periods of time, especially by way of big-bandwidth DSL and cable modem users (you know who you are), are at the greatest risk.

What to do for protection? I never thought it would come to this, but, since I'm always connected—my site offers views from a 24/7 Web camera—I needed to install a firewall. Norton Internet Security 2000 software was highly recommended by various computer magazines so that's what I went with.

I was expecting a difficult time setting up the firewall, which is a software program that lets you block unwanted traffic (while permitting welcomed visitors), but was surprised by a fairly easy user interface. The day after the installation, I already had a security flashing on my screen.

The night before, somebody had tried to hack in over my phone line (I use a 56K modem) and put a "Trojan Horse" on my computer. In computer parlance, a Trojan Horse is a program that appears to perform but contains, hidden in its code, instructions that can do serious harm to an operating system.

Two days later, the hackers tried again. It made me wonder what they, or other hackers, had already put on and pulled off my computer without my being aware of their activities. My firewall next alerted me that a unfamiliar program on my computer was trying to send information out over my Internet connection. Who knows what that information was? I certainly wouldn't want my passwords, for example, to get in the wrong hands.

The moral of the story is: that if you are connected to the Internet for long periods of time, you definitely want to install a firewall to protect your computer and the information it holds. A firewall will also protect against hackers who'd like to use your computer to attack other computers without your knowing anything about it.

A good firewall program for home users and non-profit organizations is ZoneAlarm, which can be downloaded at www.zonelabs.com.

If you think you're not vulnerable to cyber-intruders, go to www.grc.com and click on "Shields Up" to test your system. You'll see that, just by using the Internet and e-mail, you open up your computer to viruses and hackers. Running a popular Web site increases your need for security exponentially. And if it is a Catholic site, you can bet you'll be a target at some point.

Everything Catholic.com learned about this the hard way. It was trying to build up a directory of good Catholic sites and allowed people to submit their sites. Within a few months they were hit with a virus that wiped out their entire database. It had to begin all over again. (That reminds me about the importance of backing up your computer data as another virus safeguard.)

Am I too paranoid about viruses? I don't think so. If you are like many people, your computer contains vital information you do not want to lose or let others get their hands on. Wouldn't you rather play it safe than sorry?

Now to this month's recommended sites.

The "Everything Catholic" directory found at www.everythingcatholic.com was put together by the Florida Catholic Newspaper and DotNet International Inc., an Orlando-based, Catholic-owned Web development company. The purpose of this site is to identify and index only authentic Catholic Web sites. You will find links described and arranged under seven main categories with 52 subcategories.

Given the importance of praying the Liturgy of the Hours daily for priests—you will want to visit the Liturgy of the Hours site at www.liturgyhours.org. Here you can download and print morning and evening prayer in postscript format, which is a sophisticated page description language that allows you to make high-quality paper printouts. Sundays and solemnities don't require a password to access but you'll have to register for other days. Still, it's free!

Good News Ministries of Tampa Bay at gnm.org was founded by Terry and Ralph Modica in 1995 as a Catholic lay evangelization training ministry. Here you will find a virtual retreat center and much more. What particularly interests me is the Good News Web Designers Association they host at gnwda.org. This let's you meet other Catholic Webmasters, take online courses in Web-site design and much more. Well worth a visit.

The Patron Saints index at catholic-forum.com/saints/indexsnt.htm is a massive collection of information containing more than 1,000 topics and more than 2,000 saints. Each saint's page offers concise biographical information, cross-indexed links, prayers and images.

Brother John Raymond welcomes
e-mail at john@aplusconsultingnow.com.

He is author of Catholics on the Internet: 2000-2001,
Webmaster of www.monkofadoration.org.