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Spammers may be using your computer
to send unsolicited — and possibly offensive —
email offers for products and services. Spammers are
using home computers to send bulk emails by the millions.
Indeed, computer security experts estimate that as much
as 30 percent of all spam is relayed by compromised
computers located in home offices and living rooms,
but controlled from afar.
According to the Federal Trade Commission
(FTC), the nation's consumer protection agency, spammers
can compromise your computer in several ways, depending
on what kind of Internet connection you have. All computers
connected to the Internet are potential targets, but
those with broadband connections are especially attractive
to spammers because they are "always on."
Spammers scan the Internet, searching for points of
entry and then install hidden software that allows remote
access to your data and programs. That, in turn, allows
the spammer to send messages from your computer. Remote
access software also can be installed by a virus: A
spammer sends email with a virus in the attachment.
If you open the infected attachment, a virus is released
that installs the hidden software. The person who sent
the virus now can access the data and programs on your
computer, or take over many computers and use them to
It can be very difficult to tell
if a spammer has installed hidden software on your computer,
but there are some warning signs. For example, you may
receive emails accusing you of sending spam; you may
find email messages in your "outbox" that
you didn't send; or your computer is using more power
than it has in the past to run the programs you use.
If your computer has been taken over
by a spammer, you could face serious problems. Your
Internet Service Provider (ISP) may prevent you from
sending any email at all until the virus is treated,
and treatment could be a complicated, time-consuming
To avoid becoming an unwitting culprit,
the FTC encourages you to:
Use anti-virus software and keep it up
to date. You can download anti-virus software
from the Web sites of software companies or buy it
in retail stores. Look for anti-virus software that
recognizes current viruses, as well as older ones;
that can effectively reverse the damage; and that
Be cautious about opening any attachment
or downloading any files from emails you receive.
Don't open an email attachment — even if it
looks like it's from a friend or coworker —
unless you are expecting it or know what it contains.
If you send an email with an attached file, include
a text message explaining what it is.
Use a firewall to protect your computer
from hacking attacks while it is connected to the
Internet. A firewall is software or hardware
designed to block hackers from accessing your computer.
A properly configured firewall makes it tougher for
hackers to locate your computer and get into your
programs and files. A firewall is different from anti-virus
protection: Anti-virus software scans incoming communications
and files for troublesome files; a firewall helps
make you invisible on the Internet and blocks all
communications from unauthorized sources. It's especially
important to run a firewall if you have a broadband
Some recently released operating system software
(including Windows XP) comes with a built-in firewall.
Because it may be shipped in the "off"
mode, check your online "Help" feature
for specifics on turning it on and setting it up
properly. If your operating system doesn't include
a firewall, you can install separate firewall software
that runs in the background while you use your computer
and surf the Internet. Several free firewall software
programs are available on the Internet. (You can
find one by typing "free firewall" into
your favorite search engine.) Or you can buy a hardware
firewall — an external device that includes
firewall software. Like anti-virus software, a firewall
needs to be updated regularly to stay effective.
Check your "sent items" file
or "outgoing" mailbox to see if there are
messages that you did not intend to send.
Many spammers have learned to hide their unauthorized
access, so even if there are no illegitimate messages
in your outbox, you can't be sure that your computer
hasn't been used to send spam.
If your computer is infected, take action
immediately. If your computer has been hacked
or infected by a virus, disconnect from the Internet
right away. Then scan your entire computer with fully
updated anti-virus software. Report unauthorized accesses
to your ISP. Also, if you suspect that any of your
passwords have been compromised, call that site's
company immediately and change your password.
The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive
and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information
to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a
complaint or to get free
information on consumer issues, visit www.ftc.gov
or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The
FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related
Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil
and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.