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Dated: Aug. 13, 2004
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Learn The Truly Obnoxious Things About The Internet (And How To Solve Them)
The Internet is annoying. At its worst, connecting to the 'Net is like inviting strangers into your house to trample all over your carpet, poke at your dog with sticks, and drink all the beer in your fridge. Opening your world to global communication means not just connecting with friends, but also becoming the target of boors, criminals, unscrupulous salespeople, and losers with too much time on their hands.
As an extreme example, we know someone who, in a bizarre case involving email forgery and mistaken identity, was cyber-stalked by a band of Jethro Tull fans and ended up having to change his phone number. That's not likely to happen to most people, but plenty of Internet users have been bombarded by spam, infected by viruses, seduced by spyware, plagued by pop-up ads, or cut off in the middle of a heart-wrenching email message to a loved one.
Each of these annoyances has solutions. You may have to change your Internet habits or buy new software, but they are usually worth it to help make the 'Net a much less obnoxious place.
Spam: Internet Enemy No. 1
If you think you've been getting more spam recently, you're right. According to former antispam company Brightmail (http://www.brightinail.com), which processed 55 billion messages in March 2003, the level of "Make Money Fast!" and "Naked Girls XXX" email messages has boomed to never-before-seen levels.
"We're definitely predicting that by the end of the year, more than 50% of all email will be spam," says Brightmail CEO Enrique Salem. "At some point spam, renders email useless."
The most offensive spam, of course, is porn spam-especially when it ends up in children's mailboxes. But finding the spammers can be nearly impossible, as the most explicit solicitations are sent out by fly-by-night, mom-and-pop Web site operations and foreign companies(especially firms in Russia), often using hijacked mail servers or other ways to cover their tracks.
At press time, 30 states had enacted some spam-regulation legislation (see Spam laws.com at http://www.spamlaws.com), and Washington is finally getting angry. In April, senators Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) reintroduced a bill to make it a federal crime to send spam with a false address. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (U-Calif.) has another bill requiring spammers to tag their messages in the subject line, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) promised a third bill to create a national "do not email" list.
In early May, the FTC and state law enforcement officials announced 45 legal cases they'd opened against spammers, and with EarthLink's help, the state of New York charged the alleged "Buffalo Spammer," who had sent more than 825 million email messages, with identity theft and forgery.
But legislative remedies can only go so far. U.S. laws don't affect foreign spammers, and criminal spammers don't care much about the lawanyway. So the antispam software business is also booming; programs both ISPs (Internet serviceproviders) and individual computers run detect spam by detecting telltale words, phrases, or patterns.
The spam world is a lot like the virus world; as antispam software gets more effective, spammers come up with new strategies to avoid the filters. Spammers' latest tactic, according to Salem, is to embed invisible HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) codes between the words of their messages or turn pans of their message text into graphics; both tactics help them evade pattern-matching filters which rely on being able to read the text of a message to zap it. "These techniques weren't being used six months ago," Salem says.
Slam That Spam
Spam may seem unstoppable, but there are ways to prevent your inbox from ever again being exposed to what the FTC (Federal Trade Com-mission) tactfully refers to as "organ enlargement' solicitations.
Complain, Three Ways - Lawmakers are responding to a wave of popular anger, and to keep them fighting spam, you have to keep their feet to the fire. Email your senators and representatives encouraging them to vote for the Schumer, Lofgren, and Burns-Wyden antispam laws. Then forward spam both to the FTC at email@example.com and to your ISP's abuse department, which is usually at firstname.lastname@example.org. For instance, EarthLink's abuse department is email@example.com. Use your mailer's forward command and don't delete any of the spam message; the good guys need all the header info to find the perpetrators.
Use a Spam Address - Keep your regular email address only for family and friends. Use a separate account (another screen name on AOL or a free account at Yahoo! or Hotmail) to fill out forms, post on discussion boards, and slap up onto Web pages. The spam address will get all the spam.
Obscure Your Name - If you have to put your email address on the 'Net, a report from the Center For Democracy & Technology (http://www.cdt.org) found that obscuring it helps. For instance, if your address is firstname.lastname@example.org, put on your page that it's "joe at a-o-l dot com" or even "xyzjoel23@Yaol.com without the xyz or the 123." It's a little bit of a puzzle, but it stumps the automatic address-harvesters spammers use to find you.
Use An Obscure Name - A common spam tactic, the dictionary attack, randomly emails common names and short combinations of letters, so using a complex email address, such as Redjoe30@aol.com, is better than just plain email@example.com.
Use An Antispam ISP - Many ISPs nowadays claim to filter spam, although some are better than others. When we compared AOL 8.0 to MSN 8, for instance, we found AOL received far more spam. The current gold standard of ISP antispam products is Brightmail, which AT&T WorldNet, EarthLink, MSN, Verizon DSL, and some smaller providers use.
Get A Desktop Antispam Solution - Even the best ISP still misses some spam. For your PC, we recommend McAfee's SpamKiller ($22.00).
Hey, That's Not 56K
Your modem says 56Kbps (kilobits per second) on it, right? You think that means it'll connect to the Internet and transfer data at 57,600 bits per second? Wrong!
"You'll never get a 56K connection on a dial-up connection. It just doesn't happen," says Rob Lancaster, Internet analyst at research firm The Yankee Group. "You're going to get 50Kbps, tops, depending on your Location."
It's actually impossible to get a 56Kbps connection (even if your computer claims it's happening), because the FCC restricts the voltage on phone lines so that only 53Kbps speeds are possible. And even if you're able to connect at 53Kbps, dial-up modems only receive information at 53Kbps, and you'll be sending data to the Internet at no more than 48Kbps.
If your connection is slow, don't blame your ISP. The problem is almost always in your phone line or in some piece of old, decaying phone company equipment, says Tom Pryzgoda, director of global marketing of modem manufacturer US Robotics.
"There are areas where they have equipment that's old, where the telecoms haven't been spending, and some people will never connect above 26.4Kbps," he says. "It's not the ISP; it's the phone line."
There are ways to speed things up even if you're connected at 26.4Kbps, though. Several ISPs have started to sell accelerated dial-up products, which compress text files and sometimes degrade graphics before they're sent to you, to speed up the appearance of Web pages. They don't speed up email messages, but that's probably fast enough already, they don't speed up streaming video or file downloads, but that's technically difficult if not impossible.
"When you go to a page that is predominantly text, it'll be the fastest," says Mark Goldstein, CEO of United Online, which runs the Juno and NetZero ISPs. "Whenever you're using a graphic, you won't see as much of a speed increase. But we're going to speed up your dial-up experience no matter what."
On the other hand, if you find yourself suddenly knocked offline in the middle of reading a long email message, there's usually something you can do about it. To make maximum use of their phone lines, ISPs often boot off anyone who hasn't exchanged data within the past 10 to 15 minutes. You can fool your ISP into keeping your connection alive with some simple software tricks.
If those tricks don't help, once again, your phone line's probably to blame. And phone companies are often less than enthusiastic about upgrading ancient copper cables to squeeze out a few more bits per second.
"In a lot of cases the phone company doesn't try to fix your analog line. They'll try to sell you DSL(Digital Subscriber Line) instead," Pryzgoda says.
Cure Connection Catastrophes
Whether you're getting cut off or just not getting the speed you deserve, there are several ways to make your Internet access speedier and more reliable.
Keep It Alive - If getting cut off is your bane, set your email program to get mail every three minutes; that should prevent your ISP from thinking you've stepped away. Or use Gammadyne Software's freeware Connection Keeper (http://www.gammadyne.com/conkeep.htm) to keep your link alive.
Check The Lines - Switch to a different dial-up number, in case there's a problem on one of your ISP's lines. Then call your phone company and see if there's a problem on your line.
Optimize - There are various system settings you can change to speed up a dial-up connection. Or get a connection-optimizing program, such as High Mountain Software's iSpeed ($10.95 with 21-day free trial; http://www.hms.com).
Go External - If you're using an older computer with a so called win-modem, a built-in, software based modem, you may get better speeds if you buy an external modem. Win-modems are dependent on your computer's processing power, so if the computer is working too hard or memory is too full, you won't get great performance.
Accelerate - If most of your Internet use is Web surfing (as opposed to, say, downloading music) then a dial-up accelerator might help. Juno, NetZero, and EarthLink all offer accelerated services. If you have another ISP (including content provider AOL), you can use Propel Accelerator (http://www.propel.com).
Get Broadband - The only way to guarantee a fast, easy connection, all the time, is to switch to cable or DSL. As broadband providers like to remind you, high-speed access doesn't cost much more than a second phone line plus an Internet service, and it really does transform your 'Net experience into something much more pleasant.
Spyware: A Growing Threat
It may call itself a "browser helper" and fill your screen with ads or pump your Favorites list full of porn. Or it may quietly sit in the background, sending information about your surfing habits to advertisers without your permission.
Spyware and browser hijackers are a growing problem on the Internet. These programs either automatically install themselves when you visit a Web site or piggyback on the installer of an existing program (such as popular file-sharing application Kazaa). Beyond imperiling your privacy, they can damage the stability of your PC, and they're often very difficult to remove.
"We have some anecdotal information that as many as 40% to 50% of the people who call into our tech support have some sort of spy- ware on their machines," says Jim Anderson of EarthLink.
Most of the spyware average Internet users run into exists to spread advertising. Programs, such as Gator and Cydoor, track your browsing habits, serving up ads to fit your preferences, and share the profits with free software vendors who let adware piggyback on their installers. Gator and Cydoor are annoying, but not necessarily harmful.
"Advertising spyware and adware spread with popular file sharing programs such as Kazaa, Imesh, and Grokster. As more people install these programs, they also install the spyware that pays for them," says Mike Healan, a spyware tracker.
Browser hijackers, on the other hand, are noxious. Sites such as Lop.com and Xupiter.com install toolbars, add Favorites, and change your home page, often without your permission. New .Net and WebHancer integrate themselves into your network settings, making them difficult to remove and potentially crashing your browser or your computer, according toHealan. "Lop.com will hijack your browser, and you'll end up with casino and porn links on your Desktop and in your Favorites. It's pretty nasty," says Michael Wood of antispyware firm Lavasoft.
The makers of Lop.com, C2 Media, claim that its software is always installed voluntarily. Every spyware expert we spoke to says that's not the case, and that on systems with low security settings, Lop.com simply walks in and takes over.
Then there are porn dialers, another kind of hijacker. If you get an email message or see a site that advertises "free porn" if you run a "viewer" or "dialer program," stay away. The viewer program will disconnect your dial-up line and try to reconnect to a service provider overseas, charging as much as $5 a minute to your phone bill. This is an old trick (we saw it back in 1999), but it's still going strong.
Keeping your Internet security settings high is the key to avoiding and disabling spyware. For now, ISPs don't provide antispyware tools, although EarthLink plans to introduce one later this year. Until then, here are some tips:
Shields Up - Change your Internet security settings so nothing gets installed without your knowledge. Go to Internet Options (click Start, Settings, and Control Panel). Double-click Internet Options, click the Security tab, and click the Custom Level button under Custom. On the long list of options, change everything possible to Prompt or High Safety. That way, when Web sites try to activate programs, your computer will always ask you first. Refuse requests from sites you don't know and trust.
Wall It Off - Spyware tries to secretly talk to the Internet, so a personal firewall can help identify and foil malicious software. There are plenty of free firewall programs out there; in the past, we've recommended the free Zone Labs ZoneAlarm (http://www.zonelabs.com).
Eliminate Explorer - Mozilla and Netscape are more resistant to browser hijackers and "helpful" toolbars. "Lop.com can infect Mozilla/Netscape, but only if you choose to run a downloaded installer," Healan says.
Disinfect and Destroy - Several freeware applications can rid your PC of spyware and browser hijackers. Healan recommends the free Spybot Search & Destroy (http://security.kolla.de). Another well-respected product is Lavasoft's Ad-aware (http://www.lavasoft.com/software/adaware), also free. Run these programs frequently to keep bad guys at bay.
The Eternal Struggle
Helen Butler, an Internet user in Randolph, Mass., was plagued. After opening an attachment in an email message she thought was from a friend, she started getting a slew of ecards from Blue Mountain, as many as 50 a day.
"This was one of the most frustrating experiences I have encountered. The Blue Screen of Death and system crashes are all minor annoyances compared to this," Butler says.
Butler was blasted by the Blue Mountain worm (W32.HLLW.Cult.C@mm) an irritating bug that masquerades as an ecard from popularand innocent site BlueMountain.com, but gives hackers free access to your computer once it's been launched.
Blue Mountain is part of the new trend in worm/viruses called blended threats. Blended threats combine aspects of viruses and hacker attacks to drill into your computer, often providing a back door for malicious programmers to hijack your system or steal your data.
"What used to be called a virus several years ago is now a virus and then some," says Timo Kissel of antivirus firm Symantec.
Recent wars and global crises have also led to a rise in politically motivated viruses, says Chris Beltoff of antivirus firm Sophos. Spats between India and Pakistan and the ongoing Israeli and Palestinian conflict have led virus writers to join the fray, he says, and your computer may end up as collateral damage.
"I think that people are very disgruntled about some political or religious issue are going to be heard through the use of malicious code," says Beltoff.
Fortunately, even blended threats fail before the might of a good antivirus program. Although it's always best to head off viruses before they attack, Butler successfully killed off the bug and hasn't had a relapse since. "I submitted this information to McAfee, my antivirus program, and within a few days I received a pop-up notification on my PC that the worm was detected and deleted and I have had no problems since," Butler says.
The best cure for a virus is not to get one. With that in mind, here are some tips for avoiding and curing what the experts call "malware": malicious, infectious software.
Don't Open Those Attachments - The top method for malware to spread itself is still email. Elf bowling, screen savers, online greeting cards . . . folks, if you didn't actually ask for it, don't open it. Send an email message to the person who sent the attachment to you and find out if it's OK. Remember, worms can fake your friends' email addresses.
Ratchet Up Security - To prevent Web sites from infecting your computer, go to your Control Panel. Go to Internet Options (click Start, Settings, and Control Panel). Double-click Internet Options, click the Security tab, and click the Custom Level button under Custom. On the long list of options, change everything possible to Prompt or High Safety except for*Active Scripting*, which should remain set to Enable. (So many Web pages use scripting that to disable it would make it difficult to surf.) That way, when Web sites try to activate programs, your computer will generally ask you first. Refuse requests from sites you don't trust.
Get Antivirus Software - TechiWarehouse recommends any of the leading commercial antivirus programs, such as Norton Internet Security ($14.95) or McAfee VirusScan ($8.88). It's critically important to keep your antivirus software updated, so the now-expired trial version that came with your computer just won't do.
Pop-Ups: Saving Your Eyeballs
In the battle between Web surfers' eyeballs and advertisers' determination, one of the most annoying weapons is the pop-up ad. For the past few years, advertisers have been forcing their messages in front of your window of choice, with dubious results.
At one point in 2001, pop-up king X10, which sells mini video cameras (http://www.x10.com, but don't encourage them by going there), was the fifth most viewed site on the Internet, according to research firm Jupiter MediaMetrix. X10 doesn't release its finances to the public, but anecdotally, TechiWarehouse couldn't find anyone who had actually bought anything from Xl0. The figures likely include numerous inadvertent visits as a result of clicking the ubiquitous pop-up ads.
"When we do surveys of people to find out what the most annoying things on the Internet are, pop-ups actually come out pretty high," said Tom Powledge of Symantec.
The most annoying form of pop-up ad is the mousetrap. Pioneered by porn sites, mousetraps open new windows when you try to close ads. Eventually, you have to quit your browser.
A close second in annoyance are those pop-up ads that appear to be system messages; they're just sleazy and spread fear. Any messagecontaining the word "optimize" that pops up while you're surfing is an ad, as are those "browser checkers" that claim you have security flaws in your system. Don't click the ads; click the X in the upper-right corner to close.
Along with pop-up ads go pop-under ads. Supposedly less annoying than pop-up ads, these windows appear under your main browser window, so they don't interrupt your browsing. But they do clutter your Taskbar with dozens of meaningless Internet Explorer windows, making it tough to find the right window when you have minimized Explorer.
Pop-up ads have been steadily increasing as a percentage of all Internet advertising, according to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings. By the first quarter of 2003, pop-up ads made up 4.8% of all Internet ads, up from only 1.8% a year previously. (The online ad market is still dominated by banner ads. And important for our returning visitors is to note is that TechiWarehouse is working onto eliminating pop-up ads on our site totally.)
But browser manufacturers and software companies are on top of the pop-up ad problem. Internet Explorer may dominate the browser world, but other browsers, such as Mozilla, Opera, and Apple's Safari, have responded to consumers' calls by making it simple to cancel pop-up ads. All three browsers detect attempts to open windows without a user's request and simply stop them.
"Our users really wanted the ability to control pop-up ad blocking," said Kurt Knight, Internet product manager at Apple. "This was one of the things we really wanted in our browser."
Once You Pop, You Can Stop
Pop-ups can be occasionally informative (Orbitz's pop-ups often show great air fares), but they're usually pretty annoying. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to disable invasive ads.
Don't Encourage Them - If you dislike pop-up ads, don't click them. That'll send the message to advertisers that pop-up ads aren't an effective form of getting their messages out.
Get A Pop-Up Stopper - IE partisans can buy separate pop-up blocker programs to smooth their surfing experiences. Comprehensive Internet security programs, including Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm Pro ($39.88) and Symantec's Norton Internet Security ($14.95), block pop-up ads, but if you want the ad-blocking features but don't want those programs' antivirus and personal firewall functions, we have previously tested and recommended Alexa's latest browser toolbar (http://www.alexa.com). ISP EarthLink also provides a free pop-up ad blocker to all of its subscribers.
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