Keeping Yourself and Your Computer Safe Online

Ok, after receiving the umpteenth e-mail from a visitor to my site revealing info to me they shouldn't (full name, location, ect.), I've decided to put together a page of safety guidelines for browsing the web. Between the e-mails and seeing all the info some give out on dollz sites, I'm seeing a lot of people set themselves up for trouble out there.

Also, please don't think of this as me talking down to you, or trying to be a pseudo-parent. Just sisterly advice. NOBODY is immune to being a victim, and I've (and I'm in my mid-20's) been a victim online more than once myself. I've had my e-mail hacked once by someone on a message board I post on (leading to tons of problems), I've gotten sick messages from people who've seen my photos on my site or on boards I post on, I've had online friends totally turn and reveal a different and not very nice side, ect. Frankly, I need to start following my own advice better myself, lol.

1) Most important rule, above all, is that if someone or something is making you uncomfortable, let your parents or another trusted adult KNOW. If you are scared to tell a parent because you might get in trouble (maybe you were somewhere you shouldn't be or online when you shouldn't have been) find SOMEONE, a teacher, a parent of a friend, you feel comfy confiding in. If you are an adult, don't disregard this advice-- let your S.O. or a friend know what is going on. If someone starts harassing you, documentation is important. Also, if someone won't stop bugging you, often just threatening them with letting someone know or reporting them to their ISP will get them off your case, pronto.

2) People are not always what they seem. Yeah, duh, people pretend to be who they aren't online, we all know that. But I'm talking about cases that aren't so obvious too, that trusting types like myself can fall victim to. Because you've chatted with someone for forever, seen their picture, ect., don't let your guard down. Even if they are who they say, might be a side to 'em you haven't seen-- I've seen this firsthand more than once, I'm afraid. Sometimes Googling (typing into or another search engine) someone's real or screen name, or e-mail addy, will turn up information on them, sometimes not, but it is an option if you have questions about somebody.

3) Careful about giving out any personal information (last name, phone #, location, all the rest) not just in the obvious places-- bulletin boards and chats-- but also via e-mail with people you think you can trust. Obviously I know who I am, but how do visitors to my site that e-mail me know who I am? Also, be careful on sites that seem very kid-friendly and safe... despite the best intentions and precautions of the owners, they can still be feeding grounds for predators.

4) A good idea sometimes to have a "junk" e-mail and IM account to use when posting on boards and registering for sites and such. Not just for safety, but can save you from cluttering your main e-mail account with spam, and can keep pesky (even if harmless) people from bugging you on your main IM account. Too, be careful about screen names you register under-- for example, a handle like "2seXXXy4U" or the like is just asking for problems.

5) Posting photos. Ok, I'll be the first to admit that I readily post my pics on my site and boards-- I love to share travel photos and such. And yes, it HAS caused problems. Be careful about where and with whom you share photos. I've also seen girls post pics on boards get pestered constantly afterwards. Yeah, positive feedback is great and it is nice to put faces to names. But be aware of all that can result. And please don't share someone else's photo w/o letting them know!! Even if you are in the picture too, some folks are very sensitive about not wanting their photo online.

6) Meeting people online in person. This is obviously one of the most dangerous things you can do. And yep, I've done it too, lol... I even met my husband online. But y'know what? I could have gotten myself killed too. I've met people from boards one-on-one, a dangerous prospect even if in public. Big group meetings from message boards are generally safe, but there is sometimes a bad apple in the bunch, and you could be followed afterwards. You never know. If you are going to meet someone from online, NEVER do so alone, make sure EVERYONE knows where you will be. If you are under 18, don't do it w/o your parent/guardian's permission, ever.

7) Also, don't pretend to be who YOU are not. Of course, this can get you into all sorts of trouble (Oh, what tangled webs we weave...). But also, it isn't fair to the people you are dealing with, either. How do you think a normal, 30 year old guy for example would feel if he found out the 28 year old woman he was developing a relationship online with was 13?

8) Don't underestimate the abilities of creeps, even if you don't give out personal info. Some of them are great at hacking and such. I found this one out firsthand too when I had my e-mail account hacked a few years back. One of my roomies in college had a guy she was chatting with hack her computer; did all sorts of stuff like opening and closing her CD drive, ect.

9) Good thing about the Net... if someone is bothering you, if somewhere you are makes you feel uncomfortable, you're just one click away from being outta there. Take advantage of this ability.

10) Myspace-- fun and addictive. And a MASSIVE feeding ground for predators. Careful what you post-- you don't know who is looking.

11) We have gut instincts for a reason. And they are often right. Even if everything on paper seems just fine, if you have that nagging lil' feeling in the pit of your stomach, trust it!!

*Some Important Info on Threats to Your Computer*

Many of you may have already noticed this, but some of the dollz sites and NFL fan sites out there (and obviously MANY other sites, of course) will make changes to your computer without permission and put stuff on it you don't want-- runamok pop-up ads, search bars, changes of home page, ect. This is the result of Spyware and Adware-- Malicious Software (Malware). Annoying at best, and at worst making your computer a very expensive doorstop or boat anchor-- these programs can create real problems and compromise your privacy and security even when they don't ruin your internet experience (not necessarily the fault of the ones running the sites, it is often the free hosts they use, though some running sites do it for extra cash). Anyway, I know I have had my browser hijacked by some of the really nasty ones-- Xupiter, Lycos Sidesearch, SpySheriff, Coolwebsearch, you name it-- on dollz sites, which seem to have a particularly high rate of this stuff. If this happens to you, download Ad-Aware and run it. Should really do so even if you don't have a problem-- run it at least once a week I'd say, and be sure to check for updates. Spybot is good too, and it does seem to catch stuff Ad-Aware misses and is HIGHLY recommended at the SpywareInfo forums, and is free too. And be VERY leery of advertisements for programs that claim to remove spyware programs-- often they are useless, expensive, and contain more damaging stuff themselves. More info here and here. "Spysweeper" and "Giant" both have good anti-malware programs, though they aren't free (though you can try them out for free). If all else fails with a problem, check out the SpywareInfo Forums for more support. Don't try using the search engines to find solutions... most of the time you will get sponsored links for the bad/suspect removal programs. In fact, some of the worst malware out there are programs claiming to be antispyware... SpySheriff is a perfect example of this. Stealth installs, hijacks your system, and creates boatloads of problems. ***New!!*** Check out the free download of Microsoft Windows Defender (AntiSpyware Beta 2), same as Giant, and catches stuff Ad-Aware and Spybot miss. Another good one I found recently is Ewido. The full version is only a 14 day trial, but then it goes to the free version which you can upgrade any time. It catches a LOT!
Spyware/adware =

Some general computer safety tips-

1) NEVER give away personal financial information (account and credit card #'s, passwords, ect.) if you receive an e-mail that claims to be a company-- be it PayPal, eBay, or some bank-- saying they need it for whatever reason. This is known as a Phishing scam; you can learn more about them and report them here.

2) Do not open attachments in e-mails from people you do not know.

3) Beware of other types of scams, such as advance fee fraud and such. You can see examples of lots of types of scams (and read some hilarious stuff) at the counterscam site, Scam o Rama.

4) If a site pops up a box asking if you want to download and install such-and-such, don't ever, unless you are totally sure it is safe.

5) Don't click on the ad banners that say you've won something, to click on the (insert whatever here) or select the right answer to win something, or to click to claim your free such-and-such. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and these sites are likely to put malware on your computer.

6) Also, don't be tricked into downloading those "fun, free cursors" or the software to keep your computer clock accurate, give you tons of new IM smilies, ect.-- good way to get malware on your computer. If they are paying money to advertise something they are giving away, there is a catch, guaranteed.

7) Internet Explorer, the browser many use-- and which is one of the few that seems to support the dollmaker scripts-- is unfortunately full of security holes and vulnerable to attacks by adware and spyware. Try downloading Mozilla Firefox, a great, free browser that is a lot safer. You can import all your favorites and such from IE, and you can of course still use IE for when you want to use any dollmaker sites.

8) *Added 3/26/05* Some of you may have noticed all the dollz sites popping up that seem to be in it only for the money-- I won't name names, but they usually rely mostly or totally on donated content, and have VERY heavy advertising on the pages. Anyways, of course you don't want to click on the ads on them, but also, I noticed one of them requiring you install a program called Zango to access portions of it. BEWARE!!! Zango CLAIMS it is not spyware, but many consider it to be, and it fits the definitions of it. And it is sneaky; it claims you can remove it at any time, but their uninstall tool does not clean it out, spyware removal programs will still catch it. Zango comes from 180solutions, a known malware producer. Here are a few links to check out for info- Link, Another link, And another link. As a rule of thumb, if they are asking you to install a program to access content, be very leery of it.

9) *Added 3/20/08* Figured I'd better add another update, in regards to the cartoon doll and chat program Zwinky, that is being heavily advertised on a number of doll sites and elsewhere. To answer the question, yes, it is malware-- MyWebSearch, to be exact ( Link with some info; a quick Google search will turn up more). Yet another company that is targeting a young audience in order to get their spyware/adware on computers (pretty low, if you ask me). From the research I have done, the most disturbing aspect of Zwinky seems to be the reports of potential predators in the chat.