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    Not Just For Kids

    Spies, Hijackers, and Other Technical Difficulties

    School is letting out for the summer and many kids will be looking for something to do at home. Computer games and web surfing can be a cool way to spend a day, but beware of spies, hackers, and hijackers along the way. Iím still trying to recover from such a disaster on my own computer.


    We first became suspicious after we began seeing pop-up ads everywhere, including when we werenít on the web. Even more alarming, my computer was repeatedly dialing up an internet connection all by itself when no one was in the room. We installed a program to find and remove spyware and adware. The software uncovered a surprising amount of stuff on my computer which it was able to eliminate. Unfortunately, a side effect was that my internet, e-mail, and printers stopped working. Throughout the following week we tried to get my computer back up and running, but instead it continued to deteriorate. At this point I turned my focus to saving anything that I could on CDís before the whole system crashed. Meanwhile, since I depend on my computer for a multitude of things, we ordered a new one from Dell.

    Technical Difficulties

    Imagine my surprise when a bunch of Dell boxes arrived a whole week before the estimated ship date! It didnít take long to get the computer unpacked and set up, thanks to the help of my technically-savvy 15-year-old son. I could hardly wait to be able to sit down and enjoy my nice new computer. After being without e-mail for almost two weeks, I had about 600 unread messages! One of these e-mails was a notification of a change in my ISP and e-mail service, which unfortunately created several further complications. To make a long story short, I had to get a new ISP, new e-mail, and new web host as well. Consequently, since everything now was unfamiliar to me Ė including the computer and operating system Ė I had difficulty doing just about everything including configuring settings, logging in, installing programs, uploading files, etc. Another two weeks went by before I could finally breathe a sigh of relief that all was in working order.


    Before I really had a chance to actually start using it, however, my husband was surfing the web and noticed that our super-fast new Dell XPS was acting sluggish and the pages he wanted to visit werenít loading. Upon taking closer notice, he saw that when he typed in any URL, the browser would be redirected to a completely different, unfamiliar address. He also checked the stats and saw that the CPU was steadily running at 50% capacity Ė when no programs were on! This indicated that our computer had been hijacked! Sure enough, someone had forcibly changed the internet settings and installed a small web server on our computer for who-knows-what purpose, making us unable to control our own machine. We were infuriated that this brand new computer, purchased with our hard-earned money, had been converted into a source of revenue for some fly-by-night hacker. The invasive code was embedded so deeply that a system restore didnít get rid of it. So our factory-installed fully-loaded system had to be reformatted and reinstalled by us when our computer was only a few weeks old.

    Hackers (and How to Avoid Them)

    Believe me, once youíve had your computer hacked into, you donít ever want it to happen again! Of course, the only way to stay absolutely safe is to unplug your computer. This is unacceptable for obvious reasons, so the best you can do is try to remain vigilant at all times. Always keep your firewall on, and make sure you have the most up-to-date antivirus and spyware software installed. Keep in mind that filtered internet access screens out inappropriate content, not hidden files or malicious code. Never click on pop-up ads, and donít download anything or install any software unless you know itís from a legitimate source that can be trusted. If there are teenagers in your home, you should be aware that free music, video, and game downloads are a common source of spyware. Donít open e-mail attachments unless youíre expecting one from a particular person. Donít save passwords on your computer. Instead, write them down in a small notebook that you keep nearby. When doing a web search, limit yourself to clicking on major sites (with recognizable domain names) rather than indiscriminately clicking on every link. Consider using Mozillaís Firefox browser, which is supposed to be more secure and impenetrable than Internet Explorer. Hackers donít target Macs as often as PCís, but if you have a PC emulator installed on your Mac you may also get some of the problems associated with PCís. Be sure to enforce regular backup procedures to protect against data loss. It takes a long time to create documents and upload digital photos, but it only takes seconds to lose everything.

    For additional online safety tips in the form of Internet Use Agreements for parents and children, visit These can be printed out and posted above your computer. To look up definitions of computer and internet terms, go to If you want to take a break from your own computer problems, check out one or more of these movies depicting other peopleís technical troubles: Hackers (1995, PG-13), The Net (1995, PG-13), War Games (1983, PG), Tron (1982, PG), Spy Kids 3-D Game Over (2003, PG), Scooby-Doo and the Cyber Chase (2001, G).


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