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Practice safe Internet, use anti-virus software

There is a special place in hell for people who create computer viruses. That was all I could think about as I sat staring at the now-frozen screen of my computer. That and whether my literature professor would believe that my paper had just been eaten by the technological version of the swine flu.

Computers are undoubtedly an asset – even a necessity – to college life. But as most students will tell you, there is a downside to our wonderful dependence on technology: It leaves us vulnerable to the threat of computer viruses. One click on an infected link or web page, and the entire system could collapse, taking your files, your photos and your grade-point average with it.

Professors assume that college students have 24-hour access to a personal computer and check their e-mail and spark accounts every half hour. We receive homework online, submit papers online, register for classes online. I once had a professor who would send out an email half an hour before an 8 a.m. class to tell us that the location of the class had changed. He never could understand why no one showed up.

One thing is clear: When it comes to computers, abstinence is not an option. The best thing students can do is be aware of the risks and how to protect themselves from malicious software programs. While anti-virus protection may not be hanging in a manila envelope on your Resident Assistant’s door, it is available at your local Best Buy and University of Massachusetts Office of Information Technology services.

“Most schools provide virus protection automatically when you hook up to their network,” says Best Buy geek squad agent Kris Arnhold. “If you go to UMass, its McAfee anti-virus software. McAfee runs seven to nine programs in the background, firewall, spyware anti-virus.”

UMass’ OIT does provide free McAfee antivirus software, which may be downloaded and installed off its website. OIT also offers a $3 antivirus CD that includes additional malware removal software.

Free anti-virus protection for everyone? Sounds great, right? But there’s a problem.

“About half the time, McAfee doesn’t seem to work,” says Kris Arnhold. “It’s the most commonly used anti-virus protection, not just by universities but by Comcast, Charter, etc. Most viruses these days are designed to bypass McAfee, just because it’s so available.

“About 80 percent of the time, when someone comes in with an infected computer it uses McAfee anti-virus,” he added

According to Christopher Misra, a network analyst at UMass’ OIT, McAfee was selected as part of a competitive bid process several years ago. According to Misra, “We review the product annually to ensure that it meets our needs before renewing the contract.”

The free anti-virus protection offered by OIT has the potential to be a terrific resource for UMass students. But why choose anti-virus software that is, according to the Best Buy geek squad, only effective 50 percent of the time? That would be like the RA’s passing out condoms that have a 50 percent chance of breaking. Would you take that risk?

“Students are free to use the anti-virus software of their choice.” Misra says. “We provide the McAfee products to faculty and students at no charge to give them another option.”

There are alternatives to the McAfee Anti-virus offered by UMass’ OIT. They just aren’t free.

“Kaspersky Anti-virus is by far one of the best programs out there,” Geek Squad Supervisor Jamey Smith says. “Trend Micro is very good too. Norton is decent.”

Kaspersky Anti-virus is available at Best Buy in Hadley. It costs $60 a year to cover three computers, and $30 without firewall. Even with the best anti-virus protection, your computer is still at some risk of infection by malware or spyware.   

Programs to look out for are Winantivirus 2009 or 2010, Personal Antivirus 2009 and Cyber Security. These are viruses that disguise themselves as anti-virus security. They pop up telling you that your computer is infected and that you must download their anti-virus software in order to prevent a system crash or identity theft. In reality, the computer isn’t infected at all – until you download the false anti-virus software. If you ignore the pop-up, your computer should be fine.

“Winantivirus is the most common. Its everywhere – you can get it from facebook, porn sites, really any site off the internet,” Arnhold says. “Facebook and Myspace – the actual sites are fine, but some of the ads on the side can have viruses bundled in.”

Once it’s infected, however, that’s bad news. Repairing your computer and installing anti-virus software can cost nearly as much as a new laptop. “It can be up to $200 to repair it [at Best Buy]. More for installing antivirus protection,” Smith says.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends installing at minimum an anti-virus program, an anti-spyware program and a firewall to provide a baseline protection for your computer. More information about spyware risks and prevention can be found on the FTC webpage, Ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/spyware/consumer.htm.

Take if from someone who didn’t know the risks and got screwed: Use protection. Lots and lots of protection.

Rachel Dougherty is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at rdougher@student.umass.edu.

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