Randall Elliott

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Electronic Hedges For OnLine Christians

These are some tools and methods I use to lessen the electronic threats inherent to the Internet. If you find anything goofy or unclear, please send suggestions to me at randoid@randoid.com. This is a group effort and I could use the sanity-checks!
Ver 2.6 - 04 Oct 05

Contents:

* Hoaxes
If you're like me (and I know I am) you hate having your time wasted. Chain letters are infuriating! DON'T send them, at least not to me. Most "virus reports" are bogus. Most appeals for money are bogus. So how do you know if something is legitimate? Punch it into http://www.google.com which is likely the best search engine on the net. Whether a hoax / myth or legit, Google will usually find it. Get to know Google. It will save you a lot of time! Also, save the folks downstream from having to search your news item or virus report by referring to a website before you send an email. If you can't find a refernce website, you are probably trying to send something false! As with most media, bent truth is a big problem.

* Spam!
All spam is a pain! As a Sysop (system operators) of registered domain, I get about 100 spams a day. I used to retaliate either via the offender's ISP (internet system provider) and/or through www.spamcop.net. But since the sheer volume is so high, I am resorting to other methods.

* How Did They Find Me?
My daughter had the email address bug@randoid.com. She had spam before she ever used her account! How? "bug" is a common English word and "randoid.com" is a registered domain. SpamBots generate emails to these common combinations to find active users. See http://www.microsoft.com/spyware for details.

* How Can I Stop It?
MailWasher from http://www.mailwasher.net is typical free "shareware" but contributions are encouraged. It inspects your email before your normal email program gets it. If MailWasher deems a specific letter to be Spam, either from a "blacklist", your "include" or "exclude" lists, or a filter entry, it is marked for deletion or "bouncing" which sends a message to the sender saying that *your* email address is bad. That is pretty slick! You can set it to do this automatically or you can manually inspect them to "make sure it is spam." MailWasher and similar programs also hide the pictures so you don't fry your eyes in the process. It works with POP3 programs like Outlook, Outlook Express, Pegasus and Eudora. I use MailWasher Pro from http://www.firetrust.com for $30 which works with Hotmail, MSN, etc. and has expanded functions. MailWasher has some automatic functions, but it still requires the user to make some decisions.

* Other Alternatives
Sign up at http://www.spamarrest.com. For about $3 a month, SpamArrest intercepts your mail and returns a web form to the sender to verify their address. Most spam has a phony return address so the form never gets filled out and you don't get the spam. Not bad! If you have a particular pest, you can set your online account options to KillFile (blacklist) the offending address. Many ISPs have email and content filters available. More on filters later. In lieu of other filter schemes, I suggest this for your kids accounts since it requires no personal intervention from them like MailWasher does.

* More Improvements
Your ISP is stuck with their domain name, but you can change your e-name to a more ambiguous character sequence like 2ks94dk@whatever.com. That stops SpamBots from sniffing you out. Used with SpamArrest or a filtering ISP makes one about as hidden as you can get.

Also, many ISPs are installing email filters their mail server. My ISP uses SpamAssassin which marks potential spam with [SPAM] in the subject line. I have a filter in MailWasher that picks out the [SPAM] label and nukes the email. Ask your ISP if they have this. AOL, MSN and others are coming on board.

* Web Content Filtering
A quick side trip of experimentation can corrupt what God has intended for our children and us. That trip may take months to years to undo the damage and to forget the images that were burned into the back of the brain. MeadowSprings uses a filtered ISP called http://www.sterling.net which is also used by several friends who find it exceptionally good! I've heard that http://www.integrityonline.com has improved since I used them in 1997. http://www.safebrowse.com is another option. http://www.Christian-Net.com drops off a filter client in your computer that "phones home" when browsing to see if the site is safe.

Filtering ISPs may not work well when researching controversial subjects. However, you can use a filter program like NetNanny, CyberSitter, SurfWatch and CyberPatrol. McAfee and others have filter programs, too. Filtering ISPs and filter programs are often intentionally broad and will exclude sites and newsgroups concerning pregnancy, abortion, child abuse, and other adult, violent or controversial content. Filter programs can be shut off or overridden for such researching, but filtering ISPs cannot.

Regardless of filtering ISP versus filter program, do you need protection? Do you have young kids online? Then pick a filter scheme. Learn it. Live it. Love it.

Keep in mind that filtering is not a cure-all for completely unsupervised Internet use! There is no replacement for good parenting! Kids are clever and so are their friends. Work-arounds are available, especially if your "parental password" is easy to guess or to read over your shoulder. However, you can snoop their "history" and "cache" files to see where they have been going and when. If you find them deleted, you should get suspicious! One common tactic is to connect one computer to the Internet in the Living Room so you can look over their shoulder. Another is to limit your kids connection time to 45 minutes a day. Just unplug the line. They may whine about no IM, et cetera, but that is better than watching them get sucked into the virtual existance that the Internet offers from too much time in front of the monitor. Same with TV, of course, but I'll save that rant for a different page.

* MySpace
MySpace is one of several sites that offer a world of it's own including your own webpage, email, IM, chat, special interest groups, and more. Age is not verified so anyone can get an account. It is a place to meet friends and to find new friends. It is also a haunt of predators and other unsavory people, just like the rest of the web. Some use it as a link to their porno sites.

I am presently in discussions with other on-line Christians to decide the best policy for this, but the basic rule is the same as above: limit their time, check their history. There is no replacement for good parenting!

If you decide to let your kids on MySpace or something like it, keep in mind the risks are the same as Chat Rooms. Read on...

* Chat rooms
Children, especially teens, love to camp there. They need to know what types they can visit, and what is allowable information to put out. And above all, don't believe anything that is typed in there. I know of no electronic monitoring programs, but I'm researching this since my daughter IMs with her friends regularly. Parents should monitor activity, and check log files on a regular basis if a child is heavily engaged in this type of behavior. Make sure your children understand to not divulge any personal information, even if it is to a friend. Other eyes may be "lurking".

Predators often use Chat Rooms and places like MySpace to contact potential victims. Your kids need to know how to handle these creeps! These are today''s version of the guys who used to hang out by the school yard fence in years past. This is one reason why personal information should NEVER be divulged! Tell your kids to use nick-name "handles" instead of their real names. There is more to add here, but the point is:
Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be suckers!

* Spyware
Kazaa, RealAudio and other programs (including some shareware) have had "adware" and "spyware" included that you may have already unwittingly installed on your 'puter! These programs occasionally "phone home" thru the 'net to drop off your personal information to their parent company. The companies, in turn, chart your websurfing and/or put your email on mailing lists that they sell. How sweet. Besides a breach of privacy, spyware and adware can often be bandwidth hogs! Worse is the identity theft risk.

There are various "SpyBot" programs that find adware and spyware and oust these freeloaders. I use SpyBot - Search & Destroy from http://security.kolla.de/ along with Ad-Aware from http://www.lavasoft.de. Both are quite good.

* Divulging Personal Information
Regardless of Spyware and Adware, we sometimes give away personal informations without thinking about it. Dumb - dumb - dumb! Businesses with YOUR personal information get cracked from employees inside to hackers outside intent on "identity theft". Don't be gullible! Don't give them your personal information. Don't sign up for anything with your email, phone numbers and address unless you absolutely must! Many "warrantee registration" forms, stupid "Preferred Customer Cards" from Albertsons, Safeway, Haggen, et cetera are just marketing surveys. Do you know what they do with your personal information? Do they sell it? I've asked several folks at several stores if they know. Even they have no idea! So... why invite harassment at dinnertime, more spam, and another load of junk mail? Worse, why risk identity theft?

Hmmm... Am I a bit paranoid? Yup! The Internet is an electronic "frontier" like the Old West where law-abiding is NOT a given.

* E-commerce
NEVER use your DEBIT card on-line! Most CREDIT cards are protected by the issuing bank so you are usually stuck with $50 to $200 if your card number is stolen. However, most DEBIT cards are NOT protected and someone with your number can clean your checking account out! If you have overdraft protection, they could get that, too. Check your bank to see what their coverage is. Regardless, the short answer is: use your credit card.

Since on-line vendors get your email address which can be spammed, you can use a throwaway email address from Juno, etc. for on-line purchases. You can put it on your whitelist (include list) until you've completed the transaction, then delete the email account when you are done.

* PopUps & Mousetraps
One of the biggest pains is clicking on a link, either from an email or a website, and getting sent off to a site that pops up another site, then another and another, et cetera. You close one PopUp and another appears over and over. This is called a "mousetrap", and porno sites are the biggest offenders. The free Google Toolbar at http://www.google.com is one of several pop-up blockers now available.
I also use "Pop-Up Stopper" from http://www.panicware.com which has a free trial download. As the site says:
    "Currently, the $30 utility blocks pop-ups and -unders in all of the browsers, plus AOL, MSN, Opera, Yahoo SBC, and WMConnect. The program also enhances privacy and fights identity theft by letting Web surfers clean their cache, cookie, and history files."

* Pornography
That last feature can keep you from getting canned or jailed! Clicking on an innocent-looking link can send you into a realm you REALLY don't want to go! Leftover porno site files (especially kiddy porn) are vile stuff and legally implicating whether you are intentionally guilty or not. Erasing it from your cache, cookie, and history files is usually enough to keep your job (and maybe your reputation and freedom) if you get snooped by your IT/IS (Information Technology / Information Services) staff at work. And yes, the IT/IS boys really do snoop your computer in many companies. It keeps "sexual harassment" complaints to a minimum and gives them "plausible deniability" in case the company is sued.

* Virus Vulnerability
Windows is a mass of useful programs stuffed in a leaky box! Virii are getting more and more clever, too! Bill Gates and company finally took this seriously only a few years ago. They regularly issue Security Updates for Windows 98 and newer and for Office programs, Internet Explorer, etc. If you have Internet Explorer, click on the toolbar under "Tools" then "Windows Update" to check how current you are. Using other browsers, go to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com. If the update site offers you a thing called "Windows Automatic Update", install it! It will check regularly for updates so you don't have to remember.

However, Windows 95 is obsolete, unsupported and may be very vulnerable! If you have high-speed internet access, I suggest replacing it with Windows XP, 2000, or at least 98SE (second edition). Avoid Windows ME since it is buggy on many machines. You don't want to blow about $100 and find out if yours is one of them. Ask me how I know this. Go ahead, ask.

* High-Speed Internet
DSL and Cable are vulnerable due to the speed and "always on". Bad stuff happens as fast as the good stuff. Get your OS updated or upgraded quickly. Get a firewall and virus checker next. And shut your computer off when you are not using it for longer than a few hours. A worm virus cannot infect your computer if it is off. If your 'puter is infected unaware by a Bot (robot program), it cannot misuse your computer to attack other computers if it is off. Most monitors less than 6 years old can stay powered up and will go into Sleep Mode which saves power and the screen. And don't worry about frying something by turning the computer on and off. Your computer is no more susceptible to power-on damage than your TV or stereo.

* Virus Protection
ZoneAlarm from http://www.zonelabs.com has the best firewall short of turning your computer off. Plus, it's FREE! You have to configure it properly, but the auto-configure feature is pretty good. As for virus protection programs, the major ones are virtually the same. You must actually *buy* one to keep it updated with the current engine and pattern files or it will not stop the latest virii. I use PCcillin from http://www.trendmicro.com because it is cheap and good. Make sure it is set up to handle your email properly.

Note: AntiVirus software firms are trying to get into the firewall market and vise-versa. Some are practicing hostile marketing by excluding other vendors software. Presently, ZoneLabs and TrendMicro seem to have fixed their compatibility problems.
Regardless, USE ONLY ONE FIREWALL!

* Virii from friends?
Newer types of virii are clever enough to send themselves from an infected computer to people on that computer's address book, and without the owner's knowledge! Imagine receiving an email from a friend that says "This is funny! Install and run this program!" or something like that. You might even get an official-looking screen like this:
Did you READ THE FINE PRINT saying this might contain "malicious code"? The basic rule is: Unless you are expecting it, DON'T open an attached file if it has an extension of .exe, .pif, .bat, cmd, .scr or .zip. It is probably a virus! If there is a .zip attached with the unlock password sent with it, it is DEFINITELY a virus! Think about it. Why would you send a lock with a key in it? Hmmm...

WHAT? You already clicked on it? OK, don't panic ...yet. Norton's on-line virus checker is at http://securityresponse.symantec.com and click on Free Online Virus and Security Check. Or http://us.mcafee.com/root/mfs/default.asp if you like McAfee better. Or go to http://housecall.trendmicro.com if you like PCcillin instead. Some get updated sooner than others so you might want to try all three. Some infections require a "cleaner" program that needs to be downloaded and run. Just follow the directions that are given by the program. If you get confused, ask your friendly neighborhood geek to help. But get your computer scanned by one of these services BEFORE you do anything else! Do it now for practice.

* Security Warnings
Do you occasionally get a pop-up "casino" or porno ad out of nowhere? You probably clicked Yes on some window like the one below. Many websites offer ones like this:
This official-looking panel usually offers character sets for viewing sites in Chinese, etc. However, READ THE FINE PRINT! The "much more!" is often intrusive adware/spyware that is really a pain to flush out of your system if you install it. While some offer toolbars and such, some don't say what the program is or does! Do you trust "Bogus, Corp" that the content is safe? Do you even know "Bogus, Corp"? D'oh! The short answer: If it looks like a scam, it is 95% of the time.

* Blessings
The web is like the gigantic Powell's Bookstore in Portland only even far more gargantuan! It's got almost every book you could think of. It can even have *your* books if you have a webpage. It has cranky salespeople, brilliant authors, shoplifters, chefs, identity thieves, kids, fellow customers, pastors, snake oil vendors, scrupulous (and un-) businesspeople, dope dealers, sex offenders, terrorists, and of course, you. Remember, this is the world at it's best and worst. We Christians are "in the world but not of the world" here on the net as much as anywhere else. Stay clean, stay safe, have fun, but beware of the dark side.

Maranatha!

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The information herein is provided for discussion, not advice. Click here for Disclaimer