Q. What do I need to do to be safe before I start preparing tax returns on my computer? — Amanda
The Federal Trade Commission estimates that nearly 10 million U.S. consumers annually are victims of identity theft, and it’s no secret that computers and the Internet play a prominent role.
Malicious computer activity for the longest time has been blamed on young, misguided computer nerds who were out of touch with the real world. The reality is that very sophisticated crime rings have gotten Internet savvy, so that they can take advantage of the millions of unsuspecting users who traverse the Internet every day.
Organized crime from around the world is constantly looking for ways to sneak into your computer, often with the intent of capturing your personal information through silent running “keyloggers” or back doors that allow complete access to everything on your computer.
Keystroke logging (often called keylogging) was developed as a diagnostic tool most commonly used in the design of software and hardware products. It can help developers debug code and improve the user experience by understanding exactly what was typed and when. And just like every computer tool that has ever been developed for productive reasons, there is always someone looking to exploit the tool for malicious reasons.
Malicious programs can be hidden inside other programs or make their way into an unprotected computer by simply visiting a rogue Web site. Once one of these hidden programs is installed into your system, it can silently record every keystroke made and send it to a remote computer anywhere in the world or provide a remote user complete access to all your files.
Software keyloggers and Trojans can be transmitted via e-mail file attachments, instant messaging or self-replicating worms or hidden within the pages of a malicious Web site.
Thankfully, most anti-virus and anti-spyware programs today are capable of searching for currently known exploits and removing them, but only if they are constantly updated.
If you’re one of the 22 million households that will prepare your taxes on your personal computer, you should take the time to make sure your system is “clean” and properly protected before getting started.
The quickest way to see if you should be concerned is by checking the number of processes running on your Windows-based computer. After a fresh reboot and with no programs running, launch the Task Manager by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Del. In the bottom left hand corner of the Windows Task Manager window look for the word “Processes.”
A well optimized and clean system will generally have no more than 35 to 40 processes running. The higher this number is, the more unnecessary processes you have running in your system, which could be an indicator that you have spyware or other undesirable software running in the background of your computer.
While a high number of processes is not necessarily an indication that you have a keylogger installed, it’s never a good idea to have unneeded processes running, especially since the bad guys are really good at hiding from you.
Make sure you have all of the latest security updates, and do a complete scan of your entire computer with both your anti-virus and anti-spyware programs. These procedures will take hours to run, but it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your identity!