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Going Online? Wear Your Galoshes

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; 7:55 AM

I was tooling around the Internet on my mother's computer several weeks ago when a comic strip-style bubble popped up on the screen. It said something like, "Your anti-virus settings may be out of date. Click here to update."

Fair enough. I clicked, and the Internet Explorer browser window opened the Web site of the anti-virus company in question. Facing me was a laundry list of lengthy hyperlinks, miniscule text brimming with computer jargon and at least a dozen possible areas that could have contained the updates I was looking for. Heck, maybe it was all of them.

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I never found out.

Instead, I closed the window and surfed over to Amazon.com to buy a compact disc. I even used my credit card number, knowing full well that the computer could be hosting multiple programs giving hackers and identity thieves a front-row seat to my transaction.

When Mom came home from work, I said, "You might want to update your anti-virus definitions and scan your system for infections."

She looked at me with the blank stare of the computer illiterate. I forged ahead. "You know that cartoon bubble?"

"Oh yeah. That comes up all the time," she said.

There we were, portraits of the average Internet user.

It's an inescapable reality that millions upon millions of Americans have fast, powerful Internet connections, and most of them are just like me and my mom. They are intelligent, perceptive people who know that carelessness breeds consequences, but somehow these street smarts aren't carried over to computer security.

Many Americans, after all, had to conquer some serious technophobia before venturing onto the Internet. Today, they send e-mail, know how to attach files to it and use terms like "download" and "URL." But borrow their computers and you discover that spyware clings to the innards, bombarding other users with pop-up ads and sending their browsers to sites they never knew existed.

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