Archive for March 26, 2009

Malware gets more malicious, boots small country offline

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A record number of Web sites that steal your password and other information were detected by the Anti-Phishing Working Group in December, according to a report from the organization, which works to fight identity theft.

The group reported 31,173 sites that spread crimeware—malicious software programmed to steal your password and other information—an 827% uptick from January 2008. In addition, it received a yearly high of 34,758 phishing reports in October 2008.

Botnets are another worrisome online-security problem, according to Steve Gibson, a security consultant and owner of Gibson Research Corp. Infected computers are gathered into groups called botnets, sometimes comprising hundreds of thousands of PCs, that send out spam, phishing e-mail, and malware. "There’s such a strong incentive for getting a bot on someone's machine," Gibson says.

Those incentives range from the financial to the political. "Consumers may think, 'Who cares if my PC is a bot,'" says Ed Skoudis, co-founder of IntelGuardians. "But a bot can be used for an operation against the U.S. military or against the electric grid in your city."

One way botnets attack organizations is by using a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. "DDoS attacks happen from zombies [individual computers within a botnet] sending traffic to a certain IP address," says Gibson. "We’ve seen small countries taken off the Internet by botnets." One recent example: DDoS attacks targeted at the largest Internet service providers in Kyrgyzstan knocked most computers in the country offline in January, according to the SANS Institute, a security training organization.

People often ignore the most obvious sign that their computer is infected with a bot, says Gibson, which is slower performance. "Most people think it's just an older PC slowing down," he says. "They’ve been told to ignore one of the major indications that something is doing something to their machine."

Here are some steps you can take to safeguard yourself against malware:

  • Be sure your security software (Ratings available to subscribers) is up-to-date and running, and that you have a two-way firewall. You can get a free one from Zone Alarm.
  • Don't click on links in mass mailings of things like e-cards or videos.
  • Never open an .exe or .zip file attached to an e-mail.
  • Run updates of programs like Adobe Reader and QuickTime when prompted, but make sure the prompts you get are legitimate and come from the software company itself.
  • Be careful when you type in a URL; many malware sites use common misspellings of popular site names.

For a wealth of free information on how to protect yourself from online predators, visit our Online Security Center.

—Donna Tapellini

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Photo-sharing sites: No place to back-up your photos

Backup

Do you have your photos securely backed up somewhere at home? Or, after you upload them to Snapfish, Flickr, Facebook, My Space or wherever, do you just erase them from your memory card? If you do the latter, you run the risk of losing them, or at least having to pay to get them back.

You might lose them because the site, like Kodak Gallery recently did, decides it will delete them after a period unless you buy at least a certain number of prints from that site every so often. (Sites with such policies may issue you a warning before they lower the ax, but if you miss that warning, it's curtains for your shots.)

You might also lose your photos because the site goes belly up. Think that's far-fetched? Not any more so than Fortunoff's, Linens 'n Things or Circuit City going bankrupt.

Even if your file doesn't disappear entirely, you may have trouble retrieving a full-resolution version of it from a photo-sharing site without having to pay. On some sites, the only versions you can download for free are low-resolution ones.

Better ways to save your shots
Here's the bright side: It's easy and inexpensive to set up your own digital photo-storage system. Decide whether you prefer to store them on CDs or DVDs, or a hard drive. Computer storage is cheap these days; you can pick up a hard drive with a terabyte worth of storage for as little as $100. We think it's best to do a combination of both—backing it up on two hard drives or a combination of hard drives and a set of DVDs or CDs.

You should also consider making a copy of your photos to keep at an alternate location. We've heard stories of friends and families whose houses were hit by natural disasters and lost everything, including all their precious memories.

A final note on archiving your digital photos: At a recent PMA briefing by a market research firm, InfoTrends, one analyst mentioned that one of their recent studies asked people how they would preserve their images and video for future generations. The top answer was DVDs and CDs, which the analyst said may not be the best solution in the long run.

He suggested that you should also have an actual print, which will last decades. Of course, this wouldn't be a digital solution. But what the analyst was referring to, in part, was that in our fast-moving era, today's innovative hardware and software can easily be obsolete within five years. (When was the last time you bought a computer that had a 5 1/4" floppy disk drive in it?)

The analyst suggested that prints could be a stable, lasting version of your images. While that may seem a bit self-serving coming from a member of an industry that makes its money printing photos, for important photos such as weddings and family events, it's still good advice.

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New software optimizes photos for picture frames

Acdsee-PFM-boxshot-web-EN

If you own a digital picture frame (see our Ratings, available to subscribers), you know that getting images to look their best on the device can be a hassle. Problems include photos that are so big that they stop the frame's slide show and that display in the wrong orientation.

ACDSee has just announced a new (and, at $40, somewhat pricey) software program, Picture Frame Manager, that seems to address many such problems, based on the demo version I saw at this year's PMA, the trade show for the digital-imaging industry.

Here's how the program works: once you connect your frame (or USB storage device) to your computer via a USB connection, you can create a profile for that particular frame in the software that will optimize the images the same way, each time you want to add new photos. You do this by selecting the size of the picture frame from a drop-down menu, or by typing in a custom size.

Next, you'll select one or a group of images you want to optimize and add it to your picture frame. The images appear as thumbnails, which you can drag and drop into the frame. The images are optimized as they are copied. ACDSee says the software optimizes photos for any size frame, even for screen sizes as small as a cellphone.

The demo I saw at the PMA show certainly looked as if it did the job it set out to do: Images on the picture frame scrolled without interruption. But be aware that Picture Frame Manager does not optimize video clips, only still images.

ACDSee says the software can set up multiple profiles for different frames that may have different screen or resolution sizes. It works on both PCs and Macs, and can convert TIFF, GIF, PNG and RAW files to JPEG. But what I liked most about the demo version I saw was that it's software that doesn't suffer from feature bloat. It's simple, and appears intuitive to use.

—Terry Sullivan

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TiVo adds Blockbuster to online movie partners

TiVo logo

Blockbuster and TiVo today announced a partnership that will, by the second half of the year, allow owners of TiVo set-top boxes connected to broadband Internet service to stream download movies on demand to their TV sets for around $4 apiece. Blockbuster will also begin selling TiVos at its walk-in stores.

The takeaway: This partnership adds Blockbuster to the growing list of companies —Netflix and Amazon, primarily—that already have deals to allow TiVo owners to access movies on their TV. For TiVo owners, the deal allows access to newer offerings—more like the movies you find on cable or satellite pay-per-view services—than those of Netflix, which mostly offers streams of older films and TV shows, free with your Netflix subscription.

Blockbuster
is describing its movie offerings, including the limited HD titles, as
being near-DVD quality, consistent with what we found when we tested
the service service on the company's own set-top box, plus streaming
services from Netflix, Apple and others. The
TiVo arrangement requires a broadband connection to the box – something that fewer than a third of TiVos now have, according to the New York Times.

The deal, along with the recent trimming back of the store rentals included in the Blockbuster Total Access subscription service, seems to further indicate that even Blockbuster sees the brick-and-mortar video store as a slowly declining source of movies.

Indeed, a survey of ConsumerReport.org subscribers by the Consumer Reports National Research Center confirmed that stores are increasingly being wedged out by mail-order subscription and kiosk services. (Subscribers can check out the results in our Ratings of movie rentals.)

[Note:
Blockbuster OnDemand is a progressive download service, not a streaming
service. That means it sends the movie to TiVo’s hard drive, although
you can start watching the movie before the whole file has been
downloaded.—Ed.]

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