How to fight Internet spam and scams

By Jay Dougherty

Washington - Sarah Graham, a technical writer in Washington DC had just returned from getting a cup of coffee when she saw the first sign of trouble.

There, on her notebook monitor, was a new browser window displaying an unsettling message.

"It said my Windows XP system had been analysed. Everything was working correctly, except there was a possibly damaging security leak," Graham said.

"I clicked on a link in the message that promised to help me solve the problem, but I soon learned that someone was just trying to sell me some security software that I didn't need," Graham added. "Since that time, it seems like I get these messages every day, sometimes more than once."

She's not alone. Such messages are just the latest salvo being fired by increasingly aggressive online marketers and scam artists. They get to you by email. They get to you by opening browser windows against your will. And they get to you even through instant messaging. But there are ways to fight back.

The deceptive advertisements that are appearing via browser windows these days are utilising a "service" in recent versions of Microsoft Windows, including Windows 2000 and Windows XP, that advertisers have learned how to exploit to hawk their wares. It's called Messenger Service and the good news is: you can do without it.

Disabling the Messenger Service will help you get rid of these messages once and for all. Click the windows Start button and select Run. In the Run dialogue box, type "services.msc," without the quotation marks and press Enter.

A Services dialogue box opens, containing a long list of events that are started behind the scenes when you log on to Microsoft Windows. Scroll down the list until you find the one entitled "Messenger."

Right click Messenger and select Properties from the pop-up menu. Within the Properties dialogue box, first click the Stop button and then from the Startup Type drop-down list box, select Disabled. Click Apply and then exit out of all dialogue boxes. From this point on, you should no longer receive unexpected messages displayed in browser windows on your screen while you're connected to the Internet.

There's an even more potentially dangerous scam that is being perpetrated via email these days. In the United States, customers of BestBuy.com were the latest victims but anyone who has ever shopped online is at risk.

Here's how it works. You check your inbox one day, and find an email message purportedly from the store or online service that you have given out personal information to, such as a credit card number or your address. The email seems to come from the store or online service itself, perhaps, as in the case of the recent BestBuy scam, from the company's supposed "fraud department."

Such email messages will always tell you that your account information needs to be updated, and a link will be provided that will take you to a web page, looking very much like the web pages of the company in question, so that you can provide personal information, including credit card and postal address.

"Beware," say experts. Email messages that request that you provide personal information that you have already provided to the company are almost always fraudulent.

"Never give personal information such as your date of birth, bank account, or credit card numbers in response to an email," says Maryland Attorney General Joseph Curran. If an email message makes you at all suspicious, he urges, call the company in question. If you're dealing with an online company that cannot be called, consider severing relations.

And it was probably only a matter of time before instant messaging - the wildly popular form of communicating in real-time using programs such as AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Instant Messenger - became the target of online advertisers.

Increasingly, users of instant messaging are receiving unasked for and unwanted instant messages from people not on their "buddy" lists. The quickest solution to getting rid of such annoyances is to upgrade to the latest version of whatever instant messaging program you're using.

The major instant messaging programs now have built-in spam blockers. These work by prohibiting anyone who is not on your buddy list from contacting you. Unfortunately, this could limit you from getting instant messages from people you might like to chat with, but that's the price, at least for now, that we have to pay to rid ourselves of obnoxious and pernicious scams. - Sapa-DPA


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