He is the sum of all your fears: This teenager sitting in the basement of his parents house while he hacks his way into your computer. With a few frenzied strokes, hes in. Your whole life, reduced to bits and bytes on your hard disk, is his for the taking.
But in truth, the odds of a hack attack such as the one Ive described are as rare as a nice thank-you note from the IRS.
The world is filled with crooks who would like to steal your data and money. But hacking into a remote computer is much harder than the movies make it seem. The hackers with that kind of skill are unlikely to single out your machine in a desperate attempt to steal your Aunt Veras recipe for spaghetti sauce. Professionals go after high-value targets such as companies with massive databases filled with customer information.
But your information is at risk from hackers; its just that they go about it in a different way.
Because its enormously difficult to find a way, unaided, into a remote computer, hackers often trick their way in using a RAT, or remote access Trojan horse.
When it comes to computers, a Trojan horse is an evil little program thats hidden inside an innocent-looking program and used to invade your computer.
There are various ways for a hacker to slip such a beast into a computer. It could arrive as an attachment to an email or from a website that promises a free download. X-rated sites or sites devoted to hacking also can do the job.
Once youve helped the hacker by opening the attachment or installing the free program you downloaded, the Trojan goes to work. It could contain a keylogger: a program that records each keystroke you type and then sends that information to the hacker. Or it could open a port an entryway to your computer to let the hacker in.
The hackers method isnt to target a specific computer. Instead, its more like fishing. The hacker creates the fake attachments, downloads or whatever method he selects to attract computer users. Then he sits back and waits for you to bite.
If done skillfully, the hacker soon has an entire group of computers at his command. The potential uses of these zombie computers can include using them to cover his trail while he sends out spam or as treasure troves to plunder financial and personal data.
So how do you keep a computer RAT-free? You do it in a combination of ways.
Start with the fact that the hacker is relying on you to open that attachment or download the free program.
Be wary of emails that arrive promising a video of bin Ladens last moments or some other event thats been in the news.
And try not to be tempted by the offer of a free program or, even more likely, a promise that you can download a free hacked version of an expensive program.
Next, use the high-tech tools available to you that help secure your computer. Windows comes with a free firewall a program that makes it more difficult for outsiders to enter your computer. Or you can use commercial versions of a firewall. Make sure that one, and only one, firewall is turned on.
If you are using the Windows firewall and arent sure whether its turned on, type that word firewall into the search feature of Windows Help to find out how to check.
email@example.com. Bill Husted writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.