According to published reports, the length of time between going online and your computer receiving its first attack is now down to 20 seconds. There’s barely time to duck, but still plenty of time to panic.

Of course the question is, what is an attack? The very word conveys a sense of imminent

peril. In fact, the reality is usually much more mundane.

If you browse on a commercial Web site, you will typically acquire spyware designed to track your movements. The purpose of this spy is not to take over your computer or wipe out your files or crash your hard drive, but to send advertisements for more products that seem to fit your interests. Go to a gambling site and you’ll receive lots of offers to sign up at other online casinos; go to a stock market site and you will soon get offers to subscribe to various tip services.

All of this, even the relatively harmless stuff, slows the average computer to a crawl. We can start up an unprotected laptop we keep and, because of such spyware, we might as well go have a cup of tea while waiting for any program to load. The dark side of commercial trackers is that the mailing list is often sold or leased to other advertisers, and that’s when you start getting tons of junk ads for drugs, sex, illegal software copies and requests for “urgent assistance” from relatives of Nigerian generals.

Malicious attacks often come from downloading attachments without thinking about where they came from. But the latest danger is malicious code embedded in pictures. You can download a picture and bingo, you’ve got a virus, or a worm, a hijacker or a trojan horse — all of which are malicious attacks.

Where did that picture come from? It’s not going to be a problem downloading a picture of your Aunt Agatha or the product shots on company Web sites. The most likely pictures with dangerous code inside them would come from pornography sites. Your best defense is, as fictional detective Nero Wolfe liked to say, “intelligence guided by experience.”

DEFENSE, DEFENSE

In the past few weeks, the use of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), by far the most popular Web browser in the world, has dropped below 90 per cent of Internet users. Just a couple of months ago it had dropped from nearly 100 per cent to 95 per cent. On the flip side, as they say in the record business, Mozilla’s new Firefox browser (http://getfirefox.com) just passed the five million new users mark, and it’s been out only a couple months. The reason: fewer successful attacks through Firefox. Another popular browser considered relatively safe is Opera (www.opera.com).

Microsoft IE has become so vulnerable we use it only through Secure IE. This is a $30 program from Winferno (www.winferno.com). This protects you from hijackers, intercepts malicious file downloads, blocks pop-up ads and adds various handy features, like setting tabs for frequently visited sites.

We also have to note that user comments at download.com are mostly negative for Secure IE. The main objection seems to be the interface. What can we say; we like it.

For an extra $10 you can get Private IE, an auxiliary program that can be set to regularly remove your browsing history, all cookies and temporary files. You should always set your browser to remove your history when you exit. That way, the next spy that creeps in gets no information on where you’ve been.

America Online (AOL) has worked out well for security. Bob has used it for 20 years, and his only complaint is the flood of “features,” like having to watch movie clips on the home page. Of course, you have to pay a monthly fee for AOL, but you have to pay a fee for Internet service somewhere, whether it’s up front or not.

Spyware Doctor is the toughest doctor we’ve been able to find. It finds more spyware than any two or three other spy sniffers put together, and kills what it finds. It’s $30 from PC Tools Software (www.pctools.com).

If you’re on a tight budget, the next best spyware killer is Spybot: Search and Destroy, which is free from www.download.com. It is simple to use and clean. Bob runs this three or four times a day.

INTERNUTS: THE BUCK STOPS WHERE?

At http://westegg.com/inflationit is a game of round and round the dollar goes, and where it stops nobody knows. Except that over the long term it goes down. This Web site gives you an example of that decline for many time periods. For example: $100 of purchasing power 50 years ago would be worth approximately $15 today. Such comparisons are inexact, but interesting.

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