COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Fighting back against spam, viruses

This week I look at PC software to protect your Wi-Fi network and to fight spam and viruses.

When others get on your home Wi-Fi network, they can assume your identity and access confidential information from your computer. Wi-Fi Defense (www.otosoftware.com) addresses this problem. It automatically detects and identifies those computers on your network. You can tag them as friends or enemies and selectively boot them off. It will tell you if your neighbors or passers-by are secretly sharing your network and pop up a notification as soon as any unidentified computer gets on.

The program costs $29.95 and a free trial version is available from the Web site.

Anti-spam software

I tried two different products, ChoiceMail (www.digiportal.com) and Cloudmark SafetyBar 4.0 (www.cloudmark.com), each representing two different approaches to blocking spam. Both cost $40. ChoiceMail works with most e-mail programs, while Cloudmark works only with Outlook and Outlook Express.

ChoiceMail is a permission-based product, meaning it only lets mail in that it can positively identify as being sent from approved senders. Mail from questionable senders won't get through; it's put into a questionable folder for future action. Confirmed spam is moved to a junk folder.

The approved senders list is initially created from your address book. As you accept other questionable e-mail, senders are added to the list. You can examine the mail in your questionable folder or ignore it and let ChoiceMail send a message back asking the sender to answer a simple question that authenticates it's a real person.

It alerts you when their answer comes back, and you can choose to accept the sender and the e-mail. Mail sent back to a mailing list or fake address will not get a response and will move from the questionable folder to the junk mail folder after a few days. ChoiceMail works in the background and examines incoming e-mail before it appears in your inbox. While ChoiceMail will positively prevent any spam from coming into your inbox, it also blocks legitimate e-mails from individuals that you have not yet approved.

Cloudmark SafetyBar 4.0 takes a different approach. Instead of relying on you defining friend and foe, it creates a database of spam senders, addresses and e-mail submitted from its more than 1 million users. The database is then used to block similar e-mail.

To prevent users from compromising its database by sending false information, it rates users based on the quality of their contributions. Cloudmark uses this same approach for recognizing fraudulent e-mail, such as a request for your account information from a fake e-mail that appears to be from your bank (called phishing). While it will let some spam through, it works right away without requiring a long training period.

I tested it by scanning 1,328 of my deleted e-mails. It took 45 minutes to scan and found 147 spam mails. Of the 147, 133 were truly spam; six e-mails were from real individuals and eight were e-mail newsletters I subscribed to. That's excellent performance without my needing to do any training.

Virus software

While Norton and McAfee are usually bundled on most new PCs, that doesn't mean they're the best or that you need to use them. I find Norton to be too intrusive, interrupting computing activities, and McAfee to be too aggressive in its advertising and promotions. And neither have strong customer support.

Two programs I tried and like are NOD32 (www.nod32.com) and Trend Micro PC-Cillin (www.trendmicro.com). Both offer free customer support.

NOD32 comes from Eset, headquartered here in San Diego. It uses an advanced set of rules (called heuristic algorithms) that not only catch known viruses, but also identify potential viruses based solely on the behavior of code running on your computer, even before these viruses have been identified.

The company has won recognition from one the industry's authorities, the Virus Bulletin, for having never missed a new virus. I liked the way the program worked silently in the background, never intruding into my computing activities. It costs $39, then $27 per year for renewals.

If you prefer a single solution product, look at Trend Micro PC-Cillin Internet Security Suite 2005, targeted to be the only program you'll need. The program provides protection against viruses, spyware, phishing and spam, can detect intrusions on your Wi-Fi network and has a firewall. The anti-phishing component also blocks the sending of e-mail to known phishing sites. Cost is $49; yearly renewals are $25. A network version for three computers is available for $90.

PC-Cillin also offers parental control that does Web site filtering and lets one computer manage all of the security settings. It was easy to set up and adjust for the level of notification. It automatically updated itself and notified me only when it encountered a serious problem, and never seemed to slow down my computing while it was working.

Whatever programs you do use, they're only as good as the last update, so be sure to keep them current.


Baker has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others. He is the holder of 30 patents and was named San Diego's Ernst & Young Consumer Products Entrepreneur of the Year in 2000. He can be reached at phil.baker@sddt.com.

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