Top 10 reasons to be paranoid

Every bit of your virtual existence is being monitored -- get scared accordingly

Reason No. 6: Information brokers are bungling your data

Anybody who requests a background or credit check on you -- or provides them to others -- has a ton of sensitive information about you that (a) may not be accurate and (b) is highly vulnerable to spills. That includes data brokers, credit bureaus, banks, insurance companies, mobile carriers, and your employer.

Report vendors have morphed into one-stop data-mining shops, selling everything from credit scores to criminal records. A 2004 study by the US Public Interest Research Group found that 80 per cent of all credit reports contained errors and that one in four were serious enough to keep you from obtaining credit or getting a job.

Not surprisingly, report vendors' track records for protecting this information is abysmal (of course, Uncle Sam's record isn't too hot, either). According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, nearly 160 million Americans have had sensitive personal information exposed by data breaches since January 2005.

What to do? Find out what information is out there by requesting a copy of your credit report. Correct any mistakes and opt out whenever possible. Most data brokers now give you the option of removing your name from their marketing lists (although not credit or background checks); privacy policies on their Web sites usually spell out how. In September, ReputationDefender is launching its MyPrivacy service, which will remove you from some brokers' lists for a small fee.

The moral of this story: Keep your friends close and your data brokers closer.

Paranoia Meter: 3

Reason No. 5: Zombies abound

We are in the midst of a zombie epidemic that shows no signs of slowing. During the second half of July, the volume of spam e-mails containing variations on the Storm worm increased tenfold. The result? A zombie network estimated by IT security company SecureWorks at more than 1.7 million PCs -- big enough to do serious damage to the Net.

The degree of your personal risk depends almost entirely on what you do and don't do online, says Bill Rosenkrantz, director of product management at Symantec.

"On one hand, the hackers are definitely out there, they are very creative, and there is significant financial gain available to them," Rosenkrantz says. "On the other hand, you have decent control over that. If you don't randomly download files onto your system, have a full security solution on your desktop, and keep your browser and your OS updated, the risk is probably a 3 on a scale of 5. If you don't do any of that, your risk is probably closer to a 5."

In the case of Storm, the solution is relatively straightforward. Because the zombies connect to one another via a P2P network, IT managers can mitigate damage by blocking each PC's ability to use p-to-p networking.

In short, be careful out there.

Paranoia Meter: 3

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Dan Tynan

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