Protect your PC from malicious holiday greetings

Wait--don't open that digital holiday card! A seemingly harmless greeting could spread much more than joy this holiday season.

Antivirus vendors have tracked one malicious e-card in the past month. While it threatens annoyance more than damage, experts say more dangerous deliveries are possible.

"The biggest thing we've seen in the last thirty days in the Friend Greeting Card, which is primarily just a nuisance," says Lisa Smith, a product manager with McAfee's Security Consumer division. McAfee lists the card as a malicious threat, but it does not deliver a virus or cause damage to recipients' PCs, Smith says.

Still, as many people forgo the post office in favor of electronic holiday greetings, it's wise to be careful. Here are some tips for a safe season.

Read the Fine Print

The Friend Greeting Card arrives in an e-mail that directs the recipient to a URL, FriendGreetings.com. The site requests that the recipient run an installation program, which appears to install software on the PC, Smith says. It presents a license agreement--which includes the buried statement that the program will forward the same message to all contacts in the recipients Outlook address book.

Few users actually take the trouble to read the entire document, Smith says. "It basically says it's going to spam everyone in your address book," she says. "It's clogging networks. It doesn't damage your system, but it does violate your privacy."

E-cards that download unwanted applications, such as adware and spyware, remain a very real threat. While the Friend Greeting Card does not distribute a virus, such an e-card could, says Paris Trudeau, a product marketing manager for SurfControl, which provides Web and e-mail filtering software.

"It preys on the fact that people consider e-greetings to be legitimate," she says. "People don't worry when they're clicking on a link, because they're not opening an attachment."

Holiday Atmosphere

In fact, the mindset of many PC users around the holidays creates the kind of atmosphere virus writers can easily exploit.

"The social engineering of viruses is more than just using the right set of words to convince people to open an attachment," says David Perry, public education director at Trend Micro, an antivirus software vendor. "This is the time of year when people let their guard down. They think it's just an e-card, so they open it."

E-cards aren't the only potential Trojan horses during holidays, a season that poses a variety of risks for PC users, experts agree. The times often bring an increase in games (remember Elf Bowl from a few years back?), pictures, and other attachments sent by e-mail. While no major outbreaks have occurred so far this holiday season, the threat remains real and experts warn that PC users must remain vigilant.

"Right now, the holiday season looks safe," Perry says. "It's been a while since the last major virus outbreak, so people tend to let their guard down. They turn off their virus scanner, they don't pay attention. But it's still a possibility. We're definitely overdue for a virus outbreak."

The holidays are also ripe for scams and hoaxes. Trudeau says SurfControl has been tracking an e-mail that directs users to a legitimate-looking site for the Netherlands lottery, then scams them into sending personal information and a contribution to somewhere other than the lottery. Messages soliciting donations for the poor and the sick also tend to spike around the holidays, says McAfee's Smith.

McAfee has been tracking a hoax that instructs users to delete a file that they actually need. The file, JDBGMgr, is necessary in order to run JavaScript, but your PC will run fine without it, Smith says.

Secure Your New PC

'Tis sometimes a season for new PCs--received as gifts or hand-me-downs, or business upgrades with the new year's budget. It's also time to secure those new systems (as well as existing ones), experts say.

"When you're setting up a new computer, take the time to update the antivirus protection. Download the necessary software patches, and pay attention to all of the passwords," says Vincent Weafer, senior director at Symantec's Security Response.

"It's a good opportunity to do a good security check of your PC," Weafer says. Symantec offers a free online security check for home PCs, which scans your PC for potential security vulnerabilities and then offers advice on how to correct the problem.

"You should think about PC security the way you think about home security. It's something you think about every day. But around the holidays, you have presents in your house, so you take a look around and think about how to keep them secure. Take a look around your PC and say, What else can I do to keep it secure?" he says.

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