According to the National Cyber Security Alliance bots are the Internet’s fastest-growing cyber crime and 71 percent of consumers don’t even know what bots are, and what they can do. Knowledge is power, and I hope to inform you about yet another Internet danger in this post.

A bot, also known as a Web robot, is a form of malicious software that is used to gain control over a computer, usually without the owner of the computer knowing. Once a bot is in control that computer can be used to send spam, host phishing sites or infect other computers. Online thieves use bots to collect personal data such as social security numbers, bank account information and credit card numbers. When this personal data is collected, it’s often used maliciously (I wonder why no one ever steals your personal information to do something good, like clearing up your Credit Report).

Now that I’ve scared you, how can you tell if your computer is infected by a bot? Look for the following things (this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it is a good start):

  • Numerous undelivered e-mail notifications in your inbox to unknown e-mail addresses. Bots will frequently use e-mail accounts to send out spam. Spam to unknown e-mail addresses will result in a "failure to deliver" notification in your inbox.
  • Suspicious e-mail account activity. Bots create multiple e-mail addresses in your e-mail account. If you notice additional e-mail addresses in your account that you did not create you may have an infected computer.
  • Multiple toolbars on your Internet browser. Bots will frequently install various toolbars to help collect search information from your browser.
  • Unusual error messages. Error messages that suggest applications cannot run or drives cannot be accessed can be indications of a bot infection.

You don’t have to become a luddite to protect yourself from these threats. There are a few simple things that you can do to make yourself a much harder target:

  • Keep your computer protected by downloading reputable anti-virus and security software.
  • Make sure your computer is set to receive automatic security updates (both the Mac OS X and Windows have an automatic update function).
  • Avoid downloading software from a Web site with an unknown or falsified brand.
  • Do not click through or open suspicious e-mails or e-mail attachments.
  • Avoid social networking scams - never provide your personal information (i.e. social security number, credit card numbers) to e-mails that solicit this information, even if the e-mail looks to be from a legitimate company or brand that you recognize. A legitimate company would not request this information via e-mail.

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