The Internet now reaches a global population of more than two billion people, an exciting statistic when you consider the massive amount of information being exchanged and absorbed, and how much productivity people are experiencing as a result. However, as Internet use rises, cyber criminals only see job security. With a widening pool of opportunity, criminals will seize the chance to increase profits by using technology to wreak havoc on the lives of honest living, hard working individuals.

Users, however, can combat the dangers of online threats by understanding how they are vulnerable – from weak online security measures to lack of information about what threats look like – so that they can proactively fight back. Threats are continuing to grow, which is why Microsoft conducts research into these trends and publishes them twice annually in its Security Intelligence Report (SIRv12).

Microsoft recently released the 12th edition of this report, for which it analyzed more than 600 million systems worldwide. Among many findings, SIRv12 found that the Conficker worm was detected approximately 20 million times worldwide in the past two and a half years. The study also revealed the worm continues to spread because of weak or stolen passwords and vulnerabilities for which a security update exists.

The cyber criminal’s success lies in persistently trying different tactics to compromise the target. Consumers must exercise an equal if not greater degree of persistence in protecting themselves and Microsoft suggests the following steps to lay a secure computing foundation:

  • Use strong passwords
  • Keep systems up to date by regularly applying available updates for all products
  • Use antivirus software from a trusted source
  • Invest in newer products with a higher quality of software protection

Another major contributor to user vulnerability is the use of pirated software, most often without knowledge. Security threats such as Conficker and other worms, trojans, and spyware exploit vulnerabilities in software, forcing developers to constantly develop patches to stave off emerging malware. Users running pirated, unlicensed software typically cannot access essential patches and updates to guard their systems, and consequently subject their data, identities, finances and reputations to risks in the future.

When purchasing software, Microsoft suggests consumers avoid websites not authorized by software companies that offer to sell software downloads, and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks or other file-sharing technologies. Buyers should also expect that the software they procure, not pre-loaded, features a hologram CD, recovery media and manuals to authenticate it as genuine.

Because online criminals are desperate to keep their jobs, consumers and businesses must be vigilant in making sure they don’t receive a paycheck. Many resources are available to help people and organizations protect themselves from the threats outlined here, and more: www.howtotell.com, Microsoft tips on how to avoid purchasing non-genuine software and Microsoft’s anti-piracy website are all tremendous resources to help you remain productive and protected…even when online criminals are hard at work.