Special Report: Download Danger

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Millions of Americans are on Facebook, Myspace and Twitter everyday, and so are the cyber criminals. They send fake messages to install viruses and, in some cases, try to take over the unsuspecting users' computers.

In Birmingham, forensics expert Gary Warner and his UAB students are tracking the growing problem. "For the average consumer, social networking is a new way to be attacked and it's one of the most serious," says Warner.

The bad guys use Facebook and other social network sites to spread fast moving viruses. Some of that "malware" - as it's called - is capable of taking control of your computer without you ever knowing.

"If the hacker doesn't want the FBI knocking down their door, they can use your computer to distribute a virus; they can use your computer to store child pornography; they could use your computer to attack the Pentagon," explains Warner.

One Montgomery woman says her family was overrun with computer viruses, even the laptop her 10-year-old uses.

"Why would you need to put a virus on something on the DisneyChannel.com or Nickelodeon?," she asked. "I just don't understand what people get out of messing up other people's computers."

So how do you protect yourself from attack and a possible take over? Start with a strong password. Cyber crooks have software that can break many easy passwords in a matter of seconds.

Warner says, "Criminals can guess as many as 30 million passwords a second. Put two words together and substitute some numbers for letters. [Example] Water-28-light. No one's ever going to guess that password."

And, don't use a few passwords for all your accounts, especially when it comes to online banking. "One of the forms of protection, someone should be able to steal your Facebook page and your bank account still be safe," Warner says.

Then, make sure you have the best anti-virus software you can afford.

"There's free antivirus software out there such as the Microsoft Security Essentials," says Raycom Media I.T. Specialist Kalonji Gilchrist, "which you can download on line at microsoft.com/security_essentials. You can get that. That's number one, make sure that's updated."

Installing a simple router between your computer and the bad guys offers great protection from an outside attack. "The cable modem plugs into the router. And the router has a bit of a firewall capability," Warner explains. "It does network address translation. Your computer on the inside cannot be targeted from the outside."

But make sure you put a strong password on any wireless router to stop an attack.

Warner says "Someone can sit as far as 500 yards from your house and use your internet connection to connect out on the internet and do bad things."

Make sure your anti virus software also checks websites. "You want to have all the protections they offer...the firewall, the virus scanner but also that web page checker...'this is a suspicious website,'" Warner added.

Recovering from even a routine virus can be expensive. "The amount to have a computer repaired is just about as much as it would be to purchase a new computer, and it's just ridiculous."

Bottom line: to help avoid a situation like that Warner says " be suspicious. The thing that someone sent you to click on doesn't sound right...check it out."

"Technology can solve a lot of problems, but the biggest risk to your personal information is usually the guy at the keyboard."

Think of your computer as your house. You wouldn't leave all your valuables on the dining room table in plain site. You keep them locked up with as many safeguards as possible between them and the bad guys. You computer should be the same way.

And, good anti-virus software, strong passwords, inexpensive routers and common sense will help you keep your information safe.