How would you cope if your computers are attacked?

It all started when I opened my emails. I had downloaded my daily mail and was sorting the junk from the business correspondence, when I selected an email for opening, and my computer leapt into unusual activity and lots of little boxes populated my screen. ‘Damn, I thought, I’ve activated a virus of some sort.’

What would you do if you opened your computer to find it has been compromised?

A corrupt network can be a major problem

We have a little network in our office, similar to the small computer networks in thousands of businesses all over the country. Ours has a fast cable connection to the internet which we use to maintain our web site and handle email correspondence. Our computers contain all our accounting, business records and our very valuable library of hospitality management resources and files.

Even though we back up all our critical information every night and have sophisticated anti virus, and computer security software, I get paranoid when I think my computers may be compromised because it takes so long and costs so much to set them up and get them all talking to each other in a co-operative manner. A couple of times in the past I have had to lobotomise a corrupted computer and start from scratch and the thought of having to do it for my entire network is a nightmare scenario.

Don’t rely on your anti-virus software

Don’t count on your anti-virus software protecting you from a skilled attack

My anti virus software is supposed to check everything going in and out of the network and it had not indicated any problem, but I ran a comprehensive scan of the whole network, just to make sure. No problems detected, so I relaxed and went about my business with no more than a casual curiosity about the strange email.

Several days later my staff drew my attention to the computer that was connected to the internet. It was going nuts and sending out thousands of emails! What was happening? ‘It must be a virus’, I said to myself. Now for the big guns . . . I disconnected all computers from the network and ran some very sophisticated software on each to try to identify the culprit. No luck.

We connected the network back together and a short time after, to my dismay, the same thing happened again — thousands of emails began to be sent. We could tell because our antivirus software checks outbound emails and it went berserk to the point where the computer locked-up for lack of available memory.

Resolving a problem can be time-consuming and costly

By this stage I was extremely concerned about the integrity of our data, the amount of time that I was spending trying to isolate the culprit and the loss of productivity of my staff, who were unable to use their computers. It was getting very expensive and quite stressful, to say the least.

We stripped the network again and consulted all the anti virus gurus who had us doing all kinds of diagnostic exercises. Everything we did came up blank, but each time we activated the network an avalanche of emails spewed out onto the internet. Apart from the disruption and the potential threat to our business data, it occurred to me that I was paying for the outgoing emails which were of a quantity that would cause draconian surcharges from our internet provider and place us in danger of having our account cancelled for abuse of the email system.

Get help

Get expert help to ensure your network is as secure as possible — before it’s too late

I called for help. Luckily for me my brother in law is a computer network whiz and I asked him to look at the problem. After tinkering around for several hours he was just as perplexed as I was and advised me to call a computer security expert (at $450 per hour). We were about to pack it in and go home when Joe noticed some highly unusual activity on the main computer in the network.’ I think you are being hacked from outside’, he said, somewhat perplexed. ‘But I’ve got software to ensure that does not happen’, I responded defensively. But there on the screen was the proof — thousands of ‘guests’ entering the computer from the outside.

To cut a long story short, we finally pieced together what had happened. That strange email was a robot probe, for want of a better term — a clever intruder that ‘scouted’ our computer system. It examined our network from inside, found the computer connected to the network and ‘unlocked’ all the back doors into that computer from the internet. Once this was done, the perpetrator started sending thousands of emails to our computer, for automatic redirection to their intended addressees. This meant that the emails appeared to come from us, we paid the cost of sending them and it would be us who got into trouble if anyone complained. Very clever and very nasty indeed.

Don’t ignore your computer security

Burying your head in the sand could prove quite disruptive and expensive

We weren’t the only ones, apparently. While researching how to stop them I came across a warning on a computer security web site about this particular type of intrusion, with instructions how to avoid it in future. We followed the instructions and the emails stopped, but we’re still getting hundreds of attempts at intrusion each day; but now they can’t get in.

The point of all this? Most of you have computers and possibly you are not an advanced user like I am. If this happened to you it could cost you thousands of dollars to fix and seriously disrupt your business. You may not even realise that your computer was being used this way until you got an eye watering bill from your internet provider.

Don’t ignore computer security, especially if you have a web site. These robots travel the internet extracting email addresses from any web pages they find, then they send the kind of email I received to probe your system. Be warned — get skilled help if necessary.