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Your emails answered
February 2005

I receive a regular stream of emails from readers, and jolly welcome they are too. Some point to excellent sites I don't know, or ask for some help with a problem or suggest topics for this column. I'm happy to read them all, even the critical ones, so please don't be shy.

One of the most regular concerns readers have is whether buying online is safe or not. This is a constant worry in the computer industry too, as the crooks get cleverer, and the scams get more subtle.

The key is to be as careful in a virtual shop as you are in a real one, and keep hold of your wallet so that pick-pockets and other rogues can't get at it. Online, this means don't use your credit card except on a secure site (little padlock in the bottom right hand corner), check your statements carefully and NEVER reply to an email asking you to confirm any personal details, however real it looks.

Mind you, I think that the institutions could do more to make us feel comfortable. In particular I feel sorry for the respectable traders on the Internet, as they get no help from the banks. If a stolen credit card goes through the authorisation process on a site correctly and is then used to buy something, the bank will ultimately claim the stolen money back from the shop once the fraud is discovered. The shop is left high and dry - goods sent out, no money in - as the bank neatly passes the loss onto the weaker party whilst grandly claiming to protect their customers from fraud.

Another regular request from readers is how to create a crack-proof password. It isn't possible, but you can strengthen them considerably.

The trouble with using a real word as a password is that crooks have dictionaries too.

However, you can improve matters by using a "passphrase"; you use the initial letters of a phrase that you won't forget (not a well known quotation, as crooks have dictionaries of quotations, too). This way you end up with a random series of letters that is much harder to guess. An obvious one such as "The Oldie is the finest magazine in the shop" produces TOITFMITS, which you could strengthen further by using some numbers or symbols, such as T01TFM1T$.

Having done that, for goodness sake keep tour passwords secret, or at least the ones that involve money. Don't write them down or put them on a post-it note next to your screen. It's like hanging your wallet on a hook outside the front door with a sign saying "Money this way, please help yourself".

My favourite email recently came from a reader who had begun to suspect that his computer was haunted. As he said, "Whilst surfing the web the other day I heard what can only be described as a child laughing." Better than a child crying, but baffling none the less.

I like the idea of a ghost in the machine; it would be company when I am working alone. However, when computers start behaving oddly, my usual diagnosis is a virus, or that someone under the age of 25 has been fiddling with it, or you have a virus because someone under the age of 25 has been fiddling with it.

Sure enough, my reader confirmed that his daughter's ex-boyfriend (under 25, no doubt) had recently installed some sort of "chat" software. My guess is that it was picking up some sort of chat spam.

Now, if there were some anti-virus software that could also deter under 25 year olds from touching our computers, I'd definitely be a buyer.