Internet Safety Fear in the Fast Lane

Internet Safety Fear in the Fast Lane

Fear in the Fast Lane

Australia may be one of the most internet-connected countries on earth, with a super-fast broadband network on the way. But now the experts are warning there's danger with cyber crooks roaming the super highway.

In a story that will make you review the use of your home computer, reporter Andrew Fowler tells how foreign online crooks took down a multi-million dollar Australian business. He explains how you can have your identity stolen, your phone disconnected and your bank accounts emptied in just hours. Perhaps most alarmingly, Four Corners reveals first-hand how wireless connections are an invitation to thieves.

There's little doubt the internet has changed our lives for the better. You can book holidays, do your banking and pay bills online. But do you realise how easy it is for a cyber-crook to take control of your computer without you even knowing it?

Imagine this! You go to book tickets at a reputable theatre web site. That site has been infected by mal-ware. By simply clicking on that site your computer can become a slave to a central computer and join millions of other infected computers in what's called a 'botnet'. Immediately it is possible for a criminal to steal information from you, including your bank and credit card details but the thief can do even more. Your computer could be used to send thousands of spam emails a day to people around the world. It could even be used to attack businesses, or even entire countries. And you wouldn't notice a thing.

It sounds remarkable but, as Four Corners explains, one in six computers in Australia is, or has been, part of a 'botnet' and a 'botnet' attack has already destroyed a major business. Other 'botnet' attacks have resulted in personal information being stolen and then sold on the international black-market. The result? Bank accounts are emptied and millions of dollars stolen.

Police told Four Corners they are now so concerned by this type of crime they have set up covert operations on the web to infiltrate illicit marketplaces.

The police have every reason to be concerned. Despite the fact that major banks, utilities and retail outlets encourage you to do business on the web (saving them money), they don't reveal how vulnerable you are to web theft. Many Australians have found out the hard way. One Brisbane man who spoke to reporter Andrew Fowler told how he had his phone and internet cut off and $80,000 stolen from his bank accounts, after replying to a message purportedly from his bank.

Authorities are now working hard to keep up with the crooks. They are having trouble though. Crooks working from countries in Eastern Europe are hard to catch. Home-grown criminals are easier to bring down, but police reveal the legal system doesn't treat cyber-theft with the seriousness it deserves. One young man stole more than 50,000 credit card details but received a suspended one year sentence, $2,000 good behaviour bond and court costs of $150.

Adding to the problem, most computer users don't realise how vulnerable they are. Four Corners took an e-security expert to an ordinary city street and asked him to assess computer security. Using a basic wireless interceptor our expert found he could tap into up to 20 per cent of wireless computer networks, potentially accessing bank accounts and other personal information. Even those systems that had been encrypted took just 10 minutes to crack. No wonder police are warning we are right to have Fear in the Fast Lane.

Interview with Oscar McLaren

Oscar McLaren worked with reporter Andrew Fowley on Fear in the Fast Lane. Oscar was the winner of the Andrew Olle Scholarship for 2008-09. The ABC founded the Andrew Olle scholarship in 1996 to commemorate the life and work of esteemed journalist, broadcaster and program maker Andrew Olle.

Should every Australian be worried about their computer and personal details being hacked?

Oscar McLaren: In short, yes. The figures are that, one in six computers has been, at some stage, infected with what is referred to as mal-wear, basically that is anything that makes your computer do something it is not meant to do. Once you are infected, your computer can be recording your bank details and sending them to somewhere, on the other side of the world, or your computer could be sending spam to thousands of people every day and attacking other websites. You wouldn't know if it was doing this, but it is a scary possibility that it could be doing that around you.

Would you suggest not buying tickets online or using internet banking?

Oscar McLaren: I think that if you are careful and safe then that is how it is- make sure your operating system is Windows or Macintosh or otherwise is up-to-date. You computer is normally pretty keen to remind you when it is not up-to-date. Make sure you have an anti-virus and make sure you never respond or open any spam emails or any emails from your bank or about 'free money' or a 'lottery win'- or anything like that, just delete it straight away. I guess the final thing is that if you've got a wireless internet connection, make sure you have a password protecting it.

Up-to-date software and anti-virus software are the two simple things to stay protected. They are also the two things that police and others are the most surprised and frustrated to see people getting wrong, all the time. A huge amount of the viruses out there pray on problem computers that have already been fixed and all you have to do is update your software and anti-virus. Of course there are some that won't get caught by anti-virus software and will slip through; there is nothing you can do about that. You are in a very good position if you keep the software up-to-date.

Are you more susceptible if you have wireless internet?

Oscar McLaren: Yes, it does add an extra way that people can get in, but look it is so common and it makes so much sense. If it works for you, there is no point not doing it and making life harder. But, make sure you are careful.

The internet is becoming more common on mobile phones, is this safe?

Oscar McLaren: Interesting question, I think the jury is probably still out on that. I'm not sure there is a clear answer, generally you are safer being on a computer, just because you have your anti-virus there and you have whole teams around the world trying to make sure you are protected. I'd say you are safer on the computer, but it still remains to be seen.

Will faster and better internet connections be a negative in regards to information sharing?

Oscar McLaren: Look, I think the jury is out; the thing that we can say for certain is that we need to be very careful with the faster internet. The faster it gets, the more attractive your computer becomes to an online criminal who wants to take it over and do things with it. Obviously the national broadband internet that is coming out will be fantastic in many ways but we shouldn't pretend there aren't big dangers that come with it as well.

You can view Fear in the Fast Lane on iView: or on the Four Corners website: