Tech Bits
by Lucy A. Snyder

In my last column, I discussed Amazon rank tracking; the good news is that has returned and is still free. In my opinion it remains the best tool out there for writers who want to keep tabs on how their book sales are doing.  The only bugs in the service are occasional data processing glitches and the lack of Kindle titles in the database (a problem the maintainers say is on Amazon's end and they're trying to resolve it). There are some minor cosmetic problems with the page layout if you're tracking more than 20 titles (but the flip side of that is that you can track many more than 20 titles, still for free).  I haven't noticed any spam as a consequence of using the site, but if you're concerned about privacy, you can always use a disposable email address to sign up.

And speaking of email, we're in the midst of an epidemic of phishing scams. If you're part of a large research university like I am, the number of attacks directed against your school's students, staff, and faculty may be mind-boggling.  For a few months this summer, 80% of the messages processed by our email servers were spam, the vast majority of them scams aimed at getting people's login information.  Once the scammers gained control of an account, they would typically either use the account to send out even more spam (which resulted in our servers being blocked by other schools and companies), or they would use the credentials to get into chemical databases to download information for use in the illegal drug trade.

So, if you get an email that asks you to reply with your password -- do not reply to it. Ever.  These messages are inevitably scams.  So are emails that ask for any other personal information like your social security number, your date of birth, your banking information, etc.  You shouldn't send that kind of information to anyone through email in the first place.  I laugh to myself when I see emails that have these big privacy declarations in the signature -- an email is about as secure as a postcard.  Any message travels through dozens of servers on its way from Computer A to Computer B, and the administrators of any of those servers could access your message, as could others running packet sniffer programs.

But packet sniffers are complicated; it's much easier for scam artists to send out scary-looking messages that purport to be from your email service threatening to shut you down if you don't reply with your password information.  I've seen everyone from gullible teenagers to rocket scientists fall for the recent, more-sophisticated batch of scams.  Don't join them -- keep your passwords safe, and don't send them out in an email, and don't type them into a website unless you know it's the right one.  And if you get an alarming message from your internet, cable or phone company, don't call the number listed in the message; go look the company up in the phone book.  Phone scams are old, but they keep circulating because they keep making the bad guys money.

And speaking of the bad guys, spyware is a much bigger problem for Windows users than it has been in the past.  The major antivirus programs aren't keeping up, and many downloadable programs that purport to clean your computer actually infect it with more junk.  Fortunately, there's a free tool that actually does a very decent job of protecting your computer from spyware: Malwarebytes. Bear in mind that malware, spyware, and viruses are constantly-moving targets, so this program might not be your best choice in six months (or even three) but for now it's a good tool for keeping yourself protected alongside a good antivirus program like McAfee or Symantec.

Well, that's my public service announcement for the month.  Now, quit surfing the web and go write something!


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Lucy A. Snyder has a degree in biology, which she mainly uses to help people cut down on their snack consumption at parties. She's the author of the upcoming collection Sparks and Shadows and her work has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, Chiaroscuro, Masques V, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. You can learn more about her at her website.

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