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Hackers more nuisance than threat to business

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by Jan K. Allen

SBJ Contributing Writer

Many business owners worry about unauthorized access to their computer files. But, the files most at risk for invasion by hackers are those of large businesses and government agencies, according to Shannon Hooge, support administrator for Database Systems of Springfield.

"Small to medium businesses don't have anything to fear," Hooge said.

Companies should realize their files can't be accessed just because they are on the Internet, Hooge added. Most inter-office files are separate from the 'Net. For information that must be accessed by employees in the field, there is software known as "firewalls," which prevents an unauthorized user from entering a company's database, he said.

One of the highest risk factors for the larger company begins with outside salespeople or researchers going into a company's system through the Internet using a phone number and password that could be picked up by a hacker, Hooge said.

But even then, the hacker would have to target the individual. The information is not hanging out on a big clothes line on the 'Net for all to see, he added.

Actually, the original definition for the term "hacker" was not a bad thing. It was part of the new computer language and used to describe people who were capable of accessing systems or "hacking" in to them for programming purposes, Hooge said.

It only took on a negative connotation when certain people began to use the skill for their own ends.

A hacker must get a phone number and a password before he or she can enter a closed system. This is difficult to do even on the Internet, Hooge said. It takes more effort than most thieves are willing to give.

As for diverting funds or stealing information, that rarely happens, according to Hooge. Unauthorized phone calls and e-mail transmissions are traceable. The hacker has to be very careful not to leave a trail. It is almost impossible, he said.

The proverbial "paper trail" is even more prominent if the hacker is diverting funds or copying top-secret files. The money has to go somewhere, files must transfer to a computer or printer somewhere. Those communications are nearly always traceable, and someone with the same knowledge and skills is also out there to catch the thief.

One such person is FBI agent Larry Hurst. A 30-year veteran of the bureau, Hurst has the programming background to work the same magic used by hackers.

Hurst said a case has to be major before the FBI becomes involved, but he warns would-be offenders that stealing records is a violation of law and they can be prosecuted.

A few simple steps can minimize risk, Hurst said. Access codes should be changed periodically. If a company has a bad employee, get rid of them. Smaller companies are more at risk from people they've allowed access to their files.

Hurst noted that while there are plenty of kids from 12 to 40 out there breaking into systems for kicks, they rarely damage or steal anything. They do it just to prove they can.

Some hackers have actually developed some sophisticated equipment, Hurst said. With a box that duplicates the tones in the phone lines, they can hack into a toll-free number to allow access to a system. These cases are harder to trace since they're using a bogus number.

Software has also been developed which lists passwords and a possible combination of access codes. The dialer must usually go through a number of possible choices and setbacks when the system kicks him out before he hits on the right one, Hurst said.

"Generally speaking, we don't get that many complaints where actual damage or theft has been done," Hurst said.

But he warned would-be hackers: "If we elect to go after the people, we will get them."

The biggest Internet problem for businesses, as well as individuals, particularly DOS and Windows users, is e-mail viruses, according to Hooge.

This can usually be avoided by not opening e-mail from an unknown source. If businesses are taking orders by e-mail, this could present a problem since they don't know every customer's name.

Hooge said he feels the risk of file exposure is minimal with a few simple safeguards. Most system servers have computer skills greater than the hackers' skills. The computer specialists know how to instruct and protect their customers.

Even the use of one's credit card number to make a purchase online is not a big problem, according to Hooge. Safeguards are in place to protect the customer, and anyone fraudulently using someone else's card is just asking to get caught, he said.

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