Beware free music downloads

Internet users are being warned to avoid supposedly 'free' music downloads, which could not only be illegal, but might also leave them vulnerable to viruses.

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Last month a high court judge overturned a challenge to the government’s Digital Economy Act (DEA), a piece of legislation that will controversially force internet service providers (ISPs) to identify computer users that are suspected of illegally downloading material.

Anyone wishing to download music for free should be aware that the threat of legal action is not the only thing to be concerned about, as more and more criminals are targeting sites that offer free downloads to spread viruses and spyware.

Figures released by the British Recorded Music Industry (BPI) have shown that illegal music downloading is on the rise and over 1.2 billion tracks were unlawfully downloaded during 2010.

This means that around three out of four tracks that were downloaded last year were acquired illegally, costing the record industry around £219 million in lost retail sales.

It appears that this upsurge in illegal downloads is something that online criminals are now taking advantage of as research from anti-virus software providers McAfee has shown that there has been an increase in malware activity around sites promising free music downloads.

Put simply, this means that anyone clicking a link, usually in the form of a pop-up box, promising "free music downloads" or "free software downloads” is leaving their computer wide open to any number of viruses, worms, spyware or Trojan horses.

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Types of malware

Malware comes in various guises, the most common of which are probably viruses and worms. These are generally destructive programs that can be designed to wipe an entire hard drive, in the case of a virus, or even an entire network if infected by a worm.

These worms and viruses are usually dropped into a computer system via a Trojan Horse, a program that will look inviting to a computer user but will actually conceal harmful or malicious software.

Trojan Horses are also used to distribute spyware, programs that are capable of gathering user information from a computer to alter web browser behaviour or even intercept sensitive information such as passwords and credit card details.

Once these details have been recorded they can be used for credit card fraud or theft.

How to spot and avoid malware

Although they can often be well hidden or made to look like legitimate programs, there are many ways to identify malicious files.

Make sure you know exactly who you are dealing with as it is easy for criminals to create an official looking website or email that is simply a cover to spread malicious software.

Furthermore, although file sharing is not actually illegal, it is illegal to download or share copyrighted material, such as music and films, so avoid any sites that offer these free download services.

Try to avoid sharing too much of your personal and financial data online and never disclose any password or pin number information, especially if prompted to do so via an email or a pop up.

To that end you should always err on the side of caution when opening any email attachments, particularly from unfamiliar email addresses, as these files may contain malware that could install code on your machine, track your activity or steal data.

If you do shop online it may be a good idea to pay for goods via a secure payment service such as PayPal. Alternatively, take out a credit card with a relatively low credit limit that is used specifically for online transactions.

The basic rule of thumb is to be vigilant and remember that, even in the online world, there is rarely any such thing as a free lunch, so if something looks too good to be true then it probably is.

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