At some point during school you probably learned about Odysseus's brilliant plan to sneak soldiers into his enemy's city in the guise of a magnificent statue of a horse-the famous Trojan horse, to be exact. It's a great story, and the plan was such a great tactical maneuver that, unfortunately, hackers have adapted it to suit their malicious attacks against your computer.
A Trojan horse, in the computer world, is a seemingly harmless program that delivers an unwanted, unsafe program that can have dire consequences. Unlike a computer virus, though, a Trojan horse relies on the user to complete some sort of action that triggers the program. So, like Odysseus's Trojan horse being pulled inside the city walls, you have to open or install the item to release the harmful program, like Odysseus's soldiers swarming out of the statue.
Trojan horses come in two common forms. The first is as a program that, though normally useful, has been altered by a hacker who has entered in dangerous coding that will initiate when the program is used. For example, you might install a program on your PC that tells you what the weather forecast for your town is. That seems like a pretty useful tool, and it would be if a hacker hadn't used it as a disguise for programming that will slow your computer down or cause a number of other damaging effects.
The other type of Trojan horse is an independent program that seems to be one thing, like a picture or game. However, when you run the program, you're tricked into performing some task that allows the Trojan to initiate. For example, the "game" might open a box that asks if you want to install a certain component of the game. Regardless of whether you click "yes" or "no," the program will deliver the payload, or effects, of the Trojan horse.
Trojan horses can cause a number of different problems for you and your computer. One particularly dangerous problem is the theft of information. Some Trojan horses can trick your computer into marking a fraudulent site as one that is safe. So, you might think you're entering personal information, such as passwords or credit card numbers, into a banking site. However, the recipient of the information isn't your bank-it's a hacker.
Similarly, Trojan horses can be used to actually record the keys you strike on your keyboard so that hackers get a readout of user names and passwords you type. Or, they might dig through your computer to find and copy, change, or delete certain files.
Trojan horses might also cause seemingly minor annoyances, like pop-ups. Many of these pop-ups aren't designed to just annoy you, though; they're meant to trick you into clicking on them and accessing a fraudulent website.
Fortunately, when you know what Trojan horses are and how they work, there are many steps you can take to protect yourself. First, be mindful of how you communicate online, including the emails you open and where you post your email address. Never use your primary email address on large Internet directories, like sites used for job searches.
If you receive an email from an email address you don't recognize, don't open it. Try to find out who the message is from first and, if you can't, simply delete it; a missed message that was legitimate is much less of a threat than the dangers it can open your computer to.
When you set up your email preferences, don't allow your computer to automatically open attachments. Trojan horses frequently arrive as attachments to messages, and they might even appear to be from someone you know since many hackers are able to steal addresses right out of the email address book.
One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to purchase and use good virus protection software and a firewall. Because new threats pop up every day, it's imperative that you update your software frequently. Most companies offering these types of software allow free update downloads or a subscription service for updates.
So, now you know that a Trojan horse isn't just a statue from an ancient story, it's a real threat. It's up to you to take the steps that are necessary to protect your computer and your privacy.
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