An enormous opportunity for resellers and retails exists if they can just get consumers educated about the risks of online malware and the methods to protect themselves.

According to research recently released by US ISP AOL, a stunning 81 per cent of home PC are missing at least one of the three most critical security tools – updated computer virus software, spyware protection, and a secure firewall. The study also found that phishing attacks have reached near epidemic proportions with roughly one in four Americans (23%) subjected to identity theft attempts each month.

The second annual AOL/National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) Online Safety Study has results that should frighten the pants off security experts.

The study, which saw technical experts sent into hundreds of American homes to examine their PCs for known security risks found more than half (56%) of the participants either had no anti-virus protection or had not updated it within the last week, almost half (44%) did not have a properly-configured firewall, and four in ten (38%) lacked spyware protection.

The horror stories continued though. While wireless networks were installed in more than a quarter (26%) of homes nearly half (47%) were unencrypted.

More than two-thirds of consumers (70%) who received such phishing e-mails thought they were from legitimate companies.

The challenge for our industry is that despite the exposure levels, the large majority of users (83%) falsely believed they were safe from online threats.

It seems they won’t learn either. One in five (18%) said a friend or family member had already fallen victim to an online identity theft scam, but only 42% were familiar with the term “phishing,” and of those, just 57% could accurately define it.

“Phishers are getting better at tricking consumers into revealing their bank account and financial information, and most Americans can’t tell the difference between real e-mails and the growing flood of scams that lead to fraud and identity theft.” said Tatiana Platt, Senior Vice President and Chief Trust Officer for AOL. “Consumers need to be aware of the risk, and they need to use critical protections like anti-virus software, spyware protection, and a firewall to help protect them from online threats.”

“There is a major perception gap: Even though most consumers think they are protected, this study shows the opposite. Far too many people still lack the three fundamental protections they need to stay safe online — current anti-virus software, spyware protection, and a secure firewall,” Ron Teixeira, executive director, National Cyber Security Alliance. “As we move into a broadband world, where consumers have an always-on connection to the Internet, these core protections are even more vital. This is particularly troubling, given that more than two-thirds of those surveyed say they keep sensitive information on their PCs.”

There were some glimmers of hope, however. Properly-configured firewalls jumped from 28% to 56% – Microsoft’s Windows XP SP2 update helped out here. The number of recently-updated anti-virus packages rose from 33% to 44%, but spyware and adware protection fell from 80% to 61%.

With all this the number of home PCs with active viruses fell from 19% last year to 12%.

Other Key Findings

  • Three-quarters (74%) of respondents use their computers for sensitive transactions such as banking, stock trading, or reviewing personal medical information.
  • More than two-thirds (68%) keep sensitive information on their home computers like personal correspondence, resumes or professional records, or health or financial information.
  • More than half (55%) say they have been infected by a virus in the past.
  • The percent of computers with an active file-sharing program fell by more than half from 23% to 11%.
  • Homes with children were more likely to have spyware or adware on the computer. More than two-thirds (69%) of homes with children under age 18 had spyware/adware, vs. 58% of households without kids.
  • Seven in ten (70%) users now say that they use a pop-up blocker (vs. 47% last year)

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