Think your computer data is safe? Think again

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

We are creeping through Green Forest at a snail's pace, with Police Chief John Bailey in the front seat and computer technician Jim Poff in the back seat.

It's a densely populated area behind and near the Public Square, and suddenly, with a few beeps, the police car takes on the feeling of a spy vehicle.

Poff has a regular laptop computer in front of him. There's no telling how many computers we are driving by, inside the houses and the businesses, but you would think there wouldn't be too many, with many people at work and home computers shut down.

That doesn't seem to matter, as Poff's computer begins pinging and displaying private and commercial computers that may be on or off, most likely on.

The free software Poff is using shows red in a little round dot on the first "hit," and Poff tells the chief to back up a little bit. The red dot turns yellow, which is a fairly good signal, then green, and Poff says "stop."

There on the screen is a green dot displaying the name of a person that the reporter and chief recognize as a law enforcement-connected individual.

From this point, Poff, though he would be breaking the law, can click the mouse a few times and do a little simple manipulation and ---- presto ---- he could be inside this person's computer, looking at or destroying files, looking at his checkbook if it is on his computer, using the target's computer to surf the Internet ---- it's like talking over the computer with the computer keyboard in the police car ---- and the individual, whether the computer is on or off, may never know that Poff or anyone else with this knowledge had been there, unless he left destruction in his wake or intentionally left a calling card.

The only requirement for all this to happen is a wireless network between the home's computers or a wireless modem to one or more computers.

All Poff has is a little knowledge about wireless and radio frequency technology, some computer experience, some free software and a $50 or less device that amounts to a radio frequency box. He can hit computers miles away with a little better antenna, but everything he is using is available almost anywhere.

Poff and Chief Bailey are showing this to a reporter who is fairly knowledgeable about computers, but the reporter is stunned by both the ease of this operation and how many computers in Green Forest are a using wireless technology.

As we cruise along in Green Forest, the laptop beeps red and green and yellow, as each computer identification pops up on the screen ---- but there are several that are different.

The have little lock symbols, like a closed padlock, meaning the owner has either read the instructions that came with the wireless device, whether is either a router to another device or a wireless modem.

That little lock symbol, so easy to install and impenetrable to outsiders, is what the police chief and the computer tech want the public to know about.

In a trial run before a reporter arrived, Bailey and Poff did a trial run around Green Forest and got about 20 hits, most of them accessible though a receiver/transmitter that is available to anyone at most computer or even retail stores.

"This is not rocket science, and people really need to know how to lock out their wireless devices, which is very simple, either by reading the directions or calling for help. These wireless modems and routers come with directions on how to lock out the signal from outsiders, and it's really pretty simple to do," Poff said.

On the second, shorter drive through Green Forest, there were at least half a dozen or more computers in different areas that popped up on Poff's screen. A yellow or green light means the computer is accessible to outsiders, and if you back up and move around a little the red light will eventually turn to green when you get close enough to the target house.

Only the little lock symbol means the computer is closed off to outsiders.

"For instance," Poff said, "if I get a green signal from a nearby spot to a house with a wireless setup, I can go into their computer just like I was at their keyboard, and get into a home-checking and bookkeeping program like Quicken, get their bank account numbers and later write a check on that account, after printing out a phony check. If you've used your credit card number to buy something on the Internet, I can probably find that, too," he said.

Any wireless setup, and there are more out there than you would think, is vulnerable, Poff noted.

On a Saturday trip through Berryville on the way to Green Forest last weekend, Poff said, by the time he got to Wal-Mart he had about 35 wireless hits from computers that he could access.

He can destroy files and programs, get confidential information, even surf the Internet without the computer owner knowing about it.

Some companies and businesses aren't even set up to lock out intruders, he said.

On regular cable setups, it's not as easy, but a true hacker, he said, can get into your computer through the Internet.

"They may have one computer set up with the only purpose of sending out IP (your internet provider) addresses, fishing for a good address that they can use to assume your identity or use your IP address for free Internet use," he said.

Poff discovered the way to illegally get into wireless setups while working for for Ozcom, a company that is bringing wireless into this area.

"Wireless is the future," he said, "and the public should be aware that it is basically a radio frequency that needs to be locked out from intruders. It's a very serious problem," Poff said.

Green Forest Police Chief John Bailey said he is looking at the problem as a kind of "neighborhood watch" situation.

"If you see some stranger going into your neighbor's back yard, you'll call the police," he said. "In this case, we want the public to be award that the intruder is invisible ---- he may be next door or in a car in your neighborhood," Bailey said.

The chief said he is planning to set up orientations for computer users much like a neighborhood watch, "as a service to the community," he said.

He plans to notify the public at a later date about orientation classes, and in the meantime, for more information call Chief Bailey at (870) 438-5517, or Jim Poff at 438-4828. Please call Bailey first, as Poff is busy with his Ozcom duties.

"I just wanted people with wireless setups to know about this, because some of the people who install computers don't even bother or know how to lock the wireless system to outsiders," Poff said.

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