Study: One-quarter of online consumers see a scam a month

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Nearly 25 percent of PC users are targeted by monthly phishing attempts, according to a national online safety study.

Twenty-three percent of Americans are affected by online identity theft, and 70 percent of consumers believed the fraudulent emails they received were from a legitimate company, the second annual America Online/National Cyber Security Alliance online safety study revealed this month. Eighteen percent of respondents also said a friend or a family member had been swindled by an identity theft scheme.

The survey also revealed that few online consumers are familiar with basic safety terms and practices. More than four in 10 (42 percent) had not heard of the term "phishing," and only 57 percent could accurately describe the tactic.

Tatiana Platt, senior vice president and chief trust officer for AOL, said education is key to protecting consumers.

"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 emails and the growing flood of scams that lead to fraud and identity theft," she said in a statement. "Consumers need to be aware of the risk, and they need to use critical protections like antivirus software, spyware protection and a firewall to help protect them from online threats."

The poll also found that many Americans are lacking basic protection from internet threats. More than 80 percent of PCs lack either updated virus software, spyware protection or a firewall.

Fifty-six percent of participants were lacking updated antivirus protection, while 44 percent did not have a properly configured firewall. Thirty-eight percent lacked spyware protection, yet 83 percent of these respondents believed they were safe from online threats.

Ron Teixeira, executive director of the NCSA, also emphasized the need for greater user education.

"A striking statistic is that one of four had a phishing attack a month, but the real striking statistic is that about 70 percent thought the emails they received were real," he said. "There is a long way to go to educate customers about what they need to do to protect themselves."

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