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People can do more to guard against ID theft, says group

While a new law will give victims of identity theft greater restitution for the damages they suffer, a study shows people can better protect themselves from cybercrime.

As the federal government makes efforts to protect citizens online, it is encouraging people to look out for themselves as well.

To kick off its fifth annual "National Cyber Security Month," the National Cyber Security Alliance, an organization of government, academic, and industry representatives, paired with Symantec to release the results of a national poll on Thursday showing Americans do not feel very safe online, yet they believe they are more protected than they actually are.

Just 26 percent of respondents said they felt their computers were "very safe" from viruses, and 21 percent felt their computers were "very safe" from hackers.

"We might be making it too difficult for people to feel safe," said Michael Kaiser, the director of the NCSA. "We need simple tips stripped of the jargon."

The report was released on the heels of a new law signed by President Bush last week that increases penalties for hacking and other cybercrime charges. Rolled in with an amendment to provide Secret Service protection to former vice presidents, the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act makes it a felony to damage 10 or more protected computers used by the federal government or a financial institution.

It also allows federal prosecutors to bring cybercrime charges against a person without having to meet any threshold for damages caused by the crime. In cases where an identity thief is ordered to pay restitution, the law calls for the victims to be compensated for the time they spent trying to remediate the damage.

The cybercrime provisions in the law "constitute some of the most significant laws so far" to protect people online, said Adam Rak, senior director for public awareness from Symantec. "Ultimately, though, the responsibility falls on all of us."

Rak said the three basic tools critical for keeping the average user safe are antivirus, antispyware, and firewall software.

Yet the NCSA study, which combined a survey of more than 3,000 Americans with an evaluation of 400 personal computers belonging to those surveyed, showed that most people do not have all three components.

"Just having anti-virus software is not enough," Rak said. "Picture a car with antilock brakes, airbags, and seat belts--I doubt any of us would buy a car without seat belts installed."

Just over 80 percent of respondents had antispyware protections enabled, and 95 percent had updated antivirus software. Yet just 50 percent had antiphishing protections.

Even though 81 percent of respondents said they had firewall protections on their computers, only 42 percent of those computers checked were actually equipped with them. As many as 75 percent of respondents thought they had antispam filters installed when, in fact, only 58 percent actually did.