U.S. consumers lost $7 billion over the last two years to viruses, spyware, and phishing schemes, according to Consumer Report's latest State of the Net survey.
The survey, based on a national sample of 2,000 U.S. households with Internet access, suggests that consumers face a 25-percent chance of being victimized online, which represents a slight decline from last year.
Computer virus infections, reported by 38-percent of respondents, held steady since last year, which Consumer Reports considers to be a positive sign given the increasing sophistication of virus attacks.
Thirty-four percent of respondents' computers succumbed to spyware in the past six months. While this represents a slight decline, according to Consumer Reports, the odds of a spyware infection remain 1 in 3 and the odds of suffering serious damage from spyware are 1 in 11.
Phishing attacks remained flat, duping some eight percent of survey respondents at a median cost of $200 per incident. And 650,000 consumers paid for a product or service advertised through spam in the month before the survey, thereby seeding next year's spam crop.
Perversely, insecurity means money for computer makers: Computer viruses and spyware turn out to be significant drivers of computer sales. According to the study, virus infections drove about 1.8 million households to replace their computers over the past two years.
And over the past six months, spyware infestations prompted about 850,000 households replace their computers.
Insecurity means anxiety for parents. Despite efforts by social networks like Facebook and MySpace to limit their services to those 14 and older, households with minors online said that 13-percent of children registered on MySpace were younger than 14 and three percent were under ten.
The inability of social networks to police their sites is mirrored by inability of many adults to police their own Internet connections. Some 33-percent of survey respondents did not use anti-spyware software.
Consumer Reports estimates that 3.7 million U.S. broadband households are not using a firewall.
Consumer Reports singled out Trend Micro's $50 security suite for excelling in every category that it tested and said that, in general, paid security software performed better than free security software.
It also praised security products from Check Point and McAfee.
Beyond obvious tips like activating firewalls, shutting computers down when not in use, and exercising caution when downloading software or using public computers, Consumer Reports offered one safety tip that's sure to inflame online passions: Consider a Mac.
"Although Mac owners face the same problems with spam and phishing as Windows users, they have far less to fear from viruses and spyware," said Consumer Reports. "Because Macs are less prevalent than Windows-based machines, online criminals get less of a return on their investment when targeting them."
Of course if that's true, it becomes less so with every Mac bought.
The full survey is scheduled to appear in the September issue of Consumer Reports.