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File sharing dangers more than legal troubles

News & ViewsWant to download the hottest music, movies, or software for free? Despite high-profile lawsuits, illegal file sharing online remains fairly common. But legal troubles aren't the only risk for illegal sharers and downloaders.

Confidential and personal documents, financial files, images and more could be available to anyone connected to the sharing network. How? It's inherent in how file sharing works.
File sharing was originally intended to help people move data across computer networks. In the simplest sense, one person makes a shared folder on his computer available to others on the network. Then, users connected to the network have the ability to access files in that folder.

One way that file sharing is made possible is by using peer-to-peer programs. This specialty software lets groups of computer users directly connect to each other's hard drives to access files. Years ago, peer-to-peer software moved to the Internet, which is really one really huge computer network.

This allowed strangers from all over the world share files. Today, programs with names like Limewire, KaZaA, Bittorrent, and Bitcomet can be used to download first-run movies, television shows, music, software and more. However, there are serious problems with these programs.

First and foremost, downloads of copyrighted material are illegal. It's wrong. And you could wind up in a costly lawsuit.

Second, you are opening your computer and personal data to the Web. Perhaps you don't care that your vacation pictures are viewed by the file-sharing community. But you definitely don't want all your Word documents, financial software files, and other personal data accessible to strangers.

Although each file-sharing program differs, they generally work the same way. After installation, they establish a folder to store downloads.

One example is LimeWire. Anyone anywhere using LimeWire has access to everything in that folder. You also can designate other folders for sharing. It's awfully easy to select a folder that contains private data.

Any files stored in shared folders are fair game to others. For example, let's say you downloaded a song. The song is stored in the shared folder. Now others can download that file from your computer. (The song is actually copied by others; your file remains on your computer.)

Some peer-to-peer programs don't create a special folder for shared files. They use the My Documents folder and its subfolders. That's where most people store personal data and images. Such an arrangement is a disaster waiting to happen.

Shared folders are inherently dangerous. It's easy to store files in the wrong folder. All the security software in the world won't protect you if you give strangers access to your files.

Here's another horror: Many files contain viruses. Hackers know viruses can be spread through peer-to-peer networks. They name the file containing the virus after a popular song. When opened, no song plays. But your computer gets infected.

If you have peer-to-peer programs, remove them. Parents and grandparents should check their computers if children have access to them. Many have been blindsided by suits filed by the recording industry.

Most programs can be removed through Windows. Click Start>>Control Panel. Double-click Add or Remove Programs. Highlight the program and click the Remove button.

Once you've removed the program, restart your computer. Look to see if the program left behind anything. Right-click Start and select Explore. Look for the name of the program under Program Files. Delete any folders listed.

Next, scan your computer with anti-spyware software. It's a good idea to use different programs to catch all culprits. Some well-reviewed anti-spyware programs are Spy Sweeper (http://www.webroot.com; $30), Ad-Aware (http://www.lavasoftusa.com; free) and Spybot - Search & Destroy (http://www.safer-networking.org; free).

Here's the bottom line: Avoid file-sharing programs. They could endanger your privacy and your wallet. There are more than enough legitimate and legal pay sites that allow you to download music, videos and software.

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