Home Internet users have a one in three chance of suffering computer damage, financial loss, or both because of a computer virus or spyware, according to the conclusions of the 2005 Consumer Reports State of the Net survey of online consumers.

The survey found that viruses, spyware and phishing are on the rise; but that spam is easing.

Despite the fact that consumers spent more than $2.6 billion over the past two years for protection software, more than $9 billion was spent on computer repairs, parts, and replacement because of viruses and spyware. The unsettling findings are contained in the September issue of Consumer Reports.

The nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 households with at-home Internet access indicate that the Internet is no longer the urbane information motorway it was five years ago. An individual consumer now faces assaults through e-mail, Websites, messaging services, and downloads. Among CR's survey findings:

• 64 percent of survey respondents said they had detected viruses on their computer in the past two years.

• 52 percent reported a spyware infection in the past six months; of those, 18 percent reported having had an infection so serious that they had to erase their hard drives.

• Nearly 20 percent of spam recipients said spam interfered with their browser.

• 17 percent of respondents said they don't use antivirus software.

• 13 percent said that the need to avoid spam and email scams had induced them to shop online less; but, about 1.2 million online households helped keep spammers in business with purchases of products or services advertised through spam.

• 10 percent of respondents with high-speed broadband access said they don't have firewall protection that would block online intruders. Nationally, that's the equivalent of 3.6 million unprotected households.

• 6 percent of respondents had submitted personal information in response to a phishing scam. Financial losses were rare - only .5 percent - but expensive, costing $400 on average, and a few topped $1000.

• Macs are safer than Windows PCs for some online hazards. Only 20 percent of Mac owners surveyed reported detecting a virus in the past two years compared with 66 percent of PC owners.

• 8 percent of Mac users reported a spyware infection in the last six months vs. 54 percent of Windows PC users.

Help Is on the Way

Consumer Reports notes that the most immediate help for consumers is from some leading Internet service providers, notably AOL and EarthLink. They, along with MSN and others, provide antivirus protection and filter out spam and phishing e-mail before it reaches the user.

Computer users who take the right precautions can greatly reduce exposure to online hazards. The experts at Consumer Reports recommend the following 13 steps and practices to safeguard computer security.

1. Upgrade the operating system -- Windows XP users should enable automatic updates and install Service Pack 2. Mac users should update with the Software Update Control Panel.

2. Use a firewall. Windows XP has one built-in and a router most likely has one built-in.

3. Adjust browser security settings to medium or higher.

4. Consider an ISP or e-mail provider that offers security.

5. Use antivirus software.

6. Use more than one antispyware program, which can boost coverage.

7. Regularly back-up personal files which safeguards data in case of a security problem.

8. Beware while browsing. Be wary of ad-sponsored or "free" giveaways. They probably include spyware.

9. Avoid short passwords to foil password-cracking software.

10. Use e-mail cautiously -- never open an attachment unless you were expecting it.

11. Use multiple e-mail addresses so you can drop one when it attracts too much spam.

12. Take a stand - don't buy anything promoted in a spam message.

13. Look for secure Websites that show an icon of an unbroken key or a lock that's closed at the bottom of the page. Also the Web address should begin with "https:" when entering personal data.

Tests and Ratings

Consumer Reports also tested and rated antispam, antivirus, and antispyware programs. Among the various products tested, CR recommends Allume Systems SpamCatcher 4 ($30) and MailFrontier Desktop ($30) as the best choices among those tested as add-on antispam programs. Users running an older version of Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail should consider upgrading to Microsoft Outlook 2003 or Apple OS 10.4 Mail.

Among antivirus programs, CR recommends Trend Micro PC-cillin Internet Security 2005 ($50) and Kaspersky Lab Anti-Virus Personal 5.0 ($35) for consumers that have no antivirus programs. CR also notes that Alwil Avast Antivirus offers free full-featured protection and is easy to use but offers limited support.

For an excellent main antispyware program with real-time protection, the experts at CR recommend Microsoft AntiSpyware. This free program is beta version and Microsoft says it will offer the final version to licensed Windows users.