Consumers Have Gotten Smarter About Cyber Safety -- But So Have the Cyber Crooks

11/15/2011 09:32 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2012

Consumers around the world have embraced online commerce, spending hundreds of billions of dollars in just the last year. At the same time, surveys also show that shoppers have serious reservations about the safety of the online world, including concerns over identity theft, data breaches and other fraud.

These security concerns threaten to erode public confidence in online commerce, so it's imperative that we develop a strong understanding of consumer online safety behavior to provide effective educational programs and also to develop safer, more secure technologies.

Data from the latest Microsoft Computing Safety Index (MCSI) is encouraging as it shows that 60 percent of self-reported respondents to a five-nation study have gotten better at protecting themselves. And when researchers factored respondents' computer settings into the results, they identified an additional 30 percent of participants, for an impressive total of 90 percent actually using anti-virus software.

The research -- conducted in Brazil, France, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. -- also revealed that 52 percent of participants reported using firewalls while, in reality, firewall usage rates stood at 76 percent. Another finding showed 55 percent of respondents reported using automatic software to update their computers; the actual numbers were much higher, at about 80 percent.

It's encouraging to see that consumers are indeed adopting online security advice and protecting their computers. However, the MCSI found that as consumers have moved to protect their systems from more technical threats such as computer viruses, cyber criminals have shifted to "socially engineered" threats -- such as attempts to deceive users into installing malicious software with fake web links and infected file attachments.

Across the countries surveyed, 62 percent of consumers reported receiving an email from an unknown sender, requesting personal information, and 28 percent said they were victims of identity theft.

Consumers are asking for help combating these new attacks -- nearly half of those surveyed said they wish they had better tools to help protect against these new, socially based dangers.

Companies, governments, and consumers need to work to address this growing breed of smarter online threats. Consumers should continue to educate themselves about online risks, and governments should continue their vigorous prosecution of cyber criminals, as well as commit funding to security research. Information technology companies need to continue to work to build safer technology, and assist in educating consumers.

Education will be key. There are many resources for consumers to access to help determine what more they can do to be safer online. And we encourage people to use them to make the Internet safer from new threats cyber-criminals are exploiting at all of our expense.