Malware warnings: Truth or fiction?

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

Q. I read one of your columns in our local newspaper recently in which you mentioned a program that could be used to retrieve Windows Product Keys. When I went to the Web site, my McAfee SiteAdvisor warned me that the site has malware on it, so I got concerned and didn't do anything further. Can you explain what that's about, Mr. M? I've used McAfee for several years and have always trusted it, so should I continue to use McAfee or switch to something else?

A. When a program such as your McAfee SiteAdvisor displays a warning, it simply means that it assessed an item's risk potential and issued an alert. It is then up to you to decide what action to take, if any. As the product name implies, it is only a site "advisor."

In this instance, McAfee interpreted the site referenced (magicjellybean.com) as a potential risk because its purpose is a bit unusual, that being the retrieval of Windows Product Keys. A Windows Product Key is a long series of numbers and letters that appears on the back of a DVD jacket or jewel case. That's a good place for it, unless or until you dispose of the jacket or case. If you later need to reinstall Windows and you're asked to enter the Product Key, you'll be in a digital pickle without it. In that situation, a program that retrieves product keys can save the day.

Legitimate uses notwithstanding, a program that retrieves product keys or passwords would understandably cause concern. For example, if some ne'er-do-well bundled that type of program together with a trojan that would then hijack email address books, that could -- and the operative word here is "could" -- be used to steal product keys (or passwords, depending on the program) from unsuspecting recipients. Oh, the humanity!

Whether McAfee or any other security software, it doesn't have the "intelligence" to discriminate between real and potential threats. At least not yet. Visiting the same site using similar site-advisor applications (other than McAfee) will yield no alerts because different "advisors" use different criteria to assess a potential threat.

Having written computer-help columns for almost 20 years, and having profiled more than 10,000 sites in magazine articles and newspaper columns through the eons, nothing appears in my columns that I haven't tested, downloaded, and otherwise examined thoroughly. That's a factor all readers are welcome to take into consideration when evaluating anything that appears in my columns, though the final decision always remains with the reader, as it properly should. There are never any guarantees, however, when it comes to the wild and wooly Web.

Your McAfee SiteAdvisor is as good as any similar program. There are no perfect products in that regard because when all is said and done, computer programs can check, assess and evaluate only items they are programmed to check, assess and evaluate.

I would suggest staying with McAfee since you have been using it for several years. My philosophy when it comes to computing is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The fact that McAfee might have been a bit off on this one doesn't mean that it's a bad product or ineffective in any way. In fact, quite the contrary: McAfee alerted you to something that caused it concern and it was right to do that. I would rather accommodate an occasional erroneous threat than to use a product that might be a little too lax and fail to notify me of something so dire that I need to be heading for the bunker.

Mr. Modem's Sites of the Week

As we look forward to the coming holiday season, I want to share with you a site that I hope you will share with others. It may make you laugh, it may make you cry, but there is something universal in this YouTube video from Italy that touches everyone. Please enjoy -- along with a hug from me. (You'll understand once you view the video, and be sure to watch it to the end.)

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