Consumer Reports dubiously finds 20-percent of Mac users ‘detected’ virus in last two years -UPDATED

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. And 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. Along with more unsettling findings, the September issue of Consumer Reports, also available on http://www.ConsumerReports.org , includes an Online Survival Guide complete with tips and best practices for safe online surfing and Consumer Reports’ independent tests and ratings of antispam, antivirus, and antispyware programs.

2005 Consumer Reports State of the Net

Results of Consumer Reports’ (CR) 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.

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 of Antispam, Antivirus, and Antispyware Programs

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 ( http:www.avast.com ) 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.

Also in the September issue of Consumer Reports are survey results of Internet Provider satisfaction, a guide to home networking and ratings and recommendations on laptop and desktop computers — including brand repair history. The September issue goes on sale Tuesday, August 9th wherever magazines are sold.

MacDailyNews Take: There are zero Mac OS X viruses. Excluding Microsoft Word and Excel Macro Viruses, there were about 25 viruses total that affected the original or “classic” Mac OS. Apple CEO Steve Jobs held an “funeral” on May 6, 2002 for the classic Mac OS, as the operating system reached its “end of life.” Windows, at last count, had 97,467 viruses vs. 0 for Apple’s Mac OS X. What viruses did respondents to Consumer Reports’ survey find exactly? A Microsoft Word Macro virus on a dusty floppy diskette from 1989 that was designed to infect System 6? Or were the Mac users simply detecting Windows viruses and spyware that would be harmless to their Macs? There are zero viruses for Apple computers running Mac OS X.

We sent Consumer Reports this email:

Consumer Reports states, “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.”

As Mac OS X has zero viruses and no known spyware in the wild, we are wondering how Consumer Reports arrived at these numbers? Are you including older, non-Mac OS X, Mac operating system versions? If so, you should state that Apple has not shipped new Macs with these older Mac operating systems since the start of 2003 or not use the numbers as they are not representative of Macs that people can buy today, which would presumably be the Macs in which your readers would be interested in purchasing.

More info: http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2002/sep/10macosx.html
Related info: http://www.trusecure.com/knowledge/hype/20050406_mac_os_x.shtml

Also, did the respondents included in your survey have the technical knowledge necessary to discern viruses and spyware from other issues? Please clarify how you arrived at these numbers, so we may inform our nearly 2 million monthly visitors of your report and explain the findings referenced above.

Thank you.

[UPDATE: August 10, 2005, 3:11pm: We have received a response from Consumer Reports:

The survey data on computer infections contrast Macs with Windows-based PCs, but it would be beyond the scope of the project to evaluate specific versions of each operating system. Our conclusion that Macs have been less prone to viruses and spyware is based on a nationally representative sample. The methodology and findings were vetted by our engineers, technical writers, and survey experts. We are proud to convey this important information for our readers. Whether some versions of each platform are, and will continue to be, more secure is a matter of conjecture.

Regarding any potential confusion between spyware and virus infection, we operationalized the questions to make the distinction clear to the non-expert. Still, any potential confusion between spyware and virus infections would affect both Mac and Windows statistics.

Consumer Reports

MacDailyNews Take: Thanks so much for clearing that up. So, Consumer Reports readers will come away with the notion that if they walk into an Apple Store to buy a Mac today, they have a 20% chance of “detecting” a virus (how many will read that as a chance of being infected with a virus?) and an 8% chance of being infected with spyware. The facts that there are currently zero (0) Mac OS X viruses and zero (0) cases of reported Mac OS X spyware infections seems to be lost in translation, doesn’t it? Are Consumer Reports serving their readers the best they can in this case? We recommend that you if you must read Consumer Reports, read it with a grain of salt.]

Consumer Reports contact info:
Lauren Hackett: lhackett@consumer.org
Alberto G. Rojas: arojas@consumer.org

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98 Comments

  1. Consumer Reports has always been biased against Apple …
    Unfortunately they hold a lot of sway on the average consumer and many people refer to them …

    Someone needs to insist they publish a retraction for this sloppy work

  2. I think CR is including viruses that end up in peoples email inboxes from other infected people, even though they don’t infect Macs. So they delete the infected emails, and some how this counts as deleting viruses from their Macs. While others don’t even know that the email is a virus, so don’t report it as them deleting a virus. That is the only way I see this possible.

  3. It could also be… “Viruses” is a buzzword sometimes, and people blame anything and everything that goes wrong on “could it be a virus?” I’m asked that quite frequently by Mac users who just don’t know any better.

    So this “yeah I had a virus” could be a false alarm.

  4. Technically, I could answer yes to detecting a virus in the last two years, that being the Thus macro virus on my daughters iMac. Blame lies with Microsoft and not Apple but it was still technically a detected virus on a Mac. (Running Panther at the time, scanned with ClamX)

  5. Detecting a virus and being infected are two different things. My neighbor gets corrupted emails from her sister, she is convinced that her computer is acting poorly because of it. All that was needed was to repair permissions – which hadn’t been done in 6 months. She is convinced that that removed the viruses. Sigh, what do you do, she’s in her 50’s and has advanced technically as far as she wishes to go. She is the one who would respond to Consumer Reports negatively.

  6. a perfect example of why CR needs to stick to cars and home appliances, and leave all electronics alone. they clearly have no freaking idea what they’re doing, and they dis-serve the public and the companies whose products they misrepresent.

  7. I will ask this question again: Has anyone here had a virus, spyware, adware infection in OS X? I have searched for examples and found one person who claimed that they had adware installed, but that was it. Trojans don’t count. (They can work on any system, and can be avoided with common sense.)

    I think that anyone who claims that OS X has a few viruses is someone who does not use OS X regularly or at all.

  8. Thus was/is a Word 97 macro virus. On the 13th of December when an infected document is opened, the virus will attempt to delete ALL files on drive C: (including subdirectories).

    Mac’s have never had a “drive C:” and therefore were/are immune.

  9. I think it is just a matter of unclear wording – I use Mac OSX and “detect” a windows virus in my email every few days.
    Oh, my “file is attached”? From a complete stranger named Ch33pV7aGrA5736@fakemail.com? Oh, that must be just the .PIF or .SCR or .EXE I was looking for….I wish my stupid Mac would let me open up such valuable attachments from new friends.

  10. I agree with the comments made already.
    There needs to be a clear distinction made between a virus actively corrupting the OS, and one that is inherently impotent and merely disseminated by Macro viruses.
    I had one friend who works on Macs only, and just could not send an email attachment to someone at one of the big corporate companies. He kept getting the automated reply saying that the corp’s antivirus scanning rejected his infected file. Therefore my friend believed he had a virus on his PowerMac. So yes, he may have one, but whether it actually affected his computer’s stability or not, he wasn’t sure. He was just glad that he could still continue working away.
    Sadly, I doubt we’ll ever get the real story out of this Consumer Report…. its going to be nigh on impossible to contact all those surveyed to clarify the answer.
    Shame… Microsoft will definitely take advantage of this report.
    I just hope MDN’s initiative will get some response back from CR.

  11. I’ve written to CR before about Mac issues. Frankly, bombarding them will have the opposite effect of “educating” them. CR will just take an even less informed position. The only response about a computer report I ever got that was remotely considerate was asking that the prices of the monitors be counted separately from the price of the CPUs. They used to lump them together. Not everyone needs a monitor. CR responded politely and actually started to do just what I suggested.

    About computers in general, CR is horrendously ambiguous. Informed readers will pretty much ignore what they say (although the tech support numbers are what they are). Casual or newbie readers will come away badly informed.

    For example, CR rated a Kodak digital camera very highly. However, no where could you tell that it uses a propriery USB cable and proprietary batteries. These are basic pieces of information that guide a purchase. This is the type of thing that seems to effect Mac reviews in CR more than other brands (like not mentioning iLife, saying that Apple Mail costs $129, failing to mention there are no viruses that effect OS X).

    I think CR should just stay away from electronics as a whole. Leave the stereos, digi-cams, computers, and MP3 players, etc. to the folks who know what they are doing.

    CR – please name one piece of spyware, malware, or virus that effects OS X. Then tell me how your Macintosh respondents determined they were effected.

  12. The article talks about DETECTING a virus. My Mac DETECTED a virus a couple of months ago. Don’t ask me why, but Virex popped up and said “We’ve discovered a virus!”. I took the appropriate actions.

    Probably a Windows virus or something. But the point is still the same. They didn’t say “20% HAD a Mac virus”. They said “20% DETECTED a Mac virus.” HUGE difference.

  13. All told…. I think there were more than just 25 viruses which affected the “Classic” Mac OSs …. I think I read somewhere the actual number was closer to 68…

    (Can anyone confirm this ?)

    But, still… whats 68 compared to the 80,000 viruses (or so) which affect that “Virus Magnet” DOS system from Redmond ?

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