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More than 80 per cent of US home computers lack at least one of the three basic security measures needed to guard against online threats, a recent study of internet users has found.

The study by AOL, the internet portal, and the National Cyber Security Alliance, an industry group, found that many computer users remain unaware of their vulnerability to malicious hackers, viruses, and scam artists.

Of more than 350 people surveyed, 81 per cent said their home PCs lacked at least one of three important safeguards: Up to date anti-virus software, spyware protection, and a secure firewall. In spite of these holes, 83 per cent of participants believed they were safe from online threats.

“There is a major peception gap,” said Ron Teixeira, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “This is particulary troubling, given that more than two-thirds of those surveyed said they keep sensitive information on their PCs.”

The study comes as increasing numbers of computer users perform sensitive financial transactions online. Jupiter Research, an internet research group, expects online sales during the holiday season alone to hit $26bn this year, an 18 per cent increase over 2004.

In addition to technical vulnerabilities arising from a lack of security software, the study also found that many users remain vulnerable to “phishing” scams, in which criminals use bogus emails to try to get users to part with sensitive financial information such as bank account numbers and passwords.

Three quarters of respondents used their computers to perform sensitive transactions, according to the study. Two thirds said they store sensitive personal information, such as correspondence, resumes and health records, on their home computers.

When AOL and the NCSA asked computer users to turn off their junk email filters, they found that one in four people was the subject of a phishing attempt each month. More than two-thirds of those who received fraudulent emails seeking personal information believed they came from legitimate institutions.

Most the phishing emails appeared to come from trusted institutions such as banks or credit card companies.

“Phishers are getting better at tricking consumers into revealing their bank account and financial information, and most Americans can’t tell the difference between real emails and the growing flood of scams that lead to fraud and indentity theft,” said Tatiana Platt, a vice president at AOL.

AOL, which is trying to manage a turnaround after haemorrhaging customers for most of the past three years, has been touting its built-in security measures in recent months. In September, it began to offer spyware protection to guard against computer programs that covertly track user activity.

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