(Part 3 of a three-part series. See Parts 1 and 2.)

Cookies are not only bad for your waistline–they can seriously hamper your computer’s performance and even worse, leave you vulnerable to “Peeping Toms.”

Is your computer running slow? Do you have annoying pop-ups? Are you concerned about someone accessing your personal information or “watching” where you surf on the Web? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, have you checked your “cookies”?

A “cookie” is a computer code that recognizes your unique computer address and allows a third party to monitor actions you take on your computer. Some “cookies” are actually quite helpful. For example, if you are making an airline reservation and give them your frequent flyer number, the airline’s “cookies” allow them to retrieve your present reservations, seat preferences, credit card numbers, and provide special offers based upon where you elect to travel. Real estate companies who allow visitors to search the Multiple Listing Service often use “cookies” as well. Once the visitor enters in his/her e-mail address, the site “recognizes’ the visitor and “populates” the site with that person’s previous search requests. Without “cookies,” visitors would have to enter this information each time they visited the site.

On the other hand, dangerous “cookies” are lurking in innocent-looking e-mails, as well as millions of Web sites we routinely visit. For example, if you visit an online news site, most attach a cookie each time you open a page on their site. This means that if you are reading your news online, you can literally pick up hundreds of “cookies” each week. The same is also true for thousands of advertisers. What is even more insidious is how many spammers include “cookies” in their unsolicited e-mail. Once the “cookie” is on your computer, it can be used to create unwelcome pop-up ads, expose your machine to viruses, access personal information, as well as interfere with your computer’s other programs.

Unfortunately, the “Internet Security” and Virus Programs do not protect you from all cookies. For example, the Norton program warns you each time a Web site or e-mail was attempts to add a cookie to your machine. You have the option of blocking or accepting the “cookie.” Even though you block the “cookies,” a large number will still end up on your machine. In my own case, my computer’s performance was seriously deteriorating. I had numerous pop-ups even though I was running two pop-up blockers. The problem was twofold: first, I had numerous cookies Norton had missed. In fact, when I installed the Total Access Upgrade, they had a “cookie counter.” Total Access kept a running total in the toolbar each time I “picked up” a new “cookie.” The “cookie count” was stunning. On a typical day where I checked the weather, visited two news Web sites and linked to four articles from those sites, I would have 10-20 new cookies. The second problem was “spyware,” which Total Access also eliminated.

Deleting unwanted cookies can speed up your computer’s performance while protecting you from “Peeping Toms” who are interested in monitoring your computer’s activities. To remove these unwanted and potentially dangerous pieces of code from Windows, check the “help” on your computer system. In Windows XP, for example, the “cookie remover” is under “Network and Internet Connections.” Once you reach that page, click on “Internet Options” and the pop-up menu will have a check box that says, “Delete cookies.” Use this option at least once weekly. Alternatively, you can also use Earthlink’s Total Access Program and set the “Cookie” protection on high. This means each time you shut down your computer, the system will delete all “cookies” unless you specifically instruct the program to accept “cookies” from a specific site.

Most experts recommend that you clear “cookies” weekly. The “Cookie Monster” is real. Don’t leave yourself vulnerable to these insidious villains who invade your privacy and jeopardize your computer’s performance.

Bernice Ross is an owner of Realestatecoach.com and can be reached at bernice@realestatecoach.com.

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Send tips, feedback or a letter to the editor to newsroom@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 124.

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