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|I was lucky enough to have a knowledgeable friend look over my shoulder
while I was learning my way around the Internet. After the first few months,
I absorbed the experiences of more experienced Net users and fit them into
the framework Dana had provided.
A good book fulfills that mentoring role, giving readers advice on navigating the Internet while avoiding its pitfalls. Bandits on the Information Superhighway, a February 1996 addition to O'Reilly & Associates' "What You Need to Know" series, fits the bill nicely. The author covers the gamut of Internet scams, from ***MAKE MONEY FAST*** pyramid schemes to false advertising, dispels the popular illusion of unsolicited pornography bombarding users, and speaks frankly but without hype about the remote but real perils of allowing children to use the Net without supervision. Bandits further distinguishes itself from its competitors by informing users of their rights on the Internet (such as copyright protection and privacy), giving copious good advice on safely buying and selling items through Usenet, and providing a removable chart listing fifteen ways to spot an Internet bandit.
All this information is surely familiar to more experienced Internet users. In fact, the book comes close to violating Chapter 5's admonition not to pay for information available for free on the Net -- the end of most every chapter points to on-line resources which reflect the chapter's content. While the introductory section claims "this book is for all computer users", saying experts will find good reference material and perhaps a few surprises, anyone with more than a few years of Internet use will know most if not all of the facts, schemes, scams, and countermeasures author Dan Barrett presents. To be fair, though, the book's added value is that it gives inexperienced readers Internet "street smarts" in one easily assimilated package.
Bandits does have some shortcomings, the most glaring being the almost total lack of explicit instructions on how to implement the recommended countermeasures. For example, a sidebar on the back cover (repeated on page 41) quotes a woman who was harassed by a man sending obscene talk messages as saying she learned how to block talk and "never heard from the charmer again." The reader is never told how she did it, presumably because the author wanted to stay away from Unix commands that wouldn't work on America On-Line or a bulletin board.
I had some trouble with the author's choice to limit the technical information in the book to WWW addresses, newsgroups and mailing lists, but was willing to forgive it if he was consistent. He wasn't. Chapter 11 contains a full-page command sequence on using telnet to determine a computer's postmaster as a step in reporting fraudulent activity. Surely if users can be trusted to telnet to port 25, they can at least be told that Usenet kill files and email filtering methods exist. And that's the book's other major flaw -- kill files and email filtering are never mentioned.
Are those complaints enough for me not to recommend Bandits on the Information Superhighway to relatively new Internet users? Not by a long shot. The in-depth explanations of Internet scams and good advice on buying and selling via Usenet more than justify the $17.95 investment.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.