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How Online Role-Playing Games Infect Your Computer

Risky games both online and offline

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as "World of Warcraft" or "EVE Online" are a lot of fun, but beware: The games can also be great distribution platforms for malicious code makers.

After all, what better way is there to get someone to download your malware than by disguising it as a new weapon or a fancy addition for your avatar's home?

While big games like "WoW" and "Second Life" get a fair bit of the attention and have some built-in protections, smaller games and free games are more likely targets for code with bad intentions.

Two years ago, players of one popular online game were infected with a Trojan that had come through a regular update, according to a recent report from Kaspersky Lab. The malware writers had been targeting the game publisher itself.

What are your chances of getting infected through an online role-playing game? And what can users do to keep themselves from becoming victims of malicious code?

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Fantasy world with real-life dangers

"Online games carry the same risks of all online software we use: browsers, Java plug-ins, Flash, document viewers," said Chris Wysopal, co-founder and chief technology officer of Boston-based security company Veracode.

"These attacks mirror the everyday attacks we see, [in which] users are tricked into opening a corrupted Excel spreadsheet sent as an attachment, or to click on a link that launches a Java exploit," Wysopal said.

For that reason, make sure you have robust, up-to-date anti-virus software running on your system. Scan every new file or application after it's downloaded, and before you open or run it.

Make sure your anti-virus product has real-time scanning and anti-phishing capabilities, because the attacks can get fairly sophisticated.

"When software is online, it receives input over the network. Attackers can manipulate that input to exploit vulnerabilities in the code," Wysopal said. "This manipulation can take different approaches. If the gamer is on Wi-Fi, the network connection could be subject to a man-in-the-middle attack that could modify the input."

Before you start playing a new MMORPG, check to see if it's had any security problems. Plug the name of the game into a search engine along with the words "malware" or "virus," and see what comes up. Try the search with the word "scam" as well.

If a game has more than a few negative search results, you may want to steer clear of it and find another game to play with your friends.

Once you get the game up and running, make sure to download and install only official updates from the game publisher.