Researchers conducted in-person interviews and technicians were sent to review the PCs of 329 Internet customers — comprising 194 broadband users and 135 dial-up users — in 12 states from Sept. 15 to Oct. 8. While the study did not focus on a large group of PC users, the results still reveal that most Americans are not cybersleuths. The study found that “most computer users think they are safe but lack basic protections against viruses, spyware, hackers and other online threats.

In addition, large majorities of home computer users have been infected with viruses and spyware and remain highly vulnerable to future infections. Yet at the same time, most keep sensitive personal and financial information on their computers.”

“Extrapolating the percentages in our survey, this indicates that millions of Americans are at risk — and are already infected — by viruses, spyware, and adware,” said Ken Watson, chairman of the NCSA, in a statement.

Of those surveyed, 77 percent said they thought their computer was very or somewhat safe from threats, with 73 percent saying the same for viruses. Three in five said they feel very or somewhat safe from hackers. At the same time, 67 percent of those surveyed had outdated anti-virus software, with 15 percent lacking any anti-virus software. The study also found that 80 percent of the PC users had spyware or adware on their systems, with most not even knowing the software had been installed. Sixty-seven percent don’t have firewall protection, with half of the broadband users surfing the Net firewall-free.

With the findings, USA Today said, “a picture emerges of consumers increasingly using their home PCs for sensitive, online transactions without adequately protecting themselves from cybercrime. ‘Most people think they’re safe, but they really don’t know what’s on their computer, and boy, are they vulnerable,’ says AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein.”

“There really is quite a perception gap,” said Daniel Caprio, the Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for technology policy, as quoted by the Associated Press. “Clearly there is confusion. We need to do a better job making information and practical tips for home users and small businesses available.” The AP reported: “One home user in the government-backed study being released today had more than 1,000 spyware programs running on his sluggish computer when researchers examined it. Bill Mines of South Riding, Va., did not fare much better. His family’s 3-year-old Dell computer was found infected with viruses and more than 600 pieces of spyware surreptitiously monitoring his online activities. … Spurred by the high costs of support calls from irritated customers — and fearful that frustrated consumers will stop buying new products — Internet providers, software companies and computer-makers are making efforts to increase awareness of threats and provide customers with new tools to protect themselves. Still, many computer users appear remarkably unprepared for the dangers they face.”

More here.