Being part of a botnet is no fun. Your computer becomes your worst enemy, watching everything you do, collecting all of your secrets, and then delivering all that data to the bot-herder; the person who originated the network. But what does it really mean to be part of a botnet, and is there anything that can you do about it?

According to a report today from The Associated Press, Internet security company Prevx recently discovered a Web site that was being used as a storage facility for data stolen from 160K infected computers, and the discovery offers an interesting case study.

The storage site was hosted in the Ukraine and its contents showed that the botnet was harvesting data. Information found included passwords, social security numbers, credit card numbers, addresses, telephone numbers and other personal information; quite a treasure chest if you're into identity theft.

"One Southern California 22-year-old could be seen registering a domain name with
GoDaddy.com, changing his Yahoo e-mail password and ordering a meal online from Pizza Hut. His credit card number, birth date, telephone number, address and passwords are now all in criminals' hands, though it's unclear what, if anything, criminals have done with the information yet," the AP notes.

But it wasn't just individuals that were targeted. According to the article, both government and bank sites had also been compromised. The Associated Press contacted one bank customer whose Social Security number and other personal details were compromised during the attack, only to learn that he hadn't been notified by the bank.

Determine whether your PC is part of a botnet

So how can you tell if you're machine is part of a botnet and what can you do about it?

Statistically, Macs are safe from botnets, although not completely immune to all threats as we noted here. But if you have a Windows based machine, Prevx suggests you stay on the lookout for an Internet connection that seems inexplicably slow when you are online as it may be that a botnet infection is using your connection to send or receive data.

"If this happens, stop surfing, close your email software (e.g. Outlook) and try and open Task Manager by pressing the CTRL, ALT and Delete keys at the same time then selecting Task Manager," the company wrote on its blog recently. "When Task manager opens click on the Network tab and see if your PC is using the internet network connection, if it shows more than a few percent usage then this could be further evidence of something using your internet connection without your knowledge."

Prevx also suggests downloading another security product if you are suspicious, and recommends you use an alternative security product. "If your PC is infected then it is almost certain that your existing security product has already let you down."

Some of the free tools available include RUBotted (Beta) from Trend Micro, BotHunter from SRI International, or try an online virus scan with the Windows Live OneCare safety scanner.

For a primer on botnets, take a look at this short video from Symantec.