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What are "cookies" and why do some web sites use them?

Cookies are small pieces of data that essentially remember things about you for the web sites that put them there. When you revisit that site, the server reads the cookie information to, in most cases, customize the site for you.

People often fear cookies because of the stigma associated with them. Advertisers often use them to collect information about our surfing habits and interests. They can be used to customize ads just for you to allow the greatest chance to tempt you into buying something.

However, cookies aren't all bad. As a matter of fact, many are quite useful. When you buy something online, a cookie helps keep track of what's in your online shopping cart during the order process so nothing is lost in the shuffle. Web sites that require you to log on often allow you to sign on automatically - which requires a cookie to tell the server who you are. Some sites, like, use cookies to customize the site based on items you showed an interest in before. This means if you buy a lot of DVDs, special deals for movies will appear on the main page instead of sales on coffee makers.

Does all this mean cookies are harmless? Of course not. Some advertising cookies can allow those companies to learn more about you than you'd like. They can also be used to direct you to a hacker's web site where your machine will download more dangerous spyware or viruses. The key is to frequently run spyware removal tools (such as Ad Aware, Spybot Search and Destroy or Hijack This) and delete cookies you don't wish to keep.

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