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Downloaders, beware: 'Free' can come at a heavy price

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Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Adele's latest album is out and you want it, but don't want to pay for it.

So you download software from one of 2,800 different networks that allow users to share files for free.

Napster, released in 1999, was the first company to popularize the technology until it ran into copyright problems with the music industry over people sharing songs without paying artists. Now many networks — such as LimeWire, BitTorrent and others — allow users to share large files that can be used for legitimate purposes such as software distribution.

These networks should not be confused with retail sites such as iTunes or Amazon that sell music and videos, or ones such as Netflix that direct-stream movies to paying customers.

Concerns with free file-sharing sites arise when users inadvertently agree to allow the software to automatically configure the settings to share more files than they realize from a computer, experts warn. Other users then might be able to access personal and work files from your computer's hard drive.

Hackers can use file-sharing to spread hidden viruses, worms and other software that can harm a computer. You might think you're downloading a wallpaper of Justin Bieber, but you end up infecting your computer with malware.

Sharing certain files could lead to prosecution. Downloading pirated software or copyrighted material without paying for it can lead to fines or legal action.

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