According to a study conducted by G Data Software, many computer users are still relatively uninformed about Internet security. After surveying some 15,559 Internet users in 11 countries aged between 18 and 65 (including 5,500 respondents in the US), the company concluded that users are inundated with ill-conceived notions about cyber security, leaving them exposed to various online threats.

The research discovered that 89% of participants have security software installed on their system (47.9% free and 41.1% paid), while approximately 9% either run protection-free or are unaware if their system is protected. The remaining sliver admitted to using a pirated version of paid software. Although this data isn't alarming on the surface, G Data said most users have misconceptions about their protection.

For starters, 82% of Americans believe their free antivirus program provides as much protection as their paid counterparts. This isn't comparing the adequacy of free versus paid antivirus scanners in themselves, but it's underscoring that paid suites typically have a broader spectrum of coverage because they're bundled with firewalls and other protection schemes – features many users are unaware of.

Although only 46% of Americans use paid suites (5% higher than the global average), 60% of US respondents believe they are protected by a full security suite. Nonetheless, that isn't particularly startling either. It is, however, a bit disconcerting that 93% of participants think malware has an identifiable effect on PC performance, while over 45% say a computer will immediately crash if infected.

Users are also confused about where they are most likely to encounter malware. About half of the respondents are convinced that most malware is spread through email attachments or peer-to-peer filesharing services. According to G Data, most infections actually occur by visiting a site with exploitive code. In that same vein, 48% think their system can't be infiltrated simply by loading a nefarious website.

The survey also attempted to determine what age group is best informed by comparing the answers of young and elder adults. Although folks in the 18-24 age bracket have more experience online, that familiarity is actually counterproductive to Internet safety as it encourages a false sense of security. Conversely, the inexperienced nature of those aged 55-64 tends to foster a greater sense of caution.

The older group scored better on seven out of eleven questions. G Data also compared the overall results of men and women – the latter of which scored better on eight out of eleven questions. However, G Data noted that it is unwilling to proclaim either sex the "winner" because the results between males and females typically varied by less than 2%. You can read the full 29-page report here (PDF).