Stop Computer Viruses, Spyware, & Malware
These days, whenever my computer starts to act a little
bit odd, I immediately start to worry that I may have been infected with a
computer virus. I back up my files religiously because I know I can be
careless in deleting old files. My back-ups have saved our little businesses from a
major disaster more than once. It would be devastating if a real virus attack
destroyed my files, and that's exactly what could happen if your computer is
infected. I used to have a casual attitude toward computer viruses because I
don't often visit the kinds of websites that are the most dangerous on the web. But
in the past several years, I've gotten much more serious about protecting my computers
because the hackers and thieves now spread their malware in places you'd never
suspect and with far more complex means of attack. Every computer user needs to
understand the risks and the steps to take to protect themselves.
There are some simple steps you must take to avoid becoming a victim of
computer viruses. I've listed some of them below. Largely, it boils down to using
good anti-virus software and being aware of how these programs spread. This simple
step can be the difference between surviving the next virus outbreak and becoming
another victim who's lost time, data, and, of course, money.
The first essential step is to install effective anti-virus software.
The easiest way is to buy one of the two major anti-virus
programs - either Norton Anti-Virus or McAfee Anti-Virus. There are several other
commercial packages that are also respectable, but you'll get the best support from the
user community with one of the major brands. Many computers, like Dell and Hewlett-Packard, come with
Norton Internet Security installed, which includes their anti-virus package. These programs automatically
check for new updates, so you're always protected against the latest threats. They work seamlessly with all of the
popular EMail programs, including Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird.
The benefits of the commercial packages are
the frequency with which these programs automatically update the virus definition files that they use
to detect viruses, the large staffs they have employed to find and detect new threats, and their superior
compatibility with different operating system updates. With new viruses popping up all the time, unless your protection
software is kept updated, you start to become ever more vulnerable to infection. So the
commercial packages have benefits that you need to keep in mind before trying a cheap fix
or simply using the ostrich approach and hope the problem will just go away. And these
programs have to behave well in a wide variety of environments without crashing. They
also offer superior technical support.
That's not to say there aren't other reasonable solutions. For the
budget-minded, there are dozens of freeware programs available from the
various download websites. There's a respected freeware package called
"Avast 4 Home Edition that has a very good reputation,
and anti-virus newcomer Microsoft
Security Essentials is a great no-cost choice for PC users - esepcially for those who have
recently upgraded to Windows 7 or Windows 8. Microsoft Security Essentials has gotten high marks in all of the
reviews I've seen. I also hear good things about a free anti-virus program offered by
http://www.free-av.com. There are other popular low-cost programs like
AVG from Grisoft that are easy on the budget. Many of
them have trial versions available at CNET's Download.com.
There's an excellent article on free security software for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux users
on Ars Technica. Be sure to check if the anti-virus program you choose updates itself automatically,
or if you have to do manual updates. If your software requires manual updates, you'll want to make a
habit of doing so at least once a week.
Removing Viruses Adware, Spyware, and Malware
Anti-virus programs check for a great many problems, and generally protect you very
well. But when you believe your computer is infected, it's a good idea to use a different program to
get a "second opinion" to make sure your system is free of malware that your regular anti-virus program may not
be able to detect. There's another class of security software that will do just that.
For Windows users, a good place to start is Microsoft's
Security Scanner, which will scan your system for problems. As always, it's impossible for any software
to know about every possible infection, but Microsoft has been putting a lot of effort into providing
security for their users in the last few years. Mac users should consult Apple's document
What is Malware? for
help in finding solutions for iOS and their other platforms.
Advertisers are putting their own spin on this game of serupticiously spreading programs with
a class of software called "adware" or "spyware". Spyware
watches which websites you visit and if, for example, you visit a website that sells Nike
shoes, you'll get a pop-up ad for Addidas. That's just one of the least intrusive things
these little demons can do to you. Or if you try to use Google, some of these programs
will redirect you to a different search engine where the only results you'll see are
from sites that have paid for it. Adware/Spyware is also quite capable of tracking every website
you visit and reporting that information back to advertisers. Worse, the accumulated
effects of these pathogens is to slow down your computer or cause it to crash.
In my mind, there's no difference between viruses, adware, malware, and spyware.
All of them invade your computer and intefere with its normal operation in one way or
another. Just truly reprehensible stuff, all in all. Fortunately, there are two popular programs for
Windows users that will remove adware. One is called "AdAware" and the other
is called "Spybot - Search & Destroy." They're all free programs.
Computer Internet Security Checklist
- Install and use a high-quality anti-virus program. This is the key
to protecting your computer. Modern anti-virus programs are better than ever. The most
popular are Norton Anti-Virus from Symantec and
McAfee VirusScan. I originally preferred McAfee
because it was less intrusive than Norton when I tried it many years ago, but they're
both excellent now and are backed by great companies.
- Keep your anti-virus software updated. You need to check the
website of the manufacturer of your anti-virus software on a regular basis to make
sure that you're protected against the latest viruses. Most programs update themselves
automatically, but they all include a way for you to do a manual update. So check
for updates at least once every 3 months. If the program you use has an annual fee,
make sure it's always paid when you check for updates.
- Use a different browser and EMail program Microsoft Internet Explorer,
Outlook and Outlook Express are the hacker's most common gateway to your computer because
they're the most widely-used browser and Email programs. By using a different program, you're no longer the target of every
teenage hacker with a grudge against the world. I strongly recommend Firefox,
and it's sibling EMail client Thunderbird.
Other good browser choices include Google's Chrome, Opera,
and Apple's Safari. These
are all available at no charge over the Internet. As with your anti-virus software, you
should always use the latest version of your browser and Email program, too! These
programs are always improving their internal security, so it just makes sense to take
advantage of the extra protection.
- Never open an EMail with an attachment that you were not expecting. The
latest batch of virus programs are often spread by EMail. Even if your anti-virus program
does not warn you about the attached file, and even if the EMail appears to come from
someone you know, do not open it. Send a message to your friend asking them to confirm
that they sent the file to you before you open it. The most common method currently is
to attach .zip files to messages. Never decompress a .zip archive file that comes to
- Download and use a high-quality anti-spyware program. I prefer
Spybot - Search and Destroy because it runs very fast, but I also use AdAware just to
do what I can to eradicate everything that might be dangerous.
- Keep your web browser set to its highest security level. I know,
it's annoying to get the warning messages on every other webpage you visit, but it's the
best way to protect yourself - especially if you use Microsoft Internet Explorer and
Outlook or Outlook Express. I'm not picking on Microsoft. The simple fact is that these programs
are the main targets of hackers and SPAMmers. Understanding that
these programs carry certain risks is the first step to protecting yourself.
- Pay Attention To Malware Warnings From Google. Google has teamed with
an Internet Security organization to warn users when they are about to visit a site that
has been found to contain malware. When you see this warning, STOP! Go back to Google
and try a different website. Don't risk infection just because the website is well-known or you've visited it
frequently in the past. Any site can be hacked, and these warnings mean that there has
been suspicious activity detected recently. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. Responsible
websites will clean up the situation promptly and you can always try again later.
- If you use a broadband/high-speed method to access the Internet, you
need to get a firewall. A firewall is a program that defends your computer
from hackers who attempt to gain direct access to your computer over the Internet.
There is a good freeware program called ZoneAlarm that will do the trick if you use
Windows. Other programs are available, too. If you have a router installed to
connect the computers in your house over a network, it will often have built-in
protections against this kind of attack. I know the routers from Linksys do, but you should check the
manufacturer's website for the router you use.
- Keep original copies of all of the programs you use. That means
being dilligent about keeping track of any installation discs and your licensing information
(user name, password, license #, etc.) so
that if you get hit by a virus that can only be removed by erasing the infected files,
you can re-install all of your vital programs. Naturally, this means you'll also have
to keep good records of installation keys, licenses, user names, upgrade disks, and all of such
information that programs require when you install them.
- Back it up! Make it a habit to back up all of your most important
files at least once a month. Once a week is better if you can manage it, but once a
month is the minimum. As usual, its a trade-off between time and risk. Consider how
much you would lose if a computer virus wiped out all of your files and your most
recent back-ups were a month old. If its not that bad, then you're OK. But if you
raised your eyebrow when you read that sentence, you might want to think about once
every two weeks. There are several ways to back up your files. These days, most
people use an external hard drive because it's so inexpensive and convenient. Both
Windows and MacOS include automatic back-up capabilities that will back up your computer
on a selected schedule. You can also make back-ups of important data files on DVD discs.
- Store the back-up discs in a safe place. If you run a business
from your computer, you'll want to keep the back-up discs in a separate building to
eliminate the threat of fire destroying your computer and the back-ups at the same
time. Do not rely on a home safe to protect discs from fire. They are designed to protect
paper documents, and not computer media. Floppy discs, CDs, DVDs, and all magnetic
media kept in a home safe will be useless after a fire because plastic melts at a far
lower temperature than is required to burn paper. After a fire, any recording media
stored in a common home safe will likely come out as a pile of useless glop.
- Change your passwords frequently and don't use the same password for
everything. Don't make it easy for a hacker. Some programs have
password protection that I call the technological equivalent of secret writing
with lemon juice. So if you use the same password everywhere, a hacker need only to
find one vulnerable program on your computer (or that one file where you keep a record
of all of your account numbers and passwords) in order to break into all of them. And
the same goes for your online banking accounts, your eBay® account, etc. Mix it
up and change it up. Don't just combine your child's first name and your home
address. Think sneakier. Use your childhood best friend's amusing middle name and the
year you... well, it's a family site, so let's say the year you graduated from high school,
but you get the idea. Just concentrate on private information that nobody else could
easily guess. As long as it's significant to you, you'll remember it and once you've
associated the memory with its use as a password it will come to mind quickly.