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 how 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 this malware spreads. 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.
These days, the most effective step you can take to prevent becoming a victim is to NEVER open an attachment in an Email. Full stop. Attachments in Emails that pretend to be from people you know, companies that you deal with, and government agencies are now the most common source of computer virus and malware infections. Companies and government agencies never send attachments, and you can always ask your friend to post the file using an online storage service like Dropbox or Google Drive. These services offer free online storage that allows you to easily exchange files online.
The first essential step in protecting yourself 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, their superior compatibility with different operating
system updates, and the additional functions they build in like SPAM blockers, identity protection,
and disk back-ups. 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 or impairing performance. They also offer technical support that you can contact for
immediate help where the free packages often rely on online communities where there may be no help
for your problem.
If you decide to go with one of the commercial anti-virus packages, be a smart Internet shopper and don't pay more than you have to for them. For example, Comcast™ offers their Internet Service subscribers a free version of McAfee. And if you search Google for "Norton coupons", you'll find some excellent discount offers for both new purchases and renewals. My Norton subscription was up for renewal recently and by searching for a coupon, I was able to upgrade from Norton Internet Security to Norton 360 for about $30.00, which was roughly half of the regular cost of renewing my original subscription.
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.
Anti-virus programs check for a great many problems, and generally protect you very well. Most will remove any infections they find. 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. Microsoft also offers their free Malicious Software Removal Tool which they update monthly.
There is a Macintosh version of Avast that's free, and there are others as well. Mac users should consult Apple's document What is Malware? for help in finding malware removal solutions for iOS and their other platforms beyond anti-virus software.
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.