Computer viruses have been a major frustration for computer users and IT staff for decades. And it’s particularly costly to business, as companies must hire IT workers to clean infected machines, absorb non-productive downtime in their employees, and possibly lose valuable data. Estimates vary widely, and it’s very hard to say what the exact cost is. But I think we can all agree that it’s an avoidable disruption. Much like your personal health, prevention is by far the most effective strategy at combating pesky computer-based critters.
Malware vs. Virus
Computer terminology is never-ending, so I’m not surprised that people are confused about what’s what. Malware is software designed to secretly access a computer system without the owner’s informed consent, while a viruses is malware that replicates. The term “malware” is an umbrella, under which the term “virus” falls. Some of the nastier programs I’ve dealt with haven’t ever tried to replicate – they only try to prey on your computer.
It’s important to understand the difference because not all virus scanners detect all types of malware. It’s not a pleasant feeling when you suffer a crippling infection when you thought you had adequate protection.
Methods of Prevention
- Always maintain an up to date system.This is easier said than done, as every program has its own updater (if you’re in Windows), and patches are released on a rolling basis. While it’s frustrating being bugged by update managers seemingly constantly, I can assure you it’s worse to get infected due to an unpatched system.If you’re on Windows, make sure Windows Update is set to run regularly (go to Start -> Control Panel -> Automatic Updates to configure your update preferences).If you’re on Mac, go to the Apple logo in the upper left corner, and select “Software Update”. When the update manager opens, check the box to “check for updates daily”.
- Run a malware detection program that has real-time scanning, keep it updated, and ideally run another standalone scanner as well. There are dozens of reputable anti-virus programs on the market today. The good news is some of them are free to use, and very effective. The bad news is that you’ll have to keep them updated to be effective. (Note: Anti-virus vendors warn about running multiple anti-virus products at the same time. The concern is when there are more than one real-time scanners active on the same computer. So long as you only have one real-time anti-virus program installed, you’ll experience no problems.)For Windows users, I recommend downloading and installing all of the following:- Microsoft Security Essentials – A surprisingly good real-time anti-virus and anti-malware scanner provided by Microsoft, available for free to anyone who owns a license to Windows. It runs in the background and checks files as they’re downloaded and opened.- Spybot Search & Destroy – This is a standalone scanner that specializes in non-virus malware (aka spyware/adware). It has to be run manually to scan and clean infections.- ClamAV – Clam is a great standalone virus scanner that’s available for free. While it won’t monitor your system for you, it works well in conjunction with Microsoft Security Essentials. any time you download a file, with Clam installed, simply right click the file and select “Scan with ClamAV”. Not only will Microsoft automatically check the file, but now Clam will look at it as well. Since different programs have different detection mechanisms, this is a great way to ensure nothing slips through the cracks.If you’re running Mac OSX, congratulations – you’re very unlikely to be affected by malware! As of writing, there are very few viruses that affect the Mac operating system. Although ironically, the first known virus did attack Apple computers. But don’t get too excited, this period of tranquility is likely to end soon. With Mac sales growing rapidly, it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising coder spoils the fun. It’s a good idea for Mac users to run ClamXAV, which is also free, and scan all downloaded files. Even though your own system may not be infected by a Microsoft virus, your friend running Windows will thank you for not spreading germs around.
- Use an alternate web browser.For years Microsoft dominated the web browser market with Internet Explorer. Lately other major game changers entered the industry with impressive new products that boast, among other things, safer web browsing. Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Chrome are both superb browsers that can help you stay safe online. Both also offer plug-in extensions, which are add-on downloads that provide added functionality. A few of my favorites are Adblock Plus (which eliminates most ads from my browsing experience) and Web of Trust (which warns me when I may be venturing to a bad site). There are literally hundreds of add-ons, and many have quickly become must-haves on all of my computers.
- Trust no one.The worst pieces of malware are very deceptive. When you visit an infected site, a window pops up that looks like your “My Computer” screen. A “scanner” then proceeds to run through your files and then claims to detect a virus. It prompts you to remove it, looking like a legitimate Microsoft alert. But in actuality, it never scanned anything. The “scanner” was really just an animation – a movie – and when you click on the the “fix it” button, the malware installs itself on your system. Once it’s in place, it will bug you every few minutes to purchase the full version of some malware scanner that it promises will remove the bad files. It’s a pretty slimy practice, and unfortunately, very effective.If you ever encounter something that claims to be a scanner or some kind of virus alert, do NOT click it unless you’re sure you recognize that it’s one of your already-installed scanners. If you have any doubt at all, restart your computer and run a full scan on Microsoft Security Essentials, Spybot, & ClamAV.Unfortunately, those types of malware are very difficult to remove, and often require the hard drive to be wiped in order to completely eradicate the malware.
- For anything I didn’t cover, Google is your best friend.If something comes up and you’re unsure, Google it. The reality is that most computer people are generalists with a short list of areas of expertise. We’re like doctors who rush off to look up the answer to your question while you put your pants back on in the waiting room. Thanks to Google, you have access to the wealth of human knowledge at your fingertips. Don’t be afraid to do your own research. Just be mindful to look for additional sources and confirmations. And as always, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to shoot me an e-mail – or simply comment on this blog.
Next up: How to Avoid Phishing Scams