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Michael's Guide 

Chapter 2 - Viruses

WHAT IS A VIRUS?
When you hear about a computer virus, what comes to mind? Most people imagine something that gets on your computer and deletes everything. While there are definitely viruses that will do that, they are not the most common type today. Most virus authors today want to get their virus on your computer without you knowing it's there. This allows them to compromise the security of your system so it can be used to send out spam, participate in an attack on a website or just spread wildly. The ones that spread wildly might seem harmless to you, but they use up massive amounts of bandwidth, which costs your internet service provider (ISP) a lot of money. In the long run, this means higher prices and slower service for you.

TIPYou will often hear the terms worm or trojan used in place of virus. For the purposes of preventing them, you can consider them all the same. The only difference in them is the way they behave. Viruses infect a specific existing file. Worms spread spread from system to system without infecting a specific file. Trojans pose as something desirable but are actually a malicious item. Today, most of the "viruses" you hear about are usually worms.

HOW DO VIRUSES SPREAD?
You can still get a virus the old fashioned way by opening an infected document. Macro viruses infect files such as Microsoft Word or Excel files. They come to life them you open the file on your computer. You may see a warning when you open a document asking if you want to run the macro. If you weren't expecting a macro in the document, click no! You could bring this file to your machine via a thumb drive, CD, e-mail, etc. These have become less common because of options in the programs that let you block them.

A virus can also spread over a network. One infected computer connected to a network at home or work can spread certain viruses to the other machines on the network without you realizing it. This also means that re-infection is a serious possibility if you miss one machine and don't keep your other machines properly protected. A company that I once worked for spent a lot of time and money cleaning the Klez worm from its computers. I was hired to come in and remove it from all of their computers again because they had missed a few the first time around and before they knew it they had machines in two states that were re-infected.

The last method is the most common. It's e-mail! You receive an e-mail from your sister that tells you that she took pictures at her company Christmas party and thought you might like to see them. You think to yourself that it's nice of her to send them as you open the attached "photos." The attachment doesn't open. Oh well, it wasn't that important anyway. You delete the e-mail and go on with your work. What you don't know is that 100 of your closest friends just got an e-mail from you asking them to look at your party photos.

E-mail viruses use social engineering to get you to run them on your computer. They look like they came from some one you know and have text such as the party photo example above. An infected computer can send out many thousands of copies of the virus. Some viruses only send copies of themselves, but other will actually take a random file from your hard disk and send it out as well. This poses a huge security risk for business and home users, as well as the potential for some very embarrassing situations.

These viruses get their e-mail addresses from the user's address book, inbox, hard disk or even the Internet. They often will put another address they find in the return address field. This prevents you from even knowing whose computer sent you the virus. The only way to stop it would be to track down the third party who is infected, but that is nearly impossible.

TIPThe fact that viruses use random return addresses means that you shouldn't go attack the person whose e-mail address it appears to have come from. They are probably just a victim like you. Just delete the messages without opening them.

Chapter 3- The Solution

Now that you understand what the problem is and how it happens, it's time to prevent it from happening. If you have a new computer, it is imperative that you follow all of these steps as soon as you take your computer out of the box. (The same goes if you just reformatted your hard disk.) If you connect a computer that is unprotected to the Internet, it will be infected with a worm within several minutes. I'm not exaggerating. It takes only several minutes for one of the many worms that are running rampant on the Internet (such as Sasser) to find your unprotected machine.

IS THERE IS FOOLPROOF SOLUTION?
Yes, there is, but you may not like it. Stop using Microsoft Windows. This problem primarily only affects Windows. Using MacOS X or Linux will usually solve the problem. The authors of this software exploit the many holes in Windows to make their software work. Many people are afraid to switch to a different operating system, but it is much easier than you think. Plus, the long term stress reduction of not dealing with Windows' security problems will make it more than worthwhile. Click here for more info on that.

I know many of you have to use Windows for whatever reason, so read on to find out what you can do to protect yourself.

HOW DO I PROTECT MY WINDOWS COMPUTER FROM SPYWARE AND VIRUSES?
This is not an easy answer. There are a lot of steps you should take. Unfortunately, using Windows in today's world requires you to be a bit of a security expert. However, if you follow the suggestions I outline here, you will be a lot safer than you probably are now. The good news? You will not have to spend any money on this! Because spyware and viruses are so closely related, my instructions will help prevent both.

ONE: ANTI-VIRUS SOFTWARE
You must have current anti-virus software. Also, YOU MUST KEEP IT UP TO DATE! Antivirus software with outdated virus definitions is almost useless. Most programs can be set to automatically download updates. Set this feature to download updates every day or at least every few days. New viruses are coming out everyday. When you first install the software, and periodically thereafter, you should run a complete scan. You can set the software to do this automatically during the night while you sleep however frequently you think is necessary. Once a week should suffice for most people.

Despite what you may think, more is not better when it comes to anti-virus software. You only need one program. Installing multiple programs (such as having Norton AntiVirus and AVG Anti-Virus both installed) will cause problems. They will "fight" with each other.

Michael's PickI suggest Norton AntiVirus from Symantec. (www.symantec.com) However, it is a commercial product that is not free. If you want to avoid spending money, you should try AVG Anti-Virus from Grisoft. (free.grisoft.com) They have a paid version, but the one you want is the FREE version. It is just as good as any anti-virus program you could purchase.

TIPYou should also check with your employer. Some employers (such as US Defense Department) purchase licenses for their employees to protect their systems from viruses that come from home computers.

TWO: WINDOWS UPDATE
Make sure you run Windows Update frequently. Microsoft products are notorious for having security holes. Microsoft releases patches for these holes very frequently. If you have never run it before, run it right now. Let it install all critical updates. If you have to reboot as part of the process, run Windows Update again once you've rebooted. Keep repeating this until there are no more critical updates to download. The reason you must do it so many times is that often one update will not be available until another update is installed. It relies on the first update or, believe it or not, might be a fix for a hole in the first update!

TIPWindows Update can be reached by pointing your browser at www.windowsupdate.com. You must use Internet Explorer for this. After you run it, you should go into to your control panel and turn on Automatic Updates. This will cause Windows Update to run frequently even if you forget.

THREE: YOUR BROWSER CHOICE
People tend to become attached to web browsers. The browser most people are attached to is Microsoft Internet Explorer. Why? Because it's there. It's part of Windows, you can't delete it off the system even if you wanted to (I'm sure you remember the big Microsoft lawsuit based on this point.) and it's convenient. However, the worst disservice you can do yourself is to use Internet Explorer. While later versions of Internet Explorer have increased security, spyware still exploits the many security flaws in Internet Explorer tp allow malware/spyware infections. It's hard to let go of Internet Explorer, but you must. There are a lot of options out there. So go ahead and download a new one and then delete that Internet Explorer link off your desktop so you never accidentally click on it again. The only exception to this is when you run Windows Update. You can only do that from Internet Explorer. This actually exemplifies why I recommend against it. Think about it; if Microsoft can install software on your computer through Internet Explorer, so can the bad guys.

Michael's PickOf the many free browsers that are currently available for download, I recommend Firefox (www.getfirefox.com) by Mozilla. (www.mozilla.org) It is open-source software, which means its source code is available to everyone. This way you have hundreds of thousands of eyes looking it over and correcting any mistakes or holes. It also offers features which Internet Explorer does not. What about your favorites/bookmarks, you ask? The first time you launch Firefox, it will give you the option of importing them from Internet Explorer. It'll be a smooth transition.

TIPSome people worry that open source software is vulnerable because the source code is publicly available. However, the good people out there close the holes before they get exploited. You have no reason to worry.

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