NOTE: This will be the last Tech Tip I’ll run for a while. I have so many other things relating to the core focus of this site that I want to post, but I wanted to be sure and get this information out there for those who might find it useful. I’ll run another Tech Tip at some point in the future.
In my experience, this is the number one problem that people run into with their computers — especially laptops, because people often close them and put them away without running and applying scheduled scans and updates as necessary to keep the system clean and fit.
All of a sudden they notice their computer is running slowly. Sometimes, they get weird popups with alarming messages telling them that their computer is under siege and has 237 infections that they need to remove immediately. Usually, in these cases the popup offers a link to some website where ‘Anti-Virus Software’ can be purchased for $29.95 to wipe out the offending code.
Following through on such ‘just-in-time’ offers almost always creates far more problems than they promised to solve.
There a few basic steps all PC owners should know when it comes to dealing with (and avoiding!) malware and viruses.
PCs versus Macs
I’m targeting PC owners here, not because Macs don’t get infected, but because PCs make up something like 90% of the market share of computers presently in use, while Macs only have around 5% of the computer market. (This isn’t referring to handhelds or tablet devices.)
A few things I’d like to point out, though, for any Mac people who’d otherwise like to thumb their noses at PC users for the supposed security gap between the two products:
- Why would the digital villains who create these viruses waste time writing code that could, at best, only infect less than 10% of computers in use, when they can instead write code that could potentially affect 90+% of computers in use?
- Mac-lovers have actually had some less-than-favorable news come out about their supposedly invulnerable machines lately:
- 1 in 5 Macs harbor malware, report reveals
- More than half a million Macs infected with Flashback Trojan malware
- An AppleCare support rep talks: Mac malware ‘is getting worse’
What is malware? What is a virus? What’s the difference?
Malware is shorthand for ‘malicious software.’ A virus (in computer lingo) specifically refers to a self-replicating program (code/script/software) that can spread itself from one machine to another.
Prevention is the first line of defense
If you understand how malware finds its way onto a computer, you can take steps to prevent it. In general, it’s far easier to avoid it than to try to remove it once it’s already taken up residence in your system.
PCWorld ran a great piece a couple of years ago detailing the best ways for avoiding malware. In it, the writer details two different levels of prevention, including smart online behavior and having the right software.
Here are some of the most common methods the malware villains employ to get their wares onto your computer:
- Websites – First of all, it’s not a bad idea to employ OpenDNS. It can help you avoid many sites that are polluted with malicious script links and software. If you visit a site offering software, research that software on other sites before taking the bait. You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches if you vet anything before you let it onto your PC.
- Email – First of all, don’t click on links that come in spam messages. Also, if you receive a message from someone you know that seems unusually brief, mysterious, or otherwise out of character, don’t click on any accompanying links or attachments. Also, it’s a good practice to not open any attachments to e-mails if you weren’t expecting them, or if they aren’t specifically explained in the body of the message.
- Popups – I hate popups. Don’t you? Don’t click on them. Just don’t. They’ll employee various tactics. Sometimes they’ll say something like, “Congratulations! You just won an iPad!”, while other times they’ll offer a free virus scan. NEVER CLICK ON THESE. In fact, don’t even use the ‘X’ in the top right hand corner of the popup to close it. It’s far safer to use Task Manager to close it. (Open Task Manager with Ctrl-Alt-Delete.)
- Other software – Sometimes when you download one program, malware might be embedded in the installation process. One of the worst culprits for these is a type of annoying browser search bar that the setup wizard will offer to install for free in your browser. It can act as adware and spyware simultaneously. Just pay close attention whenever you’re installing software. Don’t just click through the installation without paying attention to what’s being done to change your computer. In general, it’s a good idea to UNCHECK any ‘free add-on’ or other software offered in the process of installing a program.
- File-sharing services – Ok, I have very little sympathy for people who get malware on their computers from file sharing services. In most cases, if you’re using these sites, there’s a good chance you’re trying to download copyrighted material without paying for it. Nevertheless, sometimes, there are legitimate reasons to download something from a site such as Mediafire (for instance, to add free mods or texture packs for something like Minecraft), but just tread carefully. Make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into before you download, because otherwise you could be intentionally giving the pirates keys to your ship.
You’ll also want to install some good antivirus/antimalware software.
Although there are free versions of the aforementioned titles, you’ll probably want to fork over the money for the full version for the best protection.
I’m sure some would disagree with me, but some software I don’t like includes Kapersky, Norton and McAfee. I have seen computers with those pricey packages installed all fall to hardcore malware infestations. In fact, recently I ran a Malwarebytes scan on a friend’s laptop that has been running Kapersky for the last year and it had over 66 malicious files found and removed on the first scan.
Norton is supposedly good nowadays, but my experience with it years ago was that it was a bulky system hog that used up lots of my computer’s resources for only average protection. McAfee is another that I’ve just not personally had good experiences with.
I suggest you do your own research, though, and pick what best fits your personal Internet use and computer specs. Here are the lists of favorite Antivirus/Internet Security Suites from cnet.com and PCWorld.com:
Regardless of which software you choose, be very careful during the download process, or if it makes you nervous downloading from one of these sites, go to Amazon.com and buy the software from there.
Funny, but true story.
My son, who’s nearly nine, has been using computers since he was tiny. He’s perfectly able to download and install software, work with archive files, and even do his own independent research on the Internet. In other words, he’s no novice.
I recently had to get him a new laptop, though, because his old one (which had previously been mine) had fallen prey to a nasty collection of malware he’d picked up somewhere online. In spite of having anti-malware software installed on his machine, I had made the mistake of not teaching him to be savvy enough about avoiding common tricks that malware creators use to get their garbage on your computer. He had been tricked by some alert that had popped up on his screen warning him of some huge number of malware infecting his drive, and that it was necessary to do a scan right at that moment to avoid loss of data. Naturally, concerned about his machine, he followed the prompts (as the black hats would expect most computer users to do), and ended up with such a bad infection, including Trojan horses and other nasty scripts, that we ended up ditching that old machine.
The funny part of the story is, when Isaac asked me how he got the bad stuff on his system, I explained that when he saw that thing pop up on his screen telling him he had all of these infections, it was a trick, and he interrupted me saying, “OH! I get it. That’s why it’s called a Trojan Horse, because it was disguised as something good, but really, after I invited it on my computer, all the bad stuff came out and attacked it!”
“Exactly!” I told him. We had finished studying an abridged version of Homer’s Odyssey just weeks before all of this happened, so as a homeschool momma, I was happy that he remembered about the historical Trojan horse that allowed the Greeks to sneak in and attack Troy.