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2014: The newest of the baddies:

Definitions:

Virus — “A computer virus is a malware program that, when executed, replicates by inserting copies of itself (possibly modified) into other computer programs, data files, or the boot sector of the hard drive; when this replication succeeds, the affected areas are then said to be “infected”. (Wikipedia)

Malware —  “short for malicious software, is any software used to disrupt computer operation, gather sensitive information, or gain access to private computer systems.[1] Malware is defined by its malicious intent, acting against the requirements of the computer user, and does not include software that causes unintentional harm due to some deficiency. The term badware is sometimes used, and applied to both true (malicious) malware and unintentionally harmful software.” (Wikipedia)

The worst of the malware (IMHO) are the ransom programs that install and refuse you access to your file until you send money to the person(s) who developed them. These programs resist all forms of antivirus (even when booting from a CD or a Flash Drive), and they might result in your total loss of data and having to physically replace the hard drive. In a close second are the key logging trojans that tally your keystrokes and send them to their owners. These could be banking usernames and passwords, passwords to EBAY or Paypal, or simple email.

Now the really bad news. With modern viruses and malware, there is NEVER any way to guarantee that the computer is clean. The only complete fix is a clean install of Windows from a CD. It is even possible for some of these nasties to infect the restore partition of your computer or the boot sector of the computer (though I have not seen that happen personally). Once a computer is infected, it isn’t absolutely safe to do any secure work on that computer (online banking, purchases, bidding at ebay — that sort of thing) until it has been “nuked and paved” with a clean operating system. What all the previous work does is make it moderately safe to get e-mail and surf the web, and more importantly, backup any essential data.

These keyloggers and password stealers can be “caught” from an infected website that looks perfectly safe on the surface. No one is immune from them because the developers are constantly updating the code to hide from anti-virus software and malware removing software. If any of the removal tools finds anything related to the “rootkit” type of malware, a nuke and pave is essential. Unfortunately none of that is cheap, and with computers getting cheaper all the time, there can be a question of trade off costs.

Try to follow these guidelines to prevent infection:

  1. Don’t ever click on a pop-up ad. Even the “No” button in a pop-up ad is “yes” and it will download and install itself.
  2. Keep a good antivirus in place and updated (I prefer Avast, but there are other good products out there).
  3. Be sure your firewall is in place and running. Windows Vista, 7, and 8 have built in firewalls, and your modem or router may also have one.
  4. Run at least one of the malware scans (I like Malwarebytes and Superantispyware) every week — more often if you surf porn or free music/software sites.
  5. Set up your computer to run as a “user” when you surf the net. As a user, malware has a more difficult time infecting your computer. This is especially important if you do “risky” surfing or downloading.  This is simple in Windows 7 or 8, not so simple in earlier operating systems.  There is information HERE about setting up and running a Windows XP computer as a user. I know this isn’t as convenient, but trust me, it is easier than spending 5+ hours trying to get your computer back to its original condition.
  6. Turn off the computer when you aren’t using it. Leaving a computer on invites hackers to try to subvert your firewall.
  7. Resolve problems at the first sign you are infected. Malware, once installed, invites its friends over to play and the problem will rapidly get worse.
  8. If you believe you may have spyware on your computer don’t log in to your banking site or EBAY or paypal or anywhere else that you will enter a username and password. Identity theft can start with usernames and passwords stolen from your computer.
  9. Be sure you are running as a “user” not as an administrator.  (I know, I already said this, but it is important.)

Once infected:

  1. Turn off System Restore before running malware tools if you are using Vista or XP.
  2. Run your antivirus from Safe mode (press F5 repeatedly after turning on the computer, and select Safe Mode from the list) if you can.  Run Malwarebytes and Superantispyware and delete identified files.
  3. Don’t EVER assume you got it all. Save your data to a memory stick or CD and reformat the computer. When your restore program asks if you want to save your settings, tell it no and do a complete format of the hard drive.
  4. Run an antivirus and malware removal tool on any data you plan to copy back to your hard drive from your backup media. It is probably not infected, but why take chances?

Slowing Down:

If your computer seems to be running slow, check the amount of memory you have. (Right click Computer and select properties, the memory amount (RAM) is toward the bottom of the window that opens.) With XP, Internet Explorer 7, and a simple antivirus (like Avast or AVG, not like Norton or McAfee) you need a minimum of 512mb of memory. 1 Gig is better (512 will be sluggish). If you are running Norton or McAfee, you will need more memory — 1 gig minimum, 2 gigs are better. If you have Vista, you need at least 1 gig of memory, but 2 gigs are better and 3 is even better. Unless you are running the 64 bit version, Windows won’t be able to use anything above 3 gigs, though. 256 mb of memory was a lot 6 years ago when I bought my last computer, but because software has become so much more sophisticated (read bloated), now we need more. Currently 4-8 gigs of memory are not uncommon with Windows 7 machines. Too much memory with Windows 7 or 8 is like being too rich or too thin — just not possible.

IF you have downloaded Internet Explorer 11 or you are using Microsoft Office 2013, you may also need additional memory. Some programs are resource hogs. You must feed them (with more memory) or your computer may slow down dramatically.

If you have lots of toobars loading at the top of your Internet Explorer page, uninstall them from Control Panel/Add remove programs. Some of them (well, actually most of them) send information about your surfing habits back to their creators. They also slow the computer regardless of what you were told when you installed them. Remove/uninstall all toolbars. The current version of SuperAntiSpyware does a great job of finding these resource hogs and removing them. (see the next paragraph).

Run your spyware removal software — SuperAntiSpyware, Malwarebytes, AdAware, Spybot — periodically. You should run at least two of them if you do much random surfing at least once a week. I usually start with Malwarebytes (it is the one that finds Antivirus 2009 and some of the other real nasties and can acutally do something about it). Pay attention to the way your computer runs. If it seems to be running (making hard drive accessing sounds) when it shouldn’t, you may have spyware or a virus.

Avast will allow you to run a “boot scan” if you tell it to do so. That means it will scan the hard drive before Windows boots to look for malware that hides itself inside the Windows operating files. That is why I run it on my computers. AVG is also a good free option that won’t drag your computer down, though. While Norton and Mcafee are better than they used to be (in terms of using resources), they still slow things down. (off topic — be sure if you give your credit card number to Mcafee, you uncheck the box allowing them to automatically renew your subscription)

Be sure your tower is well ventilated. If it gets too warm (for instance inside a closed cabinet), it will slow down to keep from overheating the processor.

Shut the computer down and do a cold start at least once a day. Computers are not designed to run 24/7/365. Windows operates much better if it is started clean once a day. A restart isn’t the same thing because some data can remain in memory. I know you are paying your own electric bills, but it is common sense to shut down devices that use energy when they aren’t being used. I turn on my computer and leave it on while I am at home. If I leave, I shut it down until I get back. I shut it down overnight. Better for the computer, better for my electric bill.  The “leave the computer on all the time” thing started with faulty power buttons on Packard Bell computers back in the mid-90’s — you couldn’t replace them and they disabled a $2000 computer, so people started leaving them on.  It is no longer a problem, so shut the things off when you aren’t using them.  Most laptops go to sleep when you close the lids, and that isn’t OFF.  You have to actually do the shut-down procedure to get them to completely shut down.

Precautions to avoid viruses:

The newest virus threats are coming directly from someone’s computer to yours. If you are using Windows XP, be sure that you have all the Windows Updates in place (Start, All Programs, Windows Update) and that you have enabled the internal firewall that Windows provides if your anti-virus does not have a firewall. You should also have a current updated antivirus product installed and running at all times. Update 2014: Set up a USER profile to use in Windows XP. You can learn about that HERE.

Be sure that you don’t become complacent and careless opening e-mails. Files ending with extentions .pif, .vbs, and .exe that are received as e-mail attachments are very often viruses. If you run them by clicking on them, your computer MIGHT become infected. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Misinformation and Hoaxes

Viruses can be caught from e-mail. — Only if you use Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express can you get a virus just by reading an e-mail. With other e-mail readers you can become infected only by opening e-mail attachments and Microsoft Office format documents or following a link to an infected website.

The old “good times” virus is a well known hoax. You can learn more about virus hoaxes at the Snopes website. If you surf over HERE, you can type in a key word or two in the virus warning, and the Snopes people will give you more accurate information.  Don’t pass on any virus or malware warnings without checking.

You only need an anti-virus program if you are on the Internet. — Many viruses are transmitted by external media or on USB drives. Boot sector viruses pass from one computer to another only through bootable media. Every year at the school where I taught, we found a few viruses brought to school on student floppy disks or memory sticks.  Floppy disks are almost a thing of the past, but the flash drive (thumb drive, stick drive, usb drive) is the current carrier.

I can only get a virus by downloading a program from the Internet — See  above.

Conclusion:

  • Run as an ordinary user on the computer, not as an administrator (administrator is the default on a new computer).
  • Don’t surf porn or download “free” music or movies.
  • Don’t click on ANY pop-up windows.
  • If your computer asks if you want to install a program and you haven’t initiated the install TELL IT NO.