Saturday, March 8, 2008

Living Virus Free

Our computers have become our mainstay in our normal every day lives. We've also come very reliant on our virus programs and other anti-spyware applications to help protect us from the nasty things on the world wide web. So much so, that in many ways users have become complacent and naive about the protection they provide. In this article, we're going to delve into some of the basic things one can do to help keep their computers virus free.

First off - you're probably wondering: "why do these guys do this?" Originally, hackers, crackers, and other spiffy computer geeks saw the propagation of viruses and other nasty stuff as a way to gain notoriety in the geek community. So "fame" was one motivation. In today's terms, virus and malware writers are generally hired guns to help propagate their malicious code and viruses through websites, emails and attachments. The trend is not likely to go away anytime soon, so what can we do about it?

The first line of defense when it comes to protecting yourself against viruses is YOU. A computer sitting alone in the corner does not generally pick up a virus just by sitting there. The majority of viruses are spread by our internet habits: if you have bad internet habits, you're running the risk of catching a virus, a trojan or host of spyware and adware designed to cripple your system.

1.) Develop a smart policy for using the internet. If you stop and think about how human viruses are spread, we get tired, we hang out with people who have colds, and we don't take the precautions to keep from getting sick. So, if your kids are doing any sort of file sharing or downloading music, movies or games from the internet your chances of getting something nasty has just increased. You want to go to sites you trust and stay away from known places that can download viruses to your computer.

What are known places?? File sharing applications like Kazaa, Limewire, any other peer to peer applications, some IRC (Internet Relay Chat) rooms also spread nefarious viruses and bugs, porn sites, sites that deal with hacking, cracking or freaking, etc.. etc.. etc..

PLEASE NOTE: It's important to realize that even legitimate sites can be attacked. Hackers will find a way into any site if they really want to get in. It's up to system administrators and cite owners to help keep this kind of propagation from happening, but it does happen.

2.) Don't open attachments unless you are sure it is a safe. If you open the attachments, you run the risk of becoming a carrier for the virus. In most cases, viruses will seek out your address book and send out it's malicious coding to all your friends and family masquerading as YOU. (that doesn't seem very fair, does it?) So then when your family and friends get your email, they will think it's legitimate and open it too. Now THEY are now infected.

3.) Don't be tricked by copycat emails. A copycat email is an email sent to you to make it look like it came from your bank,, or paypal. Upon a casual glance, these forged sites can look completely legitimate, but they aren't. These sites have but one function: trick you into believing you're logging into your account, when in fact you're providing some remote server critical account access information. If you get an email from one of your accounts, then open up your web browser and manually type in the address for your bank or for wherever. Verify that they had been trying to get a hold of you and you can address it then.

Most institutions have a policy where they will never notify you via email except to have you manually open up a new browser window and to go to their site that way. Never click on the link provided in the email.

4.) Don't click "OK" when a pop-up happens. Pop-ups are another incredibly frustrating source of these hoaxes and tricks -- because you might get a pop-up that looks like a computer dialog box. Something like: "An error has happened and you need to restart your browser now." If you click "OK," you may inadvertently download something you shouldn't.

So how do you know if something is legitimate from your computer or not? Check the applications that you have open on the bottom of the screen. Traditionally a pop-up is nothing more than another small browser window. You may see more than one internet browser open - and if that is the case the pop-up might be one of them. Simply click the extra internet icon that shows up on the bottom of the screen a couple of times. Did it go away and come back? If so, this is a pop-up. To safely clear the pop-up, right click on that icon you just clicked on -- then select "Close" and the pop-up should disappear.

5.) Don't send e-cards. It's tempting to send a friend a "thinking of you" e-card, or to send a birthday wish to a cousin or a relative. But resist the temptation of sending an e-card because of the hoax I described for you in #3 up above about "copycat emails." It's nearly impossible to determine whether or not an e-card is legitimate because they can be easily spoofed to make it look like it came from your email. An unknowing relative can then click on the link and the damage is done.

6.) Resist the temptation of spreading jokes and stuff. This is the number one way of how our emails can get spoofed. People who forward jokes, images and such via the internet are opening up a big can of worms for people who may not know if they are infected with a virus. If your email address appears on a long list of people who received the joke or the funny email, then your email address can then be used against you. Viruses can then re-direct their "malicious emails" to make it look like a legitimate email came from you.

Also, let's not forget the lesson learned in #2: don't open attachments. When you forward something from your account, it becomes an attachment for those people on your list that you're sending it to. If they practice safe computing and don't open attachments, then whatever you are sending will go un-read and discarded. Even emails that seem completely safe because they have a cute picture of a kitty cat or a cute pup are not immune to spreading nasty things. Most of these images are downloaded from a remote site - and if you're allowing your computer to download the cute kitty cat or the pup dog, then you're also allowing your computer to download whatever other malicious code that could be lurking behind the scenes.

6.) Update update update, scan scan scan Now that you've developed a keen sense of living virus free, you have a couple more things to do: always make sure that your operating system has all of its updates, always make sure that your anti-virus & spyware software is operational, updated, and functioning properly, and make a point to scan your system on a regular basis. You do not need to scan it daily (unless your kids are constantly downloading from a peer to peer or you're practicing unsafe internet habits) -- but traditionally you only need to scan your computer once a month. Your system should let you know if you have a nasty bug or if something isn't right with the computer.

What to do when you get a virus warning DO NOT IGNORE IT. We don't always want to think that we've just stumbled into something really bad, so we tend to blindly ignore that it happened. Obtaining a virus doesn't make you a bad person or a bad surfer, it happens. But the first thing we don't want you to do is panic. When people panic, a lot of bad things can happen. So here is a short list of things you should do:

a.) Unplug your computer from the internet/network. If possible, leave your computer on.
b.) Call your IT person and tell them that you have a virus and that you need their help. Virus removal can be tricky and it can be costly.
c.) If your computer is hooked up to a network, notify other persons on the network that they need to scan their computer to make sure the virus didn't spread to them.
d.) Notify your family and friends via telephone (or from another computer) to let them know that you've obtained a virus and to ignore anything that came from you since you noticed the problem.
e.) Don't touch the computer until your IT person says you can. Oftentimes the tendency is to delete the file in question, but that actually can do more harm because you deleted the branch of a tree, but the trunk and root still remain.
f.) Don't panic, but learn from whatever happened. See what caused it and why, then seek a way to make sure it doesn't get repeated.
g.) Be prepared for the worst. In most cases, your files are okay - and should be backed up immediately thereafter. It's then strongly recommended that after you've backed up your important data - to reformat the hard drive to remove any possible trace of the virus. You can then restore your applications and your data and go from there.