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The Last Antivirus Advice Column You’ll Ever Need

Keeping your computer safe from viruses and malware can seem like a full time job, but this comprehensive guide will keep you covered from all angles.

Sometimes it feels like keeping your PCs virus-free is like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole. Every day the bad guys are writing more sophisticated code to trash your computer or commit serious financial and emotional damage to you, your family, or your business. Fortunately, the good guys are busy plugging holes, searching for suspects and preventing attacks by improving computer security, but this battle has no end in sight.

Malware refers not just to viruses but to all forms of programming designed to hurt, scam and exploit innocent people. Microsoft provides good, free software to protect Windows from malware. The Malicious Software Removal Tool does exactly what its title says, and Windows Security Essentials is an antivirus program for Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7. However, as the bad guys get smarter, you should consider upgrading to a stronger guardian for your personal and business information.

How Does a PC Get Infected with a Virus?

Malware can be transmitted to your computer through a variety of methods, including

  • Hacked Web sites: Legitimate Web sites can be compromised so they pass on infections, steal information or otherwise scam you. Facebook, Twitter and children’s Web sites have all been targeted recently
  • Fake updates: Manufacturers update their programs regularly, and the bad guys take advantage of this by sending you fake updates that infect your PC when you install them.
  • Video streams: Netflix and other video-on-demand services use encryption before transmission, so the bad guys can’t attach anything to the stream. However, sports sites that broadcast live games are often not encrypted.
  • Virus alerts in a Web browser window: Don’t click on anything when you start seeing these alerts. Quit and restart your browser to avoid getting an infection.
  • “Free” anything: Be careful if you receive an offer for free software. Only download software from reputable companies that you know and trust.
  • Advertising: Things get blurry here, since many kinds of legitimate software track the sites you visit and display ads based on your viewing habits. However, bad guys can use these techniques to steal personal information or bombard you with unwanted advertisements.

Computer Contagion Today

Malware comes in many forms —Trojan Horses, worms, adware, spyware and so on — but viruses are the most well known. Computer viruses have existed since the early 1980s and have evolved into some very dangerous current-day strains, such as ZeroAccess.

The ZeroAccess Virus

This very clever piece of code is known as a rootkit, and it’s extremely difficult to remove because it disguises itself as a legitimate part of your operating system, such as a device driver. And, if that wasn’t devious enough, its defense mechanisms disable antivirus software. ZeroAccess reports to the bad guys about your system activity, and receives updates or additional malware to further infiltrate your system. It also creates a hidden volume on your hard drive. Should you suspect you are infected and reformat your drive, the virus survives in this hidden volume.

Remove ZeroAccess at the first signs of infection:

  • Search-engine results that redirect to irrelevant sites.
  • Pop-up ads that proliferate when you browse the Web.
  • An overall decrease in your computer’s processing speed.

If you can’t remove ZeroAccess with an antivirus program, you may have to perform a low-level wipeout of your hard drive (called zero filling), followed by reinitializing the disk. Staples offers up-to-date antivirus protection and removal services to make this difficult task easier for you.

Distributed Denial of Service Attacks

Zombies are no longer horror fiction — your computer can become one! First, the bad guys infect as many machines as possible without anyone being aware of it. The infection contains code that, when activated by the bad guys, causes all the infected machines to visit a Web site at the same time, flood it with requests and make it crash. Your computer is considered a zombie or bot (short for “robot”) — a member of a slave army controlled by evildoers. These attacks can be vicious: One took the entire country of Myanmar offline in 2010.

Spyware and Keylogging Attacks

The nastiest malware attacks are the ones that don’t send you a signal that something is wrong. Just by visiting an infected Web site, or by clicking “Cancel” or the “X” to close a suspicious window, you initiate a sneaky download. It places software on your computer that collects information, including your every keystroke, and sends it to the bad guys. They sift through your data and piece it together to learn, for instance, your passwords, and then exploit the information.

Good antivirus tools can detect and remove hidden programs, but you won’t even know you have them unless you perform regular anti-malware scans.

Social Engineering Attacks

Scam artists use technology to con you in many ways. For example, they might pretend to be a representative from your financial institution and contact you about “a problem with your account.” In the course of “helping you” they solicit personal information such as your PIN or account password. Be suspicious and contact the real company to check if there is a problem with your account — and never click on a link in such an email.

Another common ruse is to trick you into downloading a free antivirus program, such as “Win 7 Antivirus 2012.” (By the way, this is the name of a genuine piece of malware — beware!) Once the program is installed, it sends constant alerts that your computer is infected and requires you to upgrade to a better program to fix the problem. But the fake antivirus software is generating all the alerts, and when you pay for the upgrade, you are handing the bad guys your credit card and other personal information. This scam is known as “rogue security software,” “ransomware” or “scareware.”

Tools for Fighting Malware

Something is better than nothing when it comes to computer security; if money is an issue, try a free antivirus program, such as AVG Free. Free programs provide some protection, but they are more reactive than proactive — they monitor your system and react when they detect a problem.

A proactive anti-malware program constantly checks links, domains, applications and files against updated databases of new threats and known malware while you work on your PC. These programs are labor-intensive to maintain and offer additional features, so you are asked to pay for them. Two companies that Staples EasyTech recommends are Norton and Kaspersky.

Mobile security for tablets and smartphones is becoming more available. Unsecured mobile devices are greater security risks than viruses for most people; if they get lost or stolen you are giving strangers your personal information.

The Annoyance Factor

Like pop-up ads on the Web, receiving a stream of system alerts from your antivirus software gets tiresome fast. “Alert fatigue” is a problem because you must pay attention to these windows to prevent computer trouble, and the more sensitive and advanced programs tend give you more warnings as a result.

Overall, system slowdowns and multiple security warnings are no longer common. Norton, an early pioneer in the antivirus world, once had a reputation for hogging system resources, but that is no longer the case. Many programs offer a “Gaming Mode” that lets antivirus protection run while you play without interruption.

Installing Antivirus Protection

The main thing to know about installing antivirus software is to be certain any previous security software is completely uninstalled, including Windows Essential Security. Once you’ve done that, all you need to do is load your CD and follow the installation instructions. Check out Microsoft's list of security software programs that are compatible with Windows 7.

The Future of Malware

No one knows what the bad guys will create, but these trends seem likely for 2012:

  • Rootkit attacks will get more sophisticated.
  • Rogue security programs will increase.
  • Cloud-based services will be targeted by malware.
  • Cloud-based antivirus programs will become more prevalent, due to their quick response.
  • Mobile devices will be targeted.

This picture of the future may seem scary, but there is no need to fear technology if you follow these common-sense suggestions:

  • Install antivirus protection from reputable companies.
  • Never click a link in an email, install a flash drive, CD or DVD, or download anything from a source you do not know, especially if it is free.
  • Update your operating system and application software, especially security updates.
  • Use secure passwords and keep them secret.
  • Keep your guard up for rogue security software and suspicious computer behavior.
  • If something does sneak by, contact Staples Tech Services for antivirus protection and removal.
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