State of PC Security Address: The Virus Landscape

It can be tough to keep up with the latest threats to your computer's security. Here's a guide to help you stay in the know and out of trouble.

When it comes to computing, it’s a dangerous world out there. Virus developers and other bad guys are relentless in trying to capture user information and destroy systems. Even more challenging, the landscape is constantly changing. As security application developers come up with stronger protection, attackers change tactics and start new battles.

Here are a few of the top dangers to keep in mind, with input from three of our EasyTech experts:

Rogue Antivirus

According to EasyTech expert Ryan Salinger, one of the worst threats these days is rogueware, which promises to rid a computer of malicious software (malware).

Often disguised as a virus scan, this threat will display a message with an ominous warning. For example: “Virus has been blocked, click here to remove” or “Multiple viruses detected, click here to run scan.” Once you click on the window, a piece of software is covertly installed on your PC. This malware will usually block most attempts to open other programs or to close the “virus program” itself. Meanwhile, on the screen, you’re prompted to pay for virus removal services.

“When a credit card number has been put in, you’ve simply handed over your personal information on a silver platter to some fake company or person, typically overseas,” says Salinger. “If that wasn’t bad enough, your PC will still be infected.”

In 2010, Google reported that 11,000 Web site domains were hosting this type of fake antivirus software. Most have names (such as DriveCleaner and WinFixer) that sound similar to legitimate products.

EasyTech expert Shawn Dube notes that his own grandmother was taken in by this type of scam: “It really preys on people’s anxiety about computer viruses,” he says. “This particular type of malware is so tenacious, and it just keeps adapting and changing.”

Are you fighting a rogue? Telltale signs:

  • Frequent pop-up windows warn you about rampant viruses.
  • Links direct you to a Web site where you’re asked to provide credit card information.
  • You’re redirected to other Web sites while online.
  • It’s difficult to do everyday tasks, like opening applications or saving documents.
  • You can’t close or uninstall a program.
  • You can’t access legitimate antivirus Web sites like Symantec or BitDefender.

Shut them down:

  • Don’t click through on any error message that seems suspicious, particularly if it directs you to a Web site. Legitimate antivirus makers don't use “random screenings” to get business.
  • Never give your credit-card information online for virus scanning and eradication unless you’ve researched the software company first.
  • Do a Google search on the “company” name along with the word “scam.” For example, “DriveCleaner scam” will bring up some information about whether the app is fake.

Spyware

Imagine all of your computer’s data in the hands of someone else — a person who knows exactly what you type, every day. Sounds scary, but it happens often, according to EasyTech expert Mark Gratton. This type of malware is called spyware, because it spies on a user’s behavior and reports back to the malware developer.

“It’s there to get your sensitive information,” says Gratton, “It doesn’t affect performance, and it doesn’t send out pop-up messages, so you probably won’t get an indication that it’s there.”

Many types of spyware “spider out,” he adds, which means that they create a “spider’s web” of information within the computer and put code in numerous areas. This makes it much harder for an average user to remove all of it. If only part of it is eradicated, what’s left can keep moving behind the scenes.

Also, spyware can reside in files that are important for computer operations, Gratton notes. That means those files can’t be deleted; the code has to be tweezed out in very specific ways that won’t harm the existing data.

One of the most common types of spyware is called a keylogger. This program will track your keystrokes on the computer, and then send a file to the rogue programmer with that information. Think about everything you type in during the day — passwords to bank sites, emails to friends, tax data into a spreadsheet — and that’s what the hacker will get.

“Only about 10 percent of malware is designed to spy on you in this way, but it’s really dangerous for those affected by it,” Gratton says.

A type of spyware that’s less scary will look at your online habits as you surf the Web and then deliver ads based on what you’ve been browsing, adds Salinger.

He says, “The spyware creators are going after revenue dollars. Most sites, like Google, offer a pay-per-click service, which gives the person placing an ad a very small amount of money for every ad clicked. This may not seem like much, but if 100,000 people are infected, it could lead to some very promising revenue.”

Are you harboring a spy? Telltale signs:

  • You’re seeing more shopping toolbars, pop-up windows or browser extensions. These give spyware creators access to see what you’re doing online.
  • With keyloggers, there won’t be any signs, Gratton notes. That’s why it’s important to do a regular antivirus and security checkup.

Shut them down:

  • For spyware, there are methods for finding and eradicating the programs yourself. But if there were ever a time to call in a professional, this is it.

Email Viruses

Probably the least harmless of the security threats that hit a computer, email viruses can still be annoying to users and their friends.

These viruses work by guessing the password to an email client and then using the program to send out messages that claim to be from you. The emails have links that lead to malware sites.

Dube notes that his Hotmail account got hacked in this way, and the emails became rampant. The program sent out fraud messages to everyone he’d ever contacted through that account.

“I felt like I got hijacked,” he says, “Definitely, this is one that’s a security threat, so it's good to keep on top of it.”

Are you a hijack victim? Telltale signs:

  • Friends write to tell you that they’re getting weird messages from you, even though you haven’t sent any.
  • You may get messages from your own account, usually in the middle of the night, and often with Web links included.

Shut them down:

  • The only real way to stop these viruses is to implement better password protection. Dube recommends a mix of capital and lowercase letters, symbols and numbers. He says, “Don’t use anything that could be looked up in a dictionary.”

General Prevention and Cleanup Tips

To keep nasty viruses and other dangers off the computer, be sure to follow good practices when online. Create strong passwords, install all operating system updates, run regular security checks and don’t click on pop-up windows.

Most importantly, don’t download programs or games from companies you don’t know. Be suspicious of email messages with Web links that promise jokes, videos, news or other information, even if those emails come from a friend.

Many users find it helpful to have an automated antivirus and intrusion-detection scan. Install reputable security software and follow the instructions for running scans and disinfection on a regular basis.

In order to get a better look at what’s on your computer, Salinger notes, you can do a free online virus scan. These don’t remove anything from the PC, but they’re helpful to see the level of infection, if any.

If you suspect your computer has already been infected, it’s important to clean up the right way. With some viruses and applications — particularly spyware — disinfection is far from simple. Since the virus can replicate and then reside in different parts of the computer, it’s advisable to have a professional do the work to fully scrub all parts of the malicious code out of the PC.

Security will always be crucial when using your computer. The attackers don’t rest, but fortunately, some vigilance can go a long way.

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