Avoiding Virus Infestations

One of the most common computer problems all users face is infection from viruses, malware and adware.  Given the wide variety of security options available, it is baffling that so many infections still take place.  But, the main reason viruses still invade our PCs is simply because they act a lot like their biological counterparts and mutate to adapt to the defenses we have developed against them.  Much like the common cold or flu, the best defense then becomes good preventive measures.

The most basic thing you can do to protect yourself is invest in an anti-virus or security program.  There are several big name options on store shelves and available for download that all work very well.  Take a look at PC Magazine’s recent article comparing and rating the 2013 versions to find the one that works the best for you.  If you have limited funds or are not sure what to buy and want something to install now, you cannot go wrong with any of the free versions listed on the website’s review of the top free anti-virus programs for 2013.  The key is to get something on your machine to keep it protected.

Keep in mind that anti-virus software is updated when a new virus is discovered and its signature can be added to the program’s database.  The time period after a new virus is initially released or an old virus is altered means even the best anti-virus programs might not catch it, so you still have to be careful.  One of the best defenses to avoiding new viruses is to keep common programs up-to-date with security updates.  Windows should be updated regularly and can be set to automatically update when turned off or at a specific time of day.  If you need help with Windows Update, Microsoft has a website describing how to use the service.  In addition to Windows, you will want to keep Java, Adobe Flash and Adobe Reader up to date, since all three programs have been targets for virus writers.

Finally, you want to be smarter than the virus.  The top ways viruses spread are through everyday actions such as reading e-mail, surfing the internet or just installing software.  For e-mail, keep in mind the three main safety rules – be skeptical, do not open attachments that look suspicious (even from known sources) and keep security features turned on.  Phishing schemes are often made to look like a real message from a legitimate company, such as your bank or an online shopping site, but if you look at the address they want to send you to, it is a fake.  Keep in mind most web browsers will display the destination website address in the status bar at the bottom of the program when you hover over a link.  Use that to check where the e-mail link wants to send you.  If you are skeptical about an e-mail, call the bank or retailer (but not at any number included in the suspect e-mail).  Images and attachments are the two other main ways virus spread via e-mail, so you want to avoid automatically downloading either or using a preview pane that will open the e-mail with you having to click on it.  For websites, avoid the rogues.  These are sites made to look like real sites.  If you do not know the address of a website you want to go to, it is best to use Google or another search engine to find the real address.  Many rogue sites use similar addresses and are made to look real, but all you get are links that download viruses and malware.  Software installations can be tricky as well, since you sometimes get more than you pay for or ask for.  Even legitimate software will come bundled with “extras” that you often do not need.  But while standard software such as Java offers items like Google Toolbar, some freeware, open source and shareware is loaded with adware or malware.  If you are interested in downloading a certain program, it is a good idea to check the reviews on the most popular download sites, like Cnet, FileHippo, Tucows or MajorGeeks.  Users will often leave a comment if a download contains bad add-ons.  Lastly, do not trust flash drives someone lends you or keep one constantly plugged into the PC, they are an easy way for viruses to spread.  Newer viruses actually look to see if one is plugged in and load themselves on the drive so your anti-virus software cannot find it as easily.  A good way to avoid flash drive attacks is to disable autorun/autoplay on your computer.  Keep in mind this will also impact memory cards, DVDs and CDs since they may not automatically play when inserted, but can be started by hitting the play button on you media player.  Tucows has a free program available to do this for you.

- Laura N.