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Internet Virus Protection: Keep Your Computer Spyware And Virus Free

internet virus protectionComputer viruses will attack computer users over 30,000,000 times this year alone. They will be responsible for data loss, data theft, personal information and credit card number theft, system crashes and software malfunctions. Damages from viruses cost businesses and consumers billions of dollars each year. The sad part is many of these infections are preventable.

Viruses, spyware and other malware can enter your computer by a number of different methods. Some of those methods include

  • Vulnerabilities – flaws in computer software that create security weaknesses; improper computer security settings.Threats seek out and exploit these weaknesses to cause a range of problems from data loss or theft to software malfunctions.
  • Spyware – computer software installed on a user’s system without their knowledge and/or consent that either secretly collects information and transmits it to a third party or disrupts operation of the user’s browser (adware, hijacks) or other system software.
  • Malware – computer software designed to infiltrate a computer without the owner’s knowledge and/or consent with the purpose of causing annoyance, malfunction, serious data loss or system damage. Malware includes computer viruses, worms, trojan horses, most rootkits, crimeware and other malicious and unwanted software.

So how do you protect your computer from these problems? The answer is simple, and you can do it for almost no cost. The rest of this article will show you how to keep your computer as safe as possible using the right maintenance steps, software and a proactive security mindset. Keep in mind that no system is 100% secure – a sentiment echoed throughout the data security industry – and this article is for informational purposes only. We perform these steps on our computers and it has kept us safe, but we encourage you to learn as much as you can about data security – and keep up to date with the latest information and security software – to ensure you do what is best for your computers.

Keep Your Software Updated

microsoft virus protectionThis is the best way to fend off vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious software. If you are a Windows user, use Windows Update at least once a week. This is typically set to automatically update your system, but if it is not, remember to do it manually. This does more than just update your operating system with the latest patches and security fixes, it also updates other Microsoft products such as Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer, .NET, Windows Defender, Office, Visio, Project, Expression Web/Studio and Silverlight. If you are a Mac OS user you are still susceptible to malicious software. This risk will increase as the Mac gains popularity. Remember to keep your Mac OS and Safari browser updated.

Keeping up to date on the latest security patches does not just apply to operating systems. People look for holes in all kinds of software. This means you should keep it all updated. Adobe, Intuit, QuickTime & iTunes, Winamp, Firefox, Opera and Real Player are just some of the applications that issue updates. This also applies to browser plugins like Java, Flash and Shockwave. If you always have the latest version and patches installed, you have a lesser chance of leaving a hole open for an unscrupulous person to exploit.

Definitions also count. Make sure your antivirus and anti-spyware software is updated regularly. Most of the time this should happen automatically. If for any reason it does not, make sure you check for new definitions every few days, or set the programs to perform this operation automatically. It is not uncommon for the major antivirus companies to update their definitions every few days as they are constantly analyzing and cataloguing threats. Many of these companies also provide updates on a subscription basis. Make sure your subscription is paid so you don’t leave your computer vulnerable.

Proactive Security Practices

Be alert when visiting web pages.

internet virus protectionOne of the best ways to prevent malware and viruses from getting on your computer is to follow a few simple security practices. The first has to do with the type of websites you visit. You are most likely to get a virus from warez (illegal software downloading) sites, file sharing and torrent sites, porn sites, non-mainstream gaming sites and sites that automatically prompt you to download something in order to view their pages or content.

This may exclude prompts to download well-known legitimate plugins like Flash, Acrobat Reader, Shockwave, Java, etc. But before you install, make sure you can verify that the install is actually coming from the parent company (e.g. Adobe: Flash, Shockwave, Acrobat Reader; Sun: Java; Microsoft: Silverlight; Real Networks: Real Player; Apple: QuickTime, iTunes).

If you can’t verify this, close the install window immediately and close the browser window. If you can’t do this, hit <CTRL> <ALT> <DEL> to open the task manager, go to the “Processes” tab, find iexplore.exe, select it and click “end process”. Do this for all instances. The best way to avoid all of that is to visit the parent company site and download the updated plugin directly from them. Then, navigate back to wherever you were and the content should play. If it does not, the site is likely malicious. Do not download any CODECs that pop up asking you to install them to view a video. 99% of the time these are viruses.

Know what programs you are installing on your computer.

The second step involves programs you install. Be sure to read through the license agreement before installing any software, especially from a smaller company. Many of these little freeware convenience applications install spyware along with the program. By clicking on “Agree” at the license prompt, you consent to let them do it.

These applications are notorious for browser toolbars and “helper” applications. Many times these toolbars are even bundled with legitimate applications. Always select “Custom Install” if the option is available. That way you have a better chance of seeing what will be installed and can prevent installation of the toolbars.

I personally do not install any toolbars on my computer. Some folks like to have the Alexa toolbar running to track traffic trends. Many anti-spyware programs flag this as spyware. There are other SEO and keyword add-ons for Firefox that work very well without having to install spyware. A basic rule of thumb: If you didn’t ask for it, don’t install it.

Keep an eye on your email.

The third step involves email. Email is used to distribute millions of viruses every year. This step is so simple, yet so many people do not follow it. If you did not expect to receive an email attachment, don’t open it. Don’t even open the email, delete it – even if it’s from someone you know or someone on your contact list!

Many recent and infamous viruses have been been known to infect a user’s computer and then send copies of itself to all the email addresses in that user’s contact list. If you aren’t sure, pick up the phone and call the person who sent you the email. If they have a virus and don’t know it, you will be alerting them to the problem as well as protecting your system.

Viruses can lurk in files with extensions .exe, .vbs, .vbe, .vb, .bat, .com, .bas, .doc, .xls, .js, .cmd and many more. Many email programs and corporate email servers automatically block attachments with certain file extensions, but it is impossible to screen them all without disallowing all attachments. So, it is up to you to screen the rest.

Tip: Don’t use the preview pane in your email program. I know it’s convenient, but as soon as you select an email, it’s opened. Without the preview pane, you have to double-click the email to open it. Disabling the preview pane can help keep SPAM from your inbox.

How? Spammers will sometimes embed a tracking image in an email. When you open the email and the HTML message is displayed, you download the image off their servers and a record of your doing so is received by that server. This tells the spammer their message has reached a valid email account (or at least a valid IP address) and can open you up to being more of a SPAM target or worse.

This is an old technique, but it’s still in use. Also, if you get a SPAM email, just delete it without opening it. Do not ‘unsubscribe’. Those links are just there to validate email addresses. If you fill in their form, you are telling them they have found a working email account and they will SPAM you like crazy.

Tip: Phishing is when someone disguises themselves as a legitimate operation and tricks you into revealing your personal information. Real businesses will never ask you for your password, social security number, credit card numbers, mother’s maiden name or bank account numbers via email.

Never give out this information through email, ever. Always visit the company’s site directly. If you have any doubts, call customer service. Many companies have a special email address to which you can forward phishing emails. Always do it. Many large corporations, especially financial institutions, will use the email to go after these people with dogged determination.

If you are selling an item of yours on an online classified service like Craigslist, always ask for the buyer’s phone number so you can contact them. Never give out your number or address without first talking to a person. If the email response to your ad is overly generic, they provide you a number that is not local, refuse to provide contact information or make excuses about not being able to provide contact information, the response to your ad is most likely from a scammer. Once you determine that, cease communications with that person.

PC Virus Protection

microsoft virus protectionAntivirus software is essential to protecting your computer from threats. You should always have an up to date antivirus program running on your computer. This is even more important if you have business, personal or financial data on your computer. Not only does it help protect you from data loss, it also helps protect you from data theft. There are many good antivirus programs out there. We’ll start with how to get free antivirus software.

Most cable companies now provide free antivirus software with your subscription. For example, Comcast gives you Norton Antivirus and Time Warner gives you CA Internet Security Suite Plus. Check with your cable Internet provider to see about taking advantage of these offers. The best part of this is you don’t have to pay subscription fees to keep your virus definition files up to date; it’s included. If you are still using dial-up or DSL and you want to do business online, it’s time to upgrade to cable Internet.

There is also free antivirus software available on the web. avast! Home Edition is free for home use and has received positive reviews and won numerous awards. You can download it for free here.

Trend Micro offers a free online virus scan as well. You can find it here.

There are numerous antivirus programs for sale from a multitude of companies. It can be tough to determine which is the best. The list below are the mainstream top performers for virus protection and general Internet security. (As an aside, for spyware protection it is better to rely on an dedicated anti-spyware program. Antivirus software is excellent at protecting you from viruses, but is usually weak on spyware protection. We will cover antispyware in the next section.) These titles are in no particular order. Many people swear by one platform or another but on average they all perform pretty well. The titles listed below are consistently well reviewed and show stable, reliable performance. There are other titles available, but we did not list them here because too many users reported bugs or lack of effectiveness. Definitely compare these products and select the one with the features that work for you. We use Symantec (Norton) and have found it to be very effective.

The Best Spyware Protection

best spyware softwareAlthough many of the name brand security suites advertise spyware defense, independent testing reveals their strength to still be in the antivirus and email virus detection and removal. For spyware protection, there are many free tools you can use to keep your computer and your identity safe. Our favorites include

  • Spybot Search and Destroy. This software allows you to scan for and remove spyware. It also has 2 very small resident programs that runs in the background. One protects Internet explorer from being exploited by malicious software. The other prevents unwanted files from being installed on your system and also monitors the registry for unwanted changes. Spybot’s immunize function prevents tracking cookies from entering your system. Immunize works with Firefox, Internet Explorer and Opera, allowing you to adjust specific settings of the browser to block known spyware installers already included in Spybot’s database.
  • Lavasoft Ad-Aware. This program works like a manual virus scanner. It now also includes real-time monitoring and a sharper scanning engine. When you run a spyware scan, Ad-Aware will detect anything that doesn’t belong, with very few false positives.
  • SpywareBlaster is a prevention application as opposed to a scanner and works similarly to the immunize function of Spybot Search and Destroy. We find that these two programs compliment each other nicely. SpywareBlaster helps prevent the installation of ActiveX-based spyware and other potentially unwanted programs, blocks spying / tracking via cookies and restricts the actions of potentially unwanted or dangerous web sites. It works with Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Netscape, Seamonkey, Flock, K-Meleon and browsers that use the IE engine, including: AOL web browser, Avant Browser, Slim Browser, Maxthon (formerly MyIE2), Crazy Browser and GreenBrowser. Many other programs use Internet Explorer as a default browser, or use the Internet Explorer engine to display their interface or content. So even if your browser is not listed above (e.g. Opera), SpywareBlaster will protect you in many other cases.

Virus Recovery, Spyware Removal And Other Safety Tips

Keeping your computer clean will help you keep your computer secure, not to mention help it run more smoothly. To do this, the best application we have found is CCleaner. It cleans out your temporary Internet files, temp files, program caches and recycle bin using a secure deletion algorithm to completely destroy the data. What many computer users do not know is that deleting a file from the recycle bin does not actually delete the file.The file is stored at a physical location on your hard drive. When you us the file, Windows knows where it is by “pointing” to that location on the hard disk. When you delete a file, Windows simply removes that pointer, essentially “forgetting” where the file is and allowing that physical location on the hard drive to be overwritten with new data at a later time. But that means your file is still on your hard drive. It will stay there until that physical location on the disk is overwritten with new data.

There are numerous recovery software applications out there whose sole purpose is to retrieve files that are still on your disk but have been “deleted” from windows. The only way to completely remove the files is to overwrite the physical location with new data. Secure delete works by overwriting the sector multiple times to ensure no trace of the original file can be retrieved. Did you know that Internet explorer also keeps a running history of every site you have ever visited? They are located in index.dat files that Windows does not allow you to delete (without some advanced commands anyway). CCleaner gets rid of these as well so your privacy can be maintained. Imagine if a spyware program got on your computer and was able to match your name with every website you have ever visited on that computer, then transmit that data to someone – not a nice thought. CCleaner does an excellent job. We use it weekly and recommend you do the same. CCleaner is free and can be downloaded here.

Spyware and Virus Removal

If you believe your computer has become infected or is running much slower than it should, follow these steps to clean it up. In these steps we assume you have a virus scanner with updated definitions, a spyware scanner and CCleaner. This is a very thorough approach and should be used for very slow or heavily infected computers or computers that have a virus that you have been unable to remove by s simple scan alone.

  • Disconnect your computer from the network by unplugging the network cable from the computer. In the case of a wireless network, turn off your wireless card or unplug your wireless router.
  • Run CCleaner
  • Run a full system scan with your antivirus program. If a virus is found remove it and continue the scan. Repeat this entire step until no more viruses are discovered.
  • Restart the computer and boot into safe mode. For Windows users, pressing <F8> while your computer is starting up should bring you to the boot menu. Once there, select “Safe Mode” (NOT Safe Mode with Networking). When you computer has started in Safe Mode, run the virus scanner again. Remove any viruses it finds and repeat the scan until no more viruses are discovered.
  • While still in Safe Mode, run your spyware scanner (if you have more than one, Spybot and Ad-Aware for example, do this step for each scanning program). Remove any spyware it detects. Be sure to review the list of files before you delete them, however, because there may be 1 or 2 false positives. Repeat this step until your spyware scanner(s) reports that your system is clean.
  • Reboot your computer normally. Once your computer has started up, run CCleaner one more time. Then, run your virus scanner and your antispyware scanners again.
  • Everything should be clean now. Use your computer as you would normally and keep an eye out for odd behavior. If your system is still not working properly or you are still getting virus warnings, there are more steps you can take.
    • Make sure all of your antivirus and antispyware definitions are up to date.
    • Determine the name of the virus you have and search Google, Symantec or the Trend Micro websites. There may be a stand-alone removal tool for that particular stubborn virus.
    • If none of this works, you will have to either start reading antivirus forums to find the answer or seek professional guidance. A vast majority of the time, however, the steps outlined above will be effective at cleaning your system.

If You Can’t Even Boot…

Get access to a friend or relative’s computer, someone who has a CD or DVD burner and burning software. The following site will give you a free recovery CD that will perform virus scanning and removal without having to start Windows. Download the free Kaspersky rescue disk and use the Softpedia Mirror (US) download link on the right. Burn the image (.iso file) to a CD. If your computer does not try to boot from the CD drive before the hard drive, you may have to change the boot order in the BIOS and make the CD drive the primary boot device. You can change it back when you are done.

 

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