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 Virus - Computer safety tips

 

It may seem that achieving good security can be a daunting task. Fortunately, following the few simple steps outlined below can provide a good measure of security in very little time.

PC-Village.co.uk are happy to help with advice at any stage if you wish to pursue the DIY route. Alternatively we can setup your PC defences for you. It really is up to you.

Install antivirus software and keep it updated. Viruses are released daily.  It is imperative that you run some type of virus scanning software on your PC. At a minimum, you should check for new definition updates daily. Most antivirus software can be configured to do this automatically. If you need help choosing the right antivirus software, then PC-Village.co.uk are here to advise you.

Make sure all necessary security patches are installed. Windows vulnerabilities are constantly being discovered. Visit the Windows Update Center weekly to ensure you have all critical patches needed. Viruses continue to exploit old vulnerabilities because many users do not apply patches regularly. Not only does not applying these patches leave your system at risk, it leaves your friends and family at greater risk as well. Remember, if a worm gets on your system because you failed to apply the proper patches, everyone in your address book becomes the worm's next target. Try explaining that to Grandma.

Use a firewall. No Internet connection is safe without one. A firewall simply gives control over who and what connects with your PC.  Finding one that monitors both inbound and outbound connection attempts is essential. Firewalls are necessary even if you have a dial-up Internet connection. If you have broadband, your system is even more vulnerable to attack.  

Secure your email. Make sure your email software isn't leaving you open to infection. Attachments are only part of the problem. Unless you configure it properly, apply the patches, AND exercise caution with attachments, your email is your weakest link.  

Secure your browser. If using Internet Explorer, take advantage of the security zones settings to ensure optimum browsing safety. Not only will you enjoy safer browsing, you'll be able to eliminate unwanted pop-ups as well.  

Separate fact from fiction. Don't fall victim to virus hoaxes that tell you to delete perfectly legitimate files or otherwise spread needless alarm. Visit the Hoax Encyclopedia before forwarding on those dire sounding emails warning of non-existent viruses   

Why having PC Anti-Virus software is no longer enough.

The growing problem of SpywareSpyware 

We've all heard the cliché, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." This is as true for use of the Internet as anywhere else. Whether it's through advertising, or through the use of your personal information, you're going to be made to pay somehow. The key is to understand what you're agreeing to and what you're willing to pay for something that claims to be free.

There's a new type of software out there that you may have heard about. It's called spyware and the most common way it gets on your computer is when you are downloading something else that claims to be free.

Spyware is software that collects personal information from you without first letting you know what it's doing and without letting you decide whether this is OK or not. The information spyware collects can range from all the Web sites you visit to more sensitive information like usernames and passwords. You might be the target of spyware if you download music from file-sharing programs, free games from sites you don't trust, or other software programs from an unknown source. It is important to emphasize here that business environments are just as likely to be hit as any other. 

Spyware is often associated with software that displays advertisements, called adware. Some advertisers may covertly install adware on your system and generate a stream of unsolicited advertisements that can clutter your desktop and affect your productivity. The advertisements may also contain pornographic or other material that you might find inappropriate. The extra processing required to track you or to display advertisements can tax your computer and hurt your system performance.This is not to say that all software which provides ads or tracks your online activities is bad. If you sign up for a free music service and in return for that free service the company offers you targeted advertisements, it might be a fair tradeoff. Likewise, tracking online activities can be useful when displaying customized search content or personalized preferences at an online retailer.

The scale of the spread of spyware can be seen in the results of a significant survey by AOL last year which told us that “91% of users have SpywareSpyware lurking on Home Computers”. Although some anti-virus providers have started to address the threat of Spyware in their products it is still the case that the vast majority of Spyware infections will be left “untreated” by anti-virus software. This lack of protection continues to present opportunities for those wishing to exploit this hole.

Spyware and unauthorized adware are two examples of "deceptive" software. Deceptive software includes programs which take over your home page or search page without first getting your permission. There are a number of ways deceptive software can get on your system. A common trick is to covertly install the software during the installation of other software you want such as a music or video file sharing program.

My introduction to deceptive software was some two years ago when called to a small business to resolve problems with their main PC. I was expecting that a virus was at the heart of my client’s problem. I found a computer virtually at standstill; the processor was running at 100% utilisation – unable to respond to any instruction. Investigation found that a number of programs had been installed so that they would start up automatically at boot time. Names of the programs were disguised as operating system programs. Attempts to end the rogue programs failed since they reappeared with 4-5 seconds. Use of the system restore facility also proved fruitless.  This article not being the place for great technical detail I will just state that it took some very low level techniques and four hours of my time to completely eradicate all traces of the infection. More importantly, my client lost usage of the PC for the whole day.

I give this example to demonstrate that deceptive programs can be rather nasty as well as simple annoying pop-up creators.

 Is your PC affected by Spyware?

 Any one or more of the following symptoms can suggest infection:

  • browser opens to display Web site advertisements.

  • Your Web browser's home page unexpectedly changes.

  • Web pages are unexpectedly added to your Favourites folder.

  • New toolbars are unexpectedly added to your Web browser.

  • You cannot start a program.

  • When you click a link in a program, the link does not work.

  • Your Web browser suddenly closes or stops responding.

  • It takes a longer to boot up or to re-start your computer.

  • Components of Windows or other programs no longer work.

  • PC performance shows a sudden downturn.

The main problem that most people notice is that they have performance issues with their computers. For example, Internet Explorer might not work properly any more, your computer might hang more frequently, or your computer might slow down significantly. Removing spyware successfully is difficult enough to make preventing it in the first place a priority.

Unauthorized adware and spyware usually install on your computer covertly by using one of two methods:

  • Tricking you into clicking a link that installs it.

Links to spyware can be deceptive. For example, a Web site that's trying to push spyware onto your computer might open a window that looks like a Windows dialog box, and then trick you by installing when you click a Cancel button to close the dialog box. Sometimes, spyware pushers will put a fake title bar in an empty window, and then install spyware when you try closing the window. 

  • Installing freeware that includes it.

For example, you might install a free file-sharing program that surreptitiously installs spyware on your computer. File-sharing programs can be a major conveyor of adware. 

Once installed, spyware can transmit your personal information and download advertisements 24 hours a day. It can also hijack your browser settings, such as your home page or search page.     

Protect against Spyware and Adware

Without help, you have no way to prevent adware or spyware. Old antivirus programs don't even prevent adware, since they didn't consider them viruses or worms. First, you usually give permission to install adware, although you do so unwittingly because adware and spyware pushers are deceptive. Second, adware doesn't behave like a typical virus or worm.

 Prevent unwanted Installation  

  • Make sure the programs you install don't contain adware.

Many freeware programs do include adware. It's how the publishers make their money. If you're not sure, read the license agreement carefully (these are usually shown directly or through links as part of the installation process). Also, check the publisher's Web site very carefully. If you're still not sure, search Google Groups for the name of the program and the keywords adware or spyware. If you don't find any postings about it, then you're probably OK. 

  • Install a pop-up blocker to prevent adware and spyware pop-up windows.  

Much spyware installs after you click a deceptive link in a pop-up browser window. Install a pop-up blocker and you won't even be tempted to click those links. Google provide one of the best pop-up blocking tools and it is free.  

  •  Don't unwittingly install adware or software.

If you do click what seems like an innocuous link, and then you see a dialog box, don't click the “Yes” button to install the software. If in doubt do not proceed. This dialog box is your last line of defence and you should only install programs from the Internet that you chose to install. This is akin to giving your credit card number to someone who calls you at home. It's a different story if you called them. 

However, the best strategy is to be discriminating about what you choose to download and install.

Check your Computer 

The first thing to do is to scan your computer for adware and spyware. There is software specifically designed for detecting spyware and adware, and helping you remove it. Two of the best products are Ad-aware and Spybot. Both are available in freeware versions for use by individuals at home. A commercial version is also available for use in corporate environments.

A final thought. Next time you are sitting at your PC, be it for work or pleasure, remember that others maybe taking a little more interest in your pursuits than you think, so be aware.

 

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11Apr03

 

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