Friday, September 7, 2007

#2 Viruses

by Jeff Smith
Computer viruses were likely invented as a practical joke between early programmers. (Virus Timeline) Now antivirus software is a multi-million dollar industry comprised of hundreds of corporations striving to keep us all safe. There are thousands of these little mood-killers frolicking about on the Internet, and they want into your computer. So how do you stop them? Antivirus is obviously the answer, but its a little more complicated than that.
The common avenues of infection are surfing the web,email attachments,downloading files from non-trustworthy sources, removable media (disks & CDs) copied from infected computers.
A good antivirus program should scan everything meticulously....which is not to say that it should automatically delete everything it may find. Often viruses will infect critical files that windows cannot run without. That way when your antivirus removes it your PC don't boot back up. I know first hand that this can be a very frightening and stressful experience.
So what to do? First, while everything is running good, make a copy of your windows folder on disk. Backup again after hardware changes or major system updates or Service Packs. That way if you do delete an important system file, you'll have a copy of it on hand to replace it.
Second, make sure your antivirus is kept up to date. If you received Norton or McAffee with your computer understand that your license for that software is not permanent and that an out-of-date antivirus is not going to protect you from new viruses.
If you can't afford to renew your license with the software you have, there are many excellent free antivirus programs available.
For inexperienced users I recommend AVAST Home Edition found at It updates itself regularly whenever an internet connection is present. So if you're a dial-up user keep that in mind if your speed is slow for a few minutes after you first connect. It scans email clients, all running processes, protects your web browser, scans all downloads (even from p2p), and you can scan any new files by right clicking them.
Next time you see an alert from your antivirus program, take note of the location of the infected file. If you see C:\WINDOWS\ as part of the file's location then it could be an important system file. Google the name of the file to see if it is a legit windows file. If not delete it. If it is important, try quarantining it or replacing the file from a backup. If all else fails, try to use system restore to rewind to before the infection occurred.
Lastly learn to know when you're out of your depth. If it is a business PC or contains valuable irreplaceable data ask the help of a more experienced friend or seek professional help before taking shots in the dark. Be aware that the restore disks you probably received with your computer will often wipe everything before reinstalling Windows, you probably don't want that. Often valuable data is lost by repair attempts of the inexperienced. If you don't know what you're doing, talk to someone who does. You can even email me.
If your computer contains nothing of value, then feel free to experiment. Making mistakes is the surest way to learn how to avoid them in the future.
One last bit of advice...Much like a medical vaccine, the virus definitions that antivirus programs use to identify viruses contain parts of actual viruses. When installing a new antivirus program always make sure to completely un-install your old antivirus program. Otherwise the two will detect each other's definition files as viruses and try to delete each other.
Next week we'll be learning all about spyware in its many forms... Until then, safe computing.


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