Viruses, spyware and other kinds of unwanted software (collectively referred to as Malware) have not made the news headlines in the past few years, with the possible exception of the "Conflicker" worm earlier this year. Part of this is because they are no longer "new", a key element to being news-worthy, but also because there has not been a large scale and destructive virus outbreak in some time. Where the Code Red Worm of 2001 infected more than 350,000 machines and the Sasser Worm of 2004 infected a quarter of a million, most modern viruses infect only a few hundred or few thousand machines..
However, this isn't due to the lack of skill of modern virus authors, but a change in focus among the creators of malware. Where once virus authors were usually students wanting to see how many machines they could compromise, today's virus authors are more business-minded, wanting to hijack machines for the purpose sending out spam, collecting personal information for the purpose of identity theft or to use the machines as part of another attack.
These types of business models require that the virus remain undetected, thus making extremely widespread distribution a liability.
The result is that it is more important than ever to be careful on the Web, to protect yourself and your system against viruses, spyware and other malware. Not only is the number of viruses on the rise, but the dangers are increasing. Where once getting a virus may have meant some of your losing your work, it can now mean losing your Internet connection. your personal records or even your identity.
However, keeping yourself safe on the Web is not complicated, a few common sense preventions and a few applications can help keep malware at bay and your computer, as well as your information, safe.
Using Common Sense
The most important anti-malware tool is your own mind. Though it is important to have anti-virus and anti-spyware tools on your computers, some of which we will discuss later, they should only be used as a last resort. Just as it is important to wear a seat belt, it is more important to be a safe driver and avoid accidents so the belt never becomes necessary.
Most of avoiding spyware and viruses is having an understanding of the Web and using common sense. If you can follow a few basic safety precautions, you can avoid the vast majority of all viruses that might otherwise wind up on your system or at least mitigate the damage they do:
Keep Your System Up To Date: If you are using Windows, enable automatic updates and keep your system patched. Always install updates as soon as feasible as these updates are critical for avoiding many viruses that spread using flaws in the operating system. Do the same for applications that you use regularly, such as your browser, your office suite, etc.
Be Careful Where You Download From: Always download files from reputable sites only and steer clear of sites that offer pirated copies of applications as such sites, often referred to as "warez" sites, are often used to spread malware. Likewise, don't download software from P2P networks as it is impossible to check the source.
Use Caution With Attachments: If you get an attachment you weren't expecting, be wary of opening it or delete it outright. Many viruses spread via email so an attachment, even if it is from a friend, could be a virus. Confirm attachments before opening and be especially careful of attachments that may have executable code.
Buy a Router: Even if you only have one computer, a router can help you keep your broadband connection safe by adding a layer between your CPU and the Web. Routers operate like firewalls, dropping unrequested connections. Many worms, including those that target flaws in the operating system or installed software, try to initiate unwanted connections, which are blocked by these routers.
Backup, Backup, Backup: One can never underestimate the importance of a good backup. Not only can viruses wreck a hard drive and result in data loss, but hard drive failure, natural disasters and even power outages can damage data. Backup your data, ideally somewhere off-site, to ensure your data is safe.
None of these steps require a great deal of time or money but can go a long way to keep your computer safe, saving you hours of headache, potentially days of downtime and hundreds of dollars in repair/recovery bills.
Firefox and Its Add-Ons
Once you've taken a few common sense protections, the next place to turn your focus is your browser. Since the browser is the most commonly-used way to access the Internet, even becoming a mail client with services like Gmail, it is also how many viruses enter computers.
Though Firefox by itself is not inherently more secure than other browsers, meaning it is subject to the same flaws and requires the same patches as other major browsers, it does have a robust extension system that allows users to install free tools to help stay safe on the Web. Considering the following add ons for Firefox:
SiteAdvisor: Provided by McAfee, SiteAdvisor adds icons to Google search results and the tool bar of the browser indicating how "trusted" the site is. It warns you if malware has been detected on a site before you visit it.
Web of Trust: Similar to SiteAdvisor, Web of Trust provides ratings of sites on the Web based upon how trustworthy they are. It currently has nearly 22 million sites rated and relies on user voting to keep the list up to date.
Dr. Web Anti-Virus Checker: Lets you check a file for viruses before you download it. It is not a replacement for a full virus checker, but great for quick checks before you download a file and put your CPU at risk.
Netcraft: Another warning service, but this one functions as a toolbar in the browser and adds additional information, including where a site is hosted and who is hosting it.
Though none of these add-ons are a substitute for common sense or good anti-virus software, they can go a long way to helping you steer clear of bad sites and avoid getting infected should you land on one.
However, to ensure the highest level of protection, you need to combine these add-ons with other free apps.
Security software may be big business, but there are several applications that are free and can help you keep your computer safe. If you don't want to shell out for a store-bought anti-malware solution, consider some of the following freeware alternatives.
AVG Antivirus: AVG Antivirus is a solid antivirus product that provides basic protection against viruses and spyware. It is a solid choice that comes well recommended and has automatic program and virus definition updates.
Avast Antivirus: An alternative to AVG, Avast provides a comparable level of protection, including automatic updates and adds anti-rootkit protection, making it harder for malware to hide.
Ad-Aware: One of the most popular and longest-lasting spyware removal tools. It is easy to update and comes with a live scanner that can help block spyware before it runs.
Spybot: Another stalwart of spyware protection, Spypot has easy updates, fast scanning and a feature that will let you immunize your system against thousands of potential threats.
HijackThis!: HijackThis is a different kind of anti-malware application. It looks at your computer's registry to find suspicious entries that could be malware and lets you remove them. Best used either with a deep understanding of how your computer works or an automated parsing tool to separate legitimate applications from malware.
For most users, especially those who follow the common sense rules above, these free applications will likely be more than enough. However, for those that want an even greater peace of mind, there are paid applications which may be able to help more.
There are many different security applications that deal with malware available for sale and most offer a similar set of features that include virus protection, spyware protection, a firewall (to prevent unwanted connections in and out of your machine), automated backups, parental controls and phishing (password theft) protection.
Paid security applications usually cost between $25 and $75 for a one-year subscription and come in a variety of levels.
Some of the current key applications are Symantec's Norton Line, McAfee, Trend Micro, Kaspersky and ZoneAlarm. Of these applications, each have their benefits and drawbacks, but any should be able to do a decent job protecting a system.
Ideally, these types of paid applications are not necessary, but they are often great for installing on friends computers or computers that children use as a form of "set and forget" security.
When All Else Fails
Sometimes, despite the best efforts of man and software, malware get through and no amount of cleaning seems to cure them. When your virus cleaner can't stop the spread of a virus or your system is so full of spyware that removal is almost impossible, it may be time to to try more drastic action.
1. Use System Restore: Every version of Windows has a "System Restore" feature that you can use to restore your system files to a previous date. Though it may not get rid of the virus, it may clean things up enough that you can go back and try to run your virus scanner a second time and clean it up successfully. However, it is important to find a date before the virus or malware problem began.
2. Restore from Backups: If you have good backups, you may be able to restore your hard drive from those. As with System Restore points, it is important to find a date before the infection if at all possible. The advantage of a manual backup is that it also restores your data from the previous version, meaning that, if you downloaded an infected file, the virus shouldn't reappear if you picked a date early enough. The drawback is, of course, that you'll lose changes to your data from the time you backed up.
3. Reformat: Finally, if all else fails or backups aren't available, you may just have to bite the bullet, wipe your hard drive and reinstall your operating system. This is a time-consuming process that results in massive data loss. Also, for some computers, it can require a decent amount of computer expertise, it may be something you want to take to a repair shop to do. Make sure you have the CDs that came with with your computers as well as copies of all the software you've purchased since with your CD keys.
Though situations that get to this level are actually fairly rare these days, especially with improved malware detection and cleaning, they do still happen from time to time and it is important to be prepared with good backups and by having all of your CDs in one place. If you don't have those items already, it is well worth taking some time to setup a backup system and gather your disks before a problem arises.
The bottom line is that security on the Web is now more important than ever. With more and more of our lives being digitized and put on the computer, the amount of information that we could lose, or worse yet have stolen, is staggering. It takes so little time and little to no money to secure your machine but can cost countless hours and many hundreds of dollars to recover from a disaster.
Investing in a secure system and being safe on the Web doesn't just make sense from a personal standpoint, but from a business one as well. With some simple precautions and free software being able to protect both your investment and your data, one would almost be foolish to not watch out for their computer.