The most common computer ailment that brings people in to see the Dymin technicians is, without a doubt, malware. These nasty computer "bugs" can bog down your computer with unwanted popups, slow down your system, threaten the security of your personal information, or attempt to gain unauthorized access to your computer—or all of the above!
If malware is such a common problem in modern computing, you may be wondering what you can do to prevent it. A quality antivirus program is essential, but a vigilant eye and a smidgen of skepticism will help you far more!
Read on to learn some of the best tactics the Dymin techs have learned over countless years battling malware. Armed with this knowledge, you'll be able to spot an attempted attack at its onset, avoiding unneeded aggravation, and hopefully avoid a trip to see the Dymin techs. Basically, we’ll teach you to become your own "anti-virus"!
This is an in-depth subject, so if you just want the "down and dirty," skip to the "How to stay malware-free" section at the end!
What is malware?
"Malware" is a combination of the terms "malicious" and "software.” This is a general term that actually encompasses all sorts of more specific maladies, including viruses, Trojans horses, spyware, and rootkits, among others. The purposes of these various types of malware range from being a disruptive annoyance to attempting to steal your bank account, financial, or personal information. They can even be an attempt to gain remote, unauthorized access to your computer or infiltrate your secure network.
Let’s take a look at a few specific types of malware and break down some of their tactics.
Viruses and Worms
You'd be hard-pressed to find a computer user who hasn't at least heard the term "computer virus." Computer viruses were first identified back in the 1970s when the "Creeper Virus" was detected on ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network)—the innovative network that would become the foundation of today’s internet. A computer virus is a self-replicating program that attaches itself, without user knowledge or consent, to a computer software or “executable” (a file that can be run by a computer). When you run the software or executable, the parasitic program installs itself on your system and spreads to your other software like an infectious disease. Viruses can cause problems including system or program failure, waste computer resources, corrupt data, and increase maintenance costs.
A virus is similar to a computer "worm," which is a malware program that spreads over a computer network but does not have to piggyback on another program as a carrier.
The mythological tale of the Trojan horse describes how the Greek army tricked the citizens of Troy into letting a group of Greek soldiers past the city gates by hiding them in a large, innocuous-looking wooden horse. Once inside, the soldiers wreaked havoc on the city and allowed the main forces of the Greek army to infiltrate the defenses. A computer “Trojan” or “Trojan horse” works exactly the same way: by disguising itself as something harmless or desirable (like a free software program or an email attachment). A user clicks the deceptive program or attachment, allowing the malicious program to open and install itself onto his or her computer. Once installed, it can gain access to or corrupt all of your files and programs—even your entire network.
Spyware and Adware
Spyware is generally a type of Trojan horse. Its purpose is to spy on your internet usage habits and send that information off to the interested parties; usually its ultimate goal is data collection for advertising purposes. Spyware also commonly includes Adware programs that plaster your computer with floods of advertising popups.
A keylogger is just what it sounds like: a program that records every key press you make on your keyboard and sends the information to a hacker's computer. This is the number one way that passwords and bank account information are compromised. All a hacker has to do is sort through everything you've typed and usually fairly easily locate your email addresses, passwords, and other sensitive information. This is also one of the most common ways that video game accounts get "hacked."
“Rootkits” are a type of malware designed to enable unauthorized access to a computer or areas of its software. They don't manifest themselves as separate files or programs on your computer; rather, they intertwine with the inner workings of your operating system to a point where they can be virtually undetectable and unremovable. Once installed, a designer can gain full, privileged access to a system for any purpose. A rootkit is really more of a classification or "degree" of other types of malware, e.g., spyware or a keylogger that is embedded so deeply in the roots of your operating system that it can neither be detected or removed.
Fake Antivirus Programs
Arguably the most prolific of malware perpetrators are known as "rogue antivirus programs." These programs have one purpose: to get your money. Rather than stealing bank information, they actually get you to "willingly" part with your cash— and believe it or not, it works!
Rogue antivirus programs come cleverly disguised as apparently legitimate antivirus programs. They are usually installed by users searching the internet for free antivirus software, or they can come packaged (either visibly or hidden) when a user installs other free downloadable software. Once installed, a rogue antivirus program looks and operates much like a real antivirus program, except that the "viruses" they detect are either straight-up false or were downloaded and installed by the rogue antivirus program itself.
The program then notifies users that in order to remove the hundreds of viruses found, they have to pay for a "full version" or "pro version" of the software—typically $30 to $50. Once the user punches in their credit card info to "activate" the software, the crooks walk away with your "authorized payment" as well as your credit card number. After handing over your cash, you're no better off; you're still stuck with a virus-laden computer and will likely have to fork over more money to get the actual rogue antivirus program removed and any of the damage it's done repaired.
How did my computer get infected?
This is arguably the number one question asked by the patrons of Dymin Systems. Knowing is half the battle, and by having a good idea of the ways malware can infiltrate your computer you'll be far better at avoiding it in the first place. There are multitudes of different ways a computer can become infected, but let’s touch on some of the most common.
The single most common way a computer is infected is when the user allows it. Not all of instances of malware are necessarily obvious, but a good majority of them can be averted just by reading and making sure you fully understand what a pop-up or request is asking you for permission to do. If you are ever in doubt, the Dymin staff are only a phone call away, and we can advise you to the legitimacy of a pop-up or request.
“Pirating” Software, Music, and Videos
If you're getting a software program, song, or movie for free that is normally something sold in stores or online, you're opening yourself up to a very real risk of a malware infection. It's not always easy to know whether that file is really what is says it is or if it is just a malware installer in disguise. File sharing websites or P2P (peer-to-peer) software programs such as Limewire, Bearshare, and Kazaa are commonly used to distribute pirated media—accompanied by a slew of viruses and their ilk. "Cracks" and "Warez" sites are just as bad. You're better off just paying for your media rather than illegally downloading it; otherwise, you risk costly malware removal, wasted time, and even copyright infringement prosecution or civil liability. It’s just not worth it.
Email Attachments and Links
Email attachments can contain pretty much anything and links in an email can take you to any website out there; even if the link itself says one website, the link can be programmed to take you to somewhere entirely different. Even if the email appears to be coming from a friend or coworker, you can't always be sure of its authenticity. Email addresses can be faked and email accounts can be compromised. You have to always be careful when clicking a link or downloading an attachment to an email. If the email wasn't something you were expecting, double-check before clicking.
Downloading Infected Software
You need to be extremely careful when downloading any software from the internet. Not everything is what it claims to be and there's no way to know whether a program is infected or is actually a rogue antivirus program. Stick to trusted software-hosting websites such as Ninite.com, Softpedia.com, Download.com, or Filehippo.com. It's also very important to read the user agreements or EULAs. Sure, they're long and written in legalese, but you may find that you are giving consent to installing all sorts of spyware or unwanted software! As always, if you're ever unsure about a website or program's reputation, Dymin is here to give you advice.
How to stay malware-free
Run a Quality, Up-to-Date Antivirus Program
It may go without saying, but the importance of running a quality antivirus program is paramount. If your computer has internet access, you need an antivirus program. But many people don't! This is setting yourself up for failure! An antivirus program not only scans your computer and removes malware that has made it onto your computer; more importantly, it can monitor your internet connection and block virus attacks and websites known for distributing viruses before they even make it on to your computer.
You also must make sure your antivirus software is up-to-date and working. Installing regular updates means your program is able to recognize and protect you from the latest malware threats—which are constantly changing. If you've got warnings or "red X's," don't ignore them!
The Dymin techs have tested many anti-virus products over the years, and we’ve ultimately arrived at a combination of products that we call the “Dymin Malware Protection Package.” In addition to the free Microsoft Security Essentials software, which is a good, basic anti-virus program, the most important accompaniment is MalwareBytes Premium. This paid software is without a doubt the best protection software we have ever tested.
No antivirus program is foolproof, however. There is no replacement for safe browsing habits. Even the best antivirus program can't stop a virus if you click "yes" when it asks you to install.
- DON’T CLICK YES unless you’re absolutely sure what you’re agreeing to. Read those pop-ups and legal agreements, especially if they're asking for permission to install something. Be especially wary of any messages written in an overly pushy or urgent tone or messages with only a “yes” button. You’re better off just clicking the “X” in the upper corner of the message to close and ignore it. If you're ever in doubt, call the Dymin crew for backup.
- Keep Windows up to date. Malware designers are always looking for the next way to exploit your computer's operating system and make an attack. Keep yourself ahead of the game by having Windows Automatic Updates set to install automatically. Windows Updates constantly provides patches and fixes for newly-discovered vulnerabilities. You need these updates!
- Use a secure browser. It is very important to have a secure, up-to-date browser. We highly recommend using Google Chrome with the AdBlock Plus extension installed. A good alternative is Mozilla Firefox. Since Microsoft Internet Explorer is well known to be the least secure and most targeted browser for exploiting, we can’t recommend using it—even though it’s the default included with most computers. Microsoft Edge also has significant drawbacks, including compatibility issues and lack of customizations.
- Know what is an ad and what is a search result. When you’re searching for something on Google or other search engines, get into the habit of totally skipping over the first 3 or 4 results that have a green “ad” notification icon next to them. They’re never, ever worth clicking! Go straight to the first result without the “Ad” button, as that’s the first actual search result.
- Do not believe all "virus detected" warnings. The best thing you can do is to know what antivirus program you have installed and ignore any pop-ups from elsewhere that purport to alert you to viruses.
- Be cautious of email attachments. If you're not absolutely sure of its authenticity, don't open it. Plain and simple.
- Check links before you click. When you click a link in an email it can take you anywhere, not necessarily the site the link says. Here's how to foil them: when you "mouse over" a link, the site it's programmed to open is shown in the bottom-left corner of the window. Make sure it's who it says it is and not some random website.
- Only download software from trusted sites. Ninite.com, Softpedia.com, Download.com, and Filehippo.com are great, trustworthy software sources. There are many others, of course, but if you aren't sure of its reputation, ask! That's what we're here for!
- Avoid adult websites. It's no secret that adult websites are absolutely teeming with security-related risks. You're better off avoiding them entirely.
Remember, the best thing you can do to keep your computer running happily and malware-free is to read and fully understand anything you're clicking "yes" to and apply your best common-sense judgment. Everyone at Dymin loves to help people and we're always here to call if you’re wondering "Should I install this?"
If you’ve been infected with malware or just want to make sure your system is protected and running its best, give us a call. Our professional technicians offer computer cleaning services for complete virus & spyware removal, quick and affordable in store PC computer repair services, and in home computer repair services.