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Antivirus software and Internet security
If you are the family or work ‘guru’ you’ll be familiar with the constant calls for help from people who are having difficulties with their computers. Sometimes the problem might be really simple, or a misunderstanding of how something works, but now and then someone will have managed to get a virus onto their system; needing your help to get rid of it. Before going into detail on different systems, let’s take a quick overview of what these things are, and the sort of information you need to pass onto your unfortunate colleague or family member.
What is a computer virus?
Although this is a simple question, the answer is far more complicated, since there are a huge variety of different viruses out there. For example, you may find browser hijackers, and these will attempt to take over the browser and redirect requests to other websites, or which will not allow you to access your preferred search engine, but which will take you to another engine instead. There are keyloggers, and these will do exactly as the name suggests – log keystrokes and send them back to source, providing the thief with details such as your banking website and your password. Other viruses will take over your computer and will work in the background, sending out hundreds or thousands of emails, or participate in attacks on other systems. The only way that you’ll know this is happening is when your computer becomes really slow. Then there are other unpleasant pieces of software which will be found on websites, and your computer can download them without you even being aware of them. You’ll also get phishing attacks where a resource attempts to get your personal details in order to allow a criminal to ‘spoof’ or fake your identity. Viruses have many different names, such as Trojan horses (where a virus will be downloaded hidden in an otherwise innocent package), Malware, which is a contraction of malicious software or Worms, which can copy themselves hundreds of times, and can even send copies to all of your email contacts.
Thanks to Don Hankins.)
Computer viruses have been around for a very long time indeed – almost as long as there have been computers, and the Wikipedia entry on anti virus software gives an excellent historical overview.
Why do people do it?
The obvious answer to this is that some people will create a virus simply to see if they can, without fully appreciating what will happen if the virus gets out into the world. The majority of viruses are produced to steal information to allow the creator to get into bank accounts and so on. Other viruses are created by people who want to create havoc and disrupt systems just because they can. The ‘Iloveyou’ virus for example caused damage in the region of about $10 billion. A particularly nasty type of virus which has only recently surfaced is called ‘Ransomware’ and an example is Cryptolocker. (The link leads to a BBC article). The virus encrypts the data on your hard drive such as photographs, videos and documents, and unless you pay to get the unique key to unlock the files they will be destroyed.
How can you avoid getting a virus on your system?
The short answer is that however net savvy you are, however well versed in computing you may be, unless you take specific precautions you will inevitably get a virus onto your system. There are some straightforward steps that you can take to make yourself secure however. First of all, be very wary of visiting disreputable sites, and by this I don’t simply mean pornographic, but sites that offer ‘free’ software that you should be paying for, sites that you can illegally download films or music from and so on. A virus may try to infect your system via email; if you get a strange email from a friend asking you to check out a particular website, or to open a specific attachment it may not have actually been sent by your friend, even if it’s from their email address. If in any doubt at all, contact your friend to double check that they sent the mail to you. Whatever you do, don’t open the attachment, since that can immediately infect your system. If you get an email from a banking service saying that you need to reverify your details, do not click on the link, even if it looks legitimate – it may well be a malicious website. Rather than click on the link, type in the address of your bank directly into the browser and see if you really do have a message from the bank.
However, while you should take all of these precautions on a daily basis the most important way that you can protect your computer is by installing anti virus software and keeping it up to date. The choice of packages is quite dizzying, in terms of how much they cost, what they protect you from, how often they are updated and so on. I wish I could provide you with one suggestion that meets your needs, but that’s another article in its own right, so instead I can point you to a site that can guide you to the best antivirus software options for you to make your own decision. The antivirus software works using what is called a ‘signature database’. The companies that produce this software monitor the internet all the time, and when they discover a new virus will add it to their database, and this is downloaded onto your system on a regular basis. Your anti virus software then steps in when you want to download something, open an email or visit a website to quickly check if it’s safe to do so. You shouldn’t even notice that this is being done on your behalf. If and when the software finds a potential virus it will give you the option of deleting it, putting it into quarantine or ignoring it.
Antivirus software isn’t expensive, but I still see people baulk at the price. I ask them to work out how much their documents are worth, what price they put on their photographs, and how much their time will cost when they have to reinstall their system from scratch. It’s really not worth taking the risk!