HOW TO KEEP YOUR LAPTOP FREE FROM COMPUTER VIRUSES, SPYWARE AND MALWARE
by Dustin Sklavos, California USA
This guide is going to be a little unusual, a little bit off the path compared to its predecessors. Between my brief stint working for Best Buy, all the impromptu tech support I’ve done, and a recent conversation with my father, I’ve concluded that this guide has been a long time coming. It may have analogues out there in the internet world already, but I haven’t seen them and I haven’t stumbled upon them.
If you’re not going to play smart with your computer, I’m at least going to teach you how to play safe. If you’re going to do something stupid, do it smart.
The fact of the matter is that the internet is not safe for your computer. It can be, and with some education, you can have a spyware and virus free computer like I do and many other people do. Most people don’t apply common sense to computing because they assume that anything out there is safe, and that’s bad. By not thinking, you can do real damage to your machine, and it can be both costly and time-consuming to repair it. And unless you’re someone like me or one of the other computer junkies on the NotebookReview.com forums, messing with things you don’t understand is a bad idea.
I’m not totally trying to instill fear into you as a reader and as a user. Your computer is a wonderful tool and for most users is perfectly safe. I’m also not telling you to go out and spend money on expensive subscription-based software to keep your computer safe. I AM going to tell you how to save potentially hundreds of dollars in service. There are some very simple things you can do to protect yourself.
This guide is principally for Windows users, although most of it is just good computing sense. Macintosh and Linux users aren’t going to run into these problems with anywhere near the kind of frequency Windows users are. While you aren’t bulletproof and should still practice sound computing, you’re also not at as great a risk.
Macintosh users aren’t at as great a risk because Mac OS X has excellent security built into it, and because the percentage of Mac users on the market just quite honestly isn’t profitable to attack. That’s subject to change if Apple Boot Camp has a major effect on the market, however, and please note that if you’re running Windows on your Mac – and even Apple warns you about this – you’re at the same risk as if you were running it on a regular PC.
Linux users aren’t at much risk because Linux tends to be very secure, and because its market share for regular consumers is at least as minor at Mac OS X’s. Honestly, Linux is too complicated to get running for the average user; the people who run it can usually either serve as their own tech support or know someone who can (usually the same person that got them into Linux).
MALWARE AND VIRUSES
Spyware and malware are software that gets installed on your system without your consent or even your knowledge, and costs precious computing cycles and resources. While these are almost never fundamentally harmful to the computer itself (outside of dragging its performance to a woeful crawl), they’re more of a threat to you, the user. Spyware can log your actions on your machine, including the sites you visit, the e-mail you send, and send it to unscrupulous parties. While most of it is harmless, or at least however harmless you think meticulously tracking someone’s internet usage is and reporting it to advertisers can be, it can be an ongoing nuisance and can severely hamper your enjoyment of your computer.
Viruses take care of anything that spyware and malware don’t, and it can damage your system, possibly even irreparably. They can corrupt your operating system installation, corrupt your data, and damage your hardware.
These two classes of software are responsible for 90% (arbitrary figure) of the computing problems most users have. In my personal work and in my work at Best Buy, these were the culprits of most problems; as much so that many shops don’t even have to actually do anything in particular to fix computers infected with these, they can run software and scripts that remove the harmful software from an afflicted machine. Note, however, that the damage done by that software can have a permanent effect on your operating system that can really only be fixed by reformatting the drive – erasing everything on it and reinstalling the operating system. Note that if you don’t know what reformatting is and don’t understand EXACTLY the procedure for doing it, don’t mess with it. I’ll talk more about it in a bit.
I’m going to tell you something that’s probably going to blow your mind: you don’t NEED subscription based spyware/malware software.
I’m going to go further and blow your mind again: you don’t NEED to spend money to protect yourself.
The guys at the computer store are going to try and sell you on software packages you don’t need. Your computer is going to come with antivirus and antispyware software you don’t need. There are just three things you do need to keep your system safe.
Ingredient #1 for keeping your computer safe:
Using a basic, free anti-virus program that runs in the background is a good way to keep your system safe from any virus. While trying to instill a sense of the damage that a virus can do to your system, it’s important you understand that antiviral software is less an active protector than it is an insurance policy. We don’t keep home insurance because we expect the house to burst into flames; we keep it just in case it does. Here is a list of three popular free antivirus programs for your PC:
- Avast! Home Edition. Free Antivirus Software, for home users, probably the most popular on the web, download and information link: http://www.avast.com/eng/download-avast-home.html
- AVG Free — Another good free virus software, you don’t have to register to use this like you do with Avast, download and information link: http://free.grisoft.com/doc/1
- AntiVir Personal Edition Classic – Offers the effective protection against computer viruses for the individual and private use on a single PC-workstation. It detects and removes more than 50,000 viruses, download and information link: http://www.snapfiles.com/get/antivir.html
To protect your system from spyware and malware, you’ll want to periodically run a combination of free anti-spyware programs. I recommend running Ad Aware AND Spybot; one program can miss spyware the other will detect. Note that these don’t need to run on startup; just run scans with them periodically to make sure your system is safe.
Ingredient #2 for keeping your computer safe:
Use Opera or Firefox as a web browser. Either of these two programs will immediately remove most spyware and malware from the equation. A lot of it gets into your system through Internet Explorer. Because IE is so closely integrated with Windows, it leaves plenty of easy ways for these things to get into your system. By not running IE, you’ve removed yourself from the spyware eating majority. And they’re both free. I personally prefer Opera, but actually recommend Firefox to newer users. While Opera is nice, it doesn’t have the compatibility of Firefox. Still, try them both and see which one you like better.
Running these two pieces of software is an excellent plan to keep yourself safe on the internet. I want to stress that you do NOT want to buy commercial software. I know it seems logical because a large, money-making, reputable corporation is behind them, but the subscription fees are ridiculous, and the software tends to be bloated and difficult to use.
Ingredient #3 for keeping your computer safe:
Make sure you have Windows XP Service Pack 2 installed. Assuming you’re all Windows users, Service Pack 2 substantially bolsters the security of Windows XP. Granted, that isn’t saying much, but it says enough. Some of what I’m talking about in this article is going to assume you have Service Pack 2 installed. If you don’t, install it by running Windows Update. You may have to install several critical updates from Windows Update before Service Pack 2 appears. Note also that you may want to back up your important data before installing Service Pack 2. While most of the time it’s a non-issue, every so often, Service Pack 2 has been known to hose an existing Windows installation.
SURFING THE INTERNET
Web sites with illegal, illicit, or explicit content – mainly pornographic and warez sites – are responsible for the vast majority of the computer viruses and malware on the internet. Warez, for those uninitiated, is free software. By free, of course, I mean pirated. Commercial software posted to the internet and made available for download illegally.
I’m going to save you the trouble with warez right now, as someone with experience with it: don’t bother. I’m not sure a warez site actually exists with all this software; it’s been my experience that they all just link to each other for hits in Top 100 indexes and no one actually has anything. So don’t look for it because you aren’t going to find anything.
That leaves pornographic websites. Many people are going to visit these, end of discussion. These are also sites that tend to be rife with spyware and computer viruses. You can guard yourself from this by running antivirus software and using Opera or Firefox. It really is about that simple.
E-MAIL & SPAM
Many of us on Windows use Outlook Express as an email client. I, personally, still use Outlook Express. I’ve tried other alternatives – Opera, Thunderbird, even Outlook 2002 – and I prefer Outlook Express. That said, Outlook Express is easily the least secure e-mail client available.
Outlook Express has a convenient bar that shows up on the preview pane that you can click to reveal the images in an e-mail you receive.
My advice to you is this: that bar is there for a reason. Do NOT open e-mail or attachments from people you don’t know. Oftentimes, you may not even want to open e-mail or attachments from people you DO know unless you’re absolutely certain of what it is and where it came from. And do NOT forward chain letters. And all of this applies to that bar on the preview pane. Don’t click it unless you know exactly what the e-mail contains and who it comes from. Not following these suggestions puts your system at serious risk for crippling computer viruses and worse still, exposes the people in your address book to those same risks; many computer viruses will automatically mass send themselves to everyone in your address book, which is why you should be cautious even with e-mail from people you know. Especially if those people may not be very computer literate.
Again, running anti-virus software is the right call as well. And if you’re nervous, just use web-based e-mail, which is e-mail you access from a website. Comcast and SBC both let you access your e-mail online; all major providers do. And for extra protection, access webmail from Firefox or Opera.
Successfully avoiding spam requires two key ingredients:
First, submit your e-mail address only to sites you know for a fact are reputable. Some communities also let you scramble your displayed e-mail address (LiveJournal), or hide it altogether, which is really ideal. If you MUST submit an e-mail address to something you think is going to be disreputable, I suggest making a second e-mail account using either a free host or your own internet service provider, and using that as your “spam” address.
Second, never reply to spam. I don’t care how mad you are at the sender or how much you really don’t want to receive it, never reply to spam. Replying to spam will result in confirming your e-mail address, and basically opens the floodgates. Worse still, the e-mail address that sent you the spam is more than likely not even the actual sender, but a computer colloquially referred to as a “zombie” – a computer that has been hijacked by malware to send spam.
FILESHARING AND PIRACY
First of all, this is bad and you all know it. Pirating software, music, and movies is illegal. That said, people still do it, so I’ll at least mention what not to do if you do this anyway.
Before I get into that, though, a tip for parents: your kids are probably more versed and more computer literate than you are. This is perfectly normal. I’m going to stand on my soap box here for a second and remind you, then, that the very best preventative measure you can take is to just be a good parent and supervise your childrens’ use of the internet.
That said, there are SEVERAL different pieces of filesharing software out there. Probably the ones I’ve seen hose the most computers are LimeWire, BearShare, and Kazaa. The software clients themselves tend to be full of spyware and honestly, their time has long since passed and their usefulness is limited at best. If you see these on your system or you use them yourself, just get rid of them. Probably the safest piece of file sharing software I’ve used has been eMule. It’s open source and it’s clean. Likewise, the user ratings and comments on Cnet can point you in the right direction and usually tell you what software is rife with spyware.
Pirating software has the potential to be extremely dangerous and is not recommended. If you’re going to do it, you’d better know how to recover your system if you get a virus or spyware and again, I don’t have to remind you of the risks involved with those. The reason pirating software is so dangerous is because software is executable code and when you open it/run it, you’re allowing it to do whatever it likes to your system.
Like I said before, the best way to avoid having problems with filesharing and piracy is to not do it at all, but like abstinence and teenagers, that approach doesn’t always work.
A BRIEF WORD ON IDENTITY THEFT
Identity theft is becoming a huge problem these days, and that’s largely due to the impact the internet has had on society.
One thing you can do to minimize your risk of identity theft is to avoid giving your credit card number to questionable sites for billing anyhow. I’ll be extremely blunt here: pornographic sites can be extremely questionable this way, and honestly, most of them charge too much for something you can find for free and in abundance on the internet anyways. If you simply must have your fix, AVI and MPG files off of fileshare aplication eMule are the safest way to fly. The risk is just not reasonable.
A tactic identity thieves will frequently use is spoofing legitimate websites. When eBay, PayPal, Amazon, and so on say they will never ask you again for your credit card information, account numbers, social security number, and so on, they mean it. If you randomly get an e-mail from one of these sites that is asking to confirm any of this information again, it’s a spoof site. An easy way to determine this would be to look at the address of the site: spoof sites can’t get a “www.ebay.com/confirm” URL or anything similar. All major sites have services you can use to report these spoof sites: do so. You can help bring identity thieves to justice that way, or at the absolute least, make sure that other people don’t become victims.
Also note that commercial websites will NEVER ask for your social security number (if you’re American). Only services such as health care, insurance, or government related services will ask for it, and even then it is infrequent. Whenever you can avoid divulging your social security number, don’t give it out.
The internet isn’t safe by any stretch of the imagination, but if you follow the tips I’ve outlined in this guide, and apply a liberal amount of common sense, you can keep your computer safe and running smoothly and avoid costly repairs and down time, as well as losing vital information.
Just like the real world, there are unsafe things we’re all going to do on the internet. The best thing we can do is be responsible about it.
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