So what's the big deal if you PC caught the flu?

Seems a number of my friends' and relatives' computers are dangerously unpatched and unprotected. The general comment has been along the lines of "what's the big deal if I get a virus?". Well here's the explanation why I think it's a big deal and how you can protect yourself and the Internet too :)

What's a virus anyway?

A virus is a piece of software that does "bad" things to your computer. Just how bad depends on the virus. In the old days, viruses usually attempted to trash your computer by erasing the hard drive or destroying your software. Whilst some modern virii do that most don't. In fact most modern viruses try to stay as invisible as possible so the poor unsuspecting user is completely unaware they have been infected. Viruses have many variants. The most common of these are worms, trojans and mass-mailers. The methods of infection for each of these is different. The method of infection usually determines what category of virus. Spyware (malware) is another type of malicous program that's sole aim is to leak your personal information.

What do viruses do?

Modern viruses have a more sinister objective; information leakage or turning your computer into a "zombie". In this "connected" era, the new currency is information. Information about your browsing/buying/e-mail habits right through to your bank account details and passwords. Information is king. The other aim of virus writers is to hijack your computer so other people can use your PC to send spam, launch attacks on other systems, or infect other computers. When your computer is infected with a virus that allows this, your system is said to be "owned" or a "zombie". In other words, not totally under your control.

I get all that - why is it a problem?!

It may not be a particular problem to you. Sure your PC might get "owned", turned into a rouge "zombie" and be polluted with spyware, why should you care? Here's a few reasons:

  1. Owned/Zombied computers are used to relay spam and viruses to everyone else! Your machine could be inadvertantly adding to the mass of spam already flooding the internet. Your PC could also be relaying viruses to other unsuspecting users.
  2. Spyware/Malware can be used to hijack (take over) your internet connection. If someone gets hold of your username and password they can then run around pretending to be you. Imagine the grief that could cause you! Not only that, many internet accounts have download/online- time limits and excess charges are applied if the limits are exceeded. Ever wonder how much your basic "pay-as-you-go" account can cost when someone else is using your account 24 hours a day?
  3. Along the same lines as the previous problem, any personal information about you can be used to "steal" your identity. People have had bank accounts and credit cards opened in their name and stuck with the bills when it was actually someone else using their identity! All this plus the potential to "leak" other personal information like phone numbers, street address, etc.Many people enjoy the convenience of internet banking which is a good thing. Would you let a stranger stand next to you at an ATM and copy your PIN? Of course not! So why should you let anyone get access to your computer and do the same thing with your internet banking details.
  4. All this cruft on your PC does two main things (apart from the stuff above): slows it down and makes it unstable. A friend of mine recently complaind his PC would take 30 seconds just to show a letter after typing it. Turns out he had 2 spyware programs hammering his CPU in the background and chewing up his dial-up connection! Not that it matters right? All this virus stuff only affects everyone else?! Sure! (rolls eyes)

How do I protect myself?!?

This is the most irritating part - it's easy!. However, most windows systems (your PC) are so vulnerable you need to install some 3rd party tools to protect yourself. Here's a list of my favorites and what they are designed to protect you from.

  • Windows Update Software is never perfect and the bigger and more complicated it is the harder it is to secure. Consequently software needs to be updated from time to time (weekly is a good schedule). Microsoft provides this service free of charge to all registered users (and some stuff is even available to pirated copies of Windows). Keep your system patched to minimise trojan and worm attacks.

  • Virus scanners:
    1. McAfee/NAI
    2. Symantec (aka "Norton")
    3. Free AV/Antivir Personal

    A virus scanner is mandatory if you are going to use the internet. Many come with extra features like personal firewalls (see below) and other stuff to further protect your system. Virus scanners will only be useful if you keep them updated. New viruses are discovered every week and weekly updates should be done to ensure you are covered. However, virus scanners will only tell you after you've downloaded a virus (not necessarily infected with it) so in the case of worms, which attack faults in software without any intervention on your part, you really need more protection.

  • Personal Firewall
    1. See Mcafee and Norton above, they both have products you can purchase
    2. Zone Alarm (FREE!)

    A personal firewall is like a "cyber-bouncer" and controls what sort of traffic goes on and off your computer. They are the doormen, the gate keepers, the security guards. They can't tell if a particular file is a virus but they can say whether or not a type of data is allowed or not. Personal firewalls dramatically reduce the potential that your PC will "owned" or "zombied" and makes it very difficult to be infected by a worm. ZoneAlarm is about a 4.8Mb download but well worth the time it might take to get over dial-up. It's simple to install a reasonably intuitive to use. If you're not using it already (or some other personal firewall) DOWNLOAD IT NOW!!

  • SpyWare Scanner These are like a virus scanner but specifically designed to hunt down and remove spyware (which isn't technically a virus). If you value your privacy and security I'd suggest you download AdAware. This is a FREE download and does a good job of hunting down nasties that leak your personal information. Once again, this AdAware software needs updating but less frequently than the virus scanners or windows. An update about once a fortnight should keep you safe.

But dude, all this stuff costs money!

Yep, but there are some FREE alternatives that might be useful. AntiVir Personal Edition and ZoneAlarm will cover you for most virus/worm threats and the combined cost of both is zero, zilch, nadda!

So no excuses folks - get out there, spend some time getting those patches installed, virus scanners updated and firewalls running!

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