Parents, Talk to Your Kids About Malware

I fix a lot of computers. I'm kind of the unofficial tech support for the Chiang Mai missionary community,* and the number one problem I find when people complain their computer is slow or broken is malware.

What is malware? I'm glad you asked.

Malware is any malicious software that infiltrates your system without your consent. For example:
  • VIRUSES that copy themselves, infecting any system they come in contact with.
  • SPYWARE that secretly collects data about you and your computer, sending it to its host via the internet.
  • ADWARE that displays pop-up ads and other advertisements where there shouldn't be any.
  • TROJANS that pretend to be useful software while secretly hacking your system.
Scary, yeah? At best, malware is annoying, making you wonder what happened to your previously-state-of-the-art computer. At worst, it's the first step to identity theft and serious data loss.

With the worst types of malware, you can't tell without scanning software. But some are more obvious than others. Any of the following symptoms might be a sign of infection:
  1. Pop-up ads where there shouldn't be any (on your bank's website, on this blog, etc.).
  2. Your home page (i.e. the first web page that you see when you open your browser) is a page you don't know and never set as your home page.
  3. You do a search on Google and it redirects you to some other engine's search results.
  4. You receive error messages from programs you don't know and never installed. (I once saw a message suggesting I install an "anti-anti-virus" program. At first I thought it was a stupid typo, but no. It meant exactly what it said.)
  5. You try to uninstall a program or search bar, but it comes right back.

Most malware is easy to take care of. Unfortunately, I don't know of any one program that can catch them all. If your computer's infected really bad, you might need two or three different programs to get rid of it all. Don't worry, they're all free.
  • ClamWin: an open-source anti-virus program. Provides no real-time protection, but gets automatic updates and scheduled scans.
  • Spybot: designed to kill most spyware and adware. Provides some real-time browser protection. Can provide real-time system protection, but I find this more annoying than helpful. Mostly I use this program to scan a computer I think is already infected.
  • Ad-Aware: a smart program designed to kill malware. Provides real-time protection and automatic updates. There are pro versions, but the free version is usually good enough.
  • Avast!: I haven't used this one myself, but like Ad-Aware it has a free version designed for viruses and spyware.
There are also plenty of good pay-for programs (Symantec and McAfee's are usually good, for example). But understand that any program with real-time protection will take up some of your computer's RAM, possibly slowing things down on older computers. Just something to keep in mind.

So you've cleaned up your computer, now how do you keep it from getting infected again? That, really, is what this post is about.

  1. Get an anti-malware program with real-time protection. Although, as I said above, if your computer is older or doesn't have much RAM, you may not want to do this.
  2. Scan your computer regularly. Like once a week. You don't have to watch the scan, just be notified of any bad results.
  3. Be careful what you download. Don't accept attachments from strangers. Don't open executable attachments (.exe files usually) from anyone ever. Don't download from sketchy sites, or if you do, scan the file first.
  4. Be careful what you install. Don't install something if you don't know what it does or why you need to install it. And for God's sake, READ THE INSTALLATION MESSAGES. Some adware will warn you -- even ask you -- before installing itself so that it can be legal, and you know what? It is.
  5. Pirates. Do you download pirated music, books, or games? I won't tell you not to,** but if you download pirated stuff and your computer gets infected, it's your own dang fault. More malware comes via pirated software than any other means.
  6. Talk to your kids about malware. No joke. The worst computers I see are almost always the result of a parent who knows little about computers combined with a teenager who thinks they know a lot. If your kids download pirated software, but think they don't need to scan it because "they know what they're doing," your computer is probably already infected.
  7. Don't share your computer. Buy a cheap, second-hand computer for your kids. When they complain it's too slow and can't play the latest games, tell them to buy their own.
  8. Restrict admin privileges. On Windows machines, a user is considered either an 'Administrator' or not. Administrators can install software and change system settings, and therefore have permission to (unknowingly) install malware. My kids don't get Administrator privileges on the computers I buy for them, mainly because I don't want to have to fix them. If they want something installed, they ask me.

I hope this is helpful to someone out there. Getting rid of malware may not be as critical as backing up your data, but it can save you some headaches and maybe even protect your identity online. Have you had a nasty experience with malware? How did you take care of it?

* Which is weird to me, actually. When I lived in San Diego, everybody knew how to do what I do.

** I should, but I feel weird saying that when I live in a country where I couldn't buy a legitimate copy of MS Office even if I wanted to.


fairyhedgehog said...

I had a malware problem caused by one of my son's unsafe surfing.

I was helped out by Derek of The Spykiller. He's one of life's good guys - if he helps you get rid of an infection then all he asks for is a donation for his work with rescuing hedgehogs. Yes, really.

Now I have Avast, AdAware and Malwarebytes Anti-Malware. Which reminds me, it wouldn't hurt to run the last two!

It's much better to avoid a malware infection than to have to sort one out!

Adam Heine said...

"It's much better to avoid a malware infection than to have to sort one out!"

Most definitely, fairy. Some infections can be really nasty!

Joshua McCune said...

I hate hackers, virus makers, whatever they're called. Recently my email got infected or spoofed (yahoo's still not sure which) and started spamming everyone in my address book. Not much gets me angrier than people of the hacker ilk.

L. T. Host said...

I had to laugh at this post. Ba hahahahahaha. Only because I totally know how you feel... and because I got super lucky my fiance knows even more about computers than I do :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Avoiding the malware is definitely the way to go, but even as savvy as I think I am, I still manage to download some malware about once every couple years.

Such. A. Pain.

Thanks for the tips on cleaning-ware!

My son recently did a report (5th grade) on virus attacks - large scale ones designed to infiltrate and disable a country's electrical grid or power generating stations.


jjdebenedictis said...

Popping a gopher to say that Avast works very nicely.

Adam Heine said...

Bane: My mom's Gmail got hacked too, so someone was sending fake e-mails as her (and occasionally getting money from her friends!). To protect Gmail, you go into settings and select "Always use https" (the 's' is for 'secure'). I wonder if Yahoo has something similar.

LT: It's always good to marry a computer guy ;-)

Susan: Once every couple of years isn't so bad, especially if you scan at least once a year ;-) The comnputers I fix collect malware weekly and haven't been scanned in years.

jjdebenedictis: Thanks! That's very good to know. Do you know if it has real-time protection (the free version, at least)?

Myrna Foster said...

I've been lucky so far. I don't think I've ever downloaded malware, but I'm not into pirated stuff or pornography either. Using a Mac helps, since most of the bad stuff targets Windows. Thanks for the tips, Adam!

Adam Heine said...

It's true, Myrna. Macs are safer in general. But as Apple's market share increases, they're becoming bigger targets (or so I've read).

Sherri said...

I just had to help my brother get rid of a virus, on the phone reading him the instructions since he couldn't access the Internet.

I personally use Malwarebytes and love it. I was tag-teaming that with Advanced System Care until I found out ASC could be questionable. I'm looking for something to replace it, so I might try Avast. Thanks!

Asea said...

This is one of the things I like most about running a Linux system. ;-) It's even better than a Mac for malware makers not caring about it! It also means no one can borrow it, because they usually can't figure out how to use it. ;-)