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.
HOW DO I KNOW I'VE BEEN INFECTED?
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:
- Pop-up ads where there shouldn't be any (on your bank's website, on this blog, etc.).
- 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.
- You do a search on Google and it redirects you to some other engine's search results.
- 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.)
- You try to uninstall a program or search bar, but it comes right back.
WHAT CAN I DO?
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.
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.
- 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.
- Scan your computer regularly. Like once a week. You don't have to watch the scan, just be notified of any bad results.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.