Trouble with Viruses

These days it feels not a month goes by without an outbreak of a new “worst ever” computer virus. Last month is was Sasser, the month before Bagel, both of which spread around the world in a matter of hours.

A computer virus is a programme that is loaded onto your computer without your knowledge and runs against your wishes.

Viruses can wreak havoc on an unprotected computer deleting files, breaking software, sending out embarrassing emails to your friends and customers and hogging your internet connection in order to attack prominent web sites.

Worse than that, a virus called Doomjuice plants evidence on your computer that if found by detectives could suggest you were involved in the development of the recent MyDoom virus. It doesn’t do this via email, but by accessing a back door MyDoom opened on infected computers.

For a computer to become infected virus code must be run on it. Code can get onto the computer in a number of ways – in an email attachment, by downloading an infected programme, or copying a document from a floppy disk. Just having the code does not mean your computer is infected. It must first be run.

How does this happen? The virus code may be hidden inside a programme you want to run – the virus gets run with it. Many viruses sent by email will trick you into opening an attachment such as the infamous ILOVEYOU email with attached
“love letter.” Some viruses have found ways to automatically run attachments in Outlook Express and Outlook. Word and Excel documents have a feature known as macros, which can be used to write viruses which run when the document is opened.

So you want to avoid viruses? What can you do? One of my friends successfully kept virus free for many years by keeping his computer a “virgin.” He never connected it to the internet, and never shared floppy disks between his and other peoples’ computers. In this day and age where computers are synonymous with communication this simply is not an option. With so many ways for a virus to run it is hard to protect yourself just through being careful.

The only solution seems to be anti-virus software.

In Tanzania, chances are when you bought your computer it came with a copy of Norton Anti-Virus. This makes many of us feel safe. However, the copies of Norton that are bundled with new PCs tend only to have free updates for three to
six months. After that you are susceptible to any new viruses that emerge. You have little choice but to subscribe to the updates (if you have a credit card) or buy another boxed copy of Norton. You don’t have many choices, and both of
them are Norton.

While Norton may be a good product, the credit-rich world has a huge choice when it comes to anti-virus software, with most providers making their products available for instant download. A quick check on the anti-virus testing web sites www.check-mark.com and www.virusbtn.com shows that there are a great many products which will protect you against all but the most very recent viruses. Since they all do what you really want more or less equally well, the choice can be made on price and ease of use.

Up until recently the only anti-virus product that matched the average Tanzanian’s spending ability was Grisoft’s AVG. AVG is a free download, and updates are also free. It is not as user friendly as more expensive software, but is as effective in protecting you from viruses. Recently Microsoft teamed up with Computer Associates to provide a year’s free protection using eTrust EZ Armor. This is a slicker product than AVG, with daily updates and a host of features such as pop-up ad blockers and a firewall.

Important: When installing new anti-virus programme be sure to uninstall any previous ones. Running two anti-virus programmes at the same time can crash your computer! Norton is notoriously difficult to remove completely. Search on Google for “remove Norton” to get advice on how to do this.

Most viruses take advantage of security holes in Microsoft products. As a result Microsoft regularly issue fixes for these holes. You can download any fixes you need from windowsupdate.microsoft.com. You should do this at least once a month if your computer is connected to the internet! Microsoft also has information on securing your computer against viruses and other threats at www.microsoft.com/security.

By keeping Windows and your anti-virus software up to date you should be protected against most viruses.

Interesting sites

Originally published in Arusha Times 320

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