Malware And Viruses And Spyware Oh My!

By | April 17, 2008

Don’t you miss the days when all you had to worry about was a virus infection via your floppy drive? These days you’re vulnerable to a plethora of unsavoury software floating about on the Internet. You’ve probably heard terms like worm, virus, spyware, adware, malware, hijackers, dialers, etc. So what does it all mean? And more importantly, how can you protect yourself?

First of all, some definitions are in order.

Worms are computer programs that spread quickly across the Internet, hopping from one computer to the next. They may cause damage to your system, but more often than not their main objective is just to proliferate. You may remember some infamous ones like “Blaster” and “Sasser” which wreaked havoc on the Internet in 2003 and 2004.

Malware is software that intentionally disrupts the normal operation of your computer. It’s an umbrella term which covers viruses, hijackers, dialers and trojan horses.

  • Virus – Multiplies in your computer and typically attempts to damage your system or personal data.
  • Browser Hijacker Changes your web browser’s homepage and prevents you from changing it back.
  • Dialers – Call expensive 1-900 numbers without your permission, leaving you with quite a surprise on your phone bill. (Not a worry if your computer isn’t connected to a phone line)
  • Trojan Horse – Gives a hacker complete control of your computer.

Spyware does not intend to harm your computer like malware. Instead, it hides quietly in the background, extracting your personal information. Spyware can be divided into two sub-groups:

  • Advertising Spyware (or Adware) monitors your web surfing activities and pops up advertisements based on your browsing habits. This is less intrusive than the second type.
  • Surveillance Spyware – Steals your passwords, credit card numbers, chat conversations and sells them for profit.

So how does this crap get on your computer? Here are the top four ways:

  • Opening email attachments that contain viruses
  • Visiting a website that exploits known security holes in your web browser to automatically install spyware without your knowledge!
  • Installing software that comes bundled with spyware (KaZaa, iMesh)
  • Unpatched versions of Windows 2000 and XP are easily infected with worms if not protected by a firewall.

Now that we’ve covered the terms and methods of this subversive software, let’s look into ways of combating it. To prevent worms, malware, and spyware from ruining your otherwise pleasant day I recommend taking the following actions:

1. Get an Apple MAC – Okay, let’s face it, most malware, worms, and spyware are created to exploit the Windows platform, so if you use a MAC, you’re virtually impenetrable. Well, not quite. As the MAC platform gains popularity more people are creating software to exploit it. If you want to keep Windows, continue reading…

2. Be Vigilant – Be wary if you receive an email from a friend enticing you to open an attachment in your email. They may have fallen victim to the latest Internet worm/virus. Also, keep in mind that websites advertising pirated software, FREE software, and pornography are those most likely to attempt infecting your computer.

3. Use Firefox – The majority of web users use Internet Explorer, so that is the platform malicious programmers attempt to exploit. Firefox is an alternative web browser that’s very easy to install and use. You can even import your favourites from Internet Explorer.

4. Use a Firewall – Hardware firewalls (like Linksys and Dlink) are best because they cannot be disabled by viruses and malware. A firewall will block hackers and worms from penetrating your system remotely. However, a hacker could entice you to visit a website that exploits a known vulnerability in your browser so…

5. Update Your Software – Old software is a primary vector by which worms and spyware infect your system. Make sure Windows, Firefox, and other Internet facing programs are automatically updated. By the way, Firefox’s default behaviour is to update automatically. Windows typically updates itself automatically too (verify here).

6. Run Antivirus and Antispyware Software – To prevent spyware infections or remove them after the fact, check out the free Spybot and WindowsDefender.

7. Create a Limited User Account – Most people run Windows XP as the Administrator which is actually a big No-No. As the administrator you have the capability of doing unlimited harm to your computer and so do any programs that run under the administrator. If you browse the web as a limited user, you reduce the amount of harm malware can do to your system.

8. Disable Javascript and ActiveX – Advanced users only! By disabling these features you increase your web browsing security ten fold. But you also have a less enjoyable web surfing experience. What can I say? Security is a trade off – security at the cost of convenience.

Well there you have it. If you haven’t realized by now, there is no “silver bullet” solution for computer security. Hormonally distressed teenagers will constantly be seeking ways to bypass all the suggestions I’ve included in this article. So the best way to be secure and STAY secure is to keep yourself informed. You can do that by independently researching the subject OR you can just stay tuned to my blog =)

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