Viruses: what a pain!

So what is a virus anyway?

With the emergence of the personal computer, the emergence of computer viruses was not far behind. As early as 1971, self-replicating programs were being written for computers, and the basis for viruses was born. As operating systems and computers developed, viruses also developed, going from simple self-replicating computer code to sophisticated and dynamic programs,which are almost impossible to stop.

The Brain’ is considered to be the first IBM compatible virus, which emerged in 1986. By the late 1980’s, anti-virus programs were also making an appearance. During this time, most viruses were fairly harmless, with no real malicious intent or ability. As time has passed, viruses have become increasingly prevalent, and increasingly damaging.

It’s hard to know exactly who writes viruses, but with detailed programming techniques being widely available via the Internet, it would be reasonably easy for almost anyone to write a virus if they had the time and inclination! In the past, anti-virus software companies have been blamed for ‘making their own business’, but this has largely been conjecture.

And what exactly is a virus?

A virus can take many forms. Today, there are many ‘categories’ of viruses, including malware, adware, Trojan horses, worms and ransom-ware to name a few. Basically a virus is a piece of code, which is capable of copying itself and typically has a detrimental effect, such as corrupting the system or destroying data.

Each different category or type of virus has a different objective. Some viruses are simply designed to destroy or corrupt data, some are designed to collect sensitive data, and some are designed to try to trick the average user into handing over their credit-card details! Trojan horse viruses are a little different, as they are designed not so much to damage anything themselves, but simply open the flood-gates for all the other nasties that might be waiting for an easy entry into your computer.

Where they come from

Let’s face it – viruses by their nature – are very easy for your computer to get. Today, without adequate protection, your computer is a sitting duck. Unless it is completely disconnected from any outside data input, the chances are that sooner rather than later your computer will end up with a virus. Any means by which data can make its way onto your computer (other than the keyboard) is a potential means for transmission of a virus. Classic vehicles for viruses include disks, memory sticks (thumb drives), email, and basically the Internet in general. As almost all computers are connected to the Internet these days, this provides an excellent means for viruses to get around.

Keep them out!

So, with all this potential for infection, obviously there’s only one thing to do – keep them out! As we all know, anti-virus programs have been around for ages – almost as long as viruses themselves. As viruses have become more and more sophisticated and dynamic, anti-virus programs have had to evolve to deal with this trickery, and it’s become big business.

With so many different types of viruses around, and so many different means for them to get into your system, anti-virus programs have to be very intensive in their monitoring of your computer, and therefore often slow it down quite a bit. Unfortunately, this is a necessary evil. Anti-virus programs also have to be up-to-date. Because viruses are being written all the time, updates for the anti-virus software enable it to be able to recognise new and emerging threats. Modern anti-virus programs have ‘intelligent’ scanning, which basically monitors the behaviour of programs and services on your computer and can detect if any suspicious activities are going on, even if they don’t recognise them as an actual virus.

Frequently, even if an anti-virus program is running on a computer, it still gets infected with a virus. This can happen for a number of reasons, whether it be because the anti-virus program was not up to date, or whether it was a type of file that the anti-virus program didn’t check.

The best way to avoid viruses is to make sure your anti-virus software is up to date, and consider running more than one! I frequently recommend people have a ‘second opinion’ anti-virus program on hand if they think there’s something unusual going on with their computer.

There are many different brands of anti-virus software. Most of these are purchased on a subscription basis, which means that when your subscription runs out, the software stops updating itself, and you then become more and more vulnerable to new threats. There are some free options though, and these are quite often equally as efficient as the paid versions, but usually come packaged with all sorts of ads, bundled programs and toolbars and the like.

I’ve got a virus, now what?

If your anti-virus program tells you that it’s detected a virus, you’re probably ok – if it’s detected the virus, it should also be able to deal with it. If a virus has been detected, it’s always a good idea to give your computer a complete scan, to ensure there’s nothing still lurking around (maybe even with your second-opinion anti-virus program).

Different viruses have different effects, as we already know. The best thing to do if you think you have a virus (that hasn’t been detected and dealt with) is to turn your computer off, and give yourself a chance to think about it.

Leaving the computer running, connected to the internet or other devices only gives the virus a chance to spread itself further and do more damage. Turning the computer off gives you a chance to do some research, and get yourself organised to go into battle. The internet is a great source of both information and tools regarding viruses.

If I am working with a computer that I think has a virus, I approach the situation this way:

1. I have a special memory stick (flash drive) that has a read-only switch on it. When the switch is read-only, nothing can copy itself onto my memory stick, full stop. I have this memory stick set up so that the computer can boot (start up) from it – and it also has several different anti-virus programs on it. The first thing I do is to start the computer up from this memory stick (which means that it’s not going to kick the virus into action), and give it a good old scan with the anti-virus programs.

2. The next option is to start the computer in Safe Mode. With Windows, if you hold down the F8 key when the computer starts up, it will give you a menu where you can choose to start the computer in Safe Mode. You should only do this when you have yourself armed with some anti-virus tools and an idea of how you’re going to approach it. Safe Mode basically starts the computer in a ‘bare bones’ mode where only the essentials are loaded – and this way it’s less likely that your virus will be able to carry on its work. Once you’re up and running in Safe Mode, you can go to work on getting rid of those nasties.

3. Use a few different anti-virus programs as this will give you a much more thorough clean up, and make sure that they are up to date.

4. Also scan any recent backups you might have. There’s nothing quite like restoring some files from a backup and restoring your recently eradicated virus along with them!

Here are some good, free anti-virus programs that are very useful for cleaning up an infected computer:

•        MalwareBytes Anti-Malware

•        Super-Anti-Spyware

•        McAffee Stinger

•        Norton Power Eraser

•        Sophos Virus Removal tool

Indigo Computer Services Beechworth and Stanley Victoria

Computer not behaving? Need a nerd? Call Andrew at Indigo Computer Services, ph. 0249 500 911 (7days). No call-out fee for Stanley & Beechworth residents. Or drop into my Beechworth office (behind the greengrocer) Mondays 9am-2pm for a free 15min consultation.

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