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Computer Security 101 - Part 8 - Malware

I might as well just come right out and say it upfront, during Part 2 of this series on Computer Security I lied when I spoke about the most common methods a malicious person uses to get a user's password. In this day and age of rapid information and application sharing, the number one method of gathering user passwords is through viruses and spyware. I would hazard a guess that it is also the number one method of gathering information for identity theft as well.

I am sure that some organization or another has put together specific definitions of what constitutes a virus versus a bot versus something else. For simplicity sake I'll provide my own definitions:

Virus - any malicious program capable of automatic self replication between computer systems, either through network links or removable media. Viruses can range from harmless pranks to programs that destroy computer files.

Spyware - any computer application or portion of an application that is designed to gather personally identifiable information from a computer. This can range from gathering the information on what websites you visit to recording usernames and passwords entered into various programs or websites.

Adware - any computer application designed to automatically display advertisements on your computer or redirect your web browser to alternate (competitor's) websites from the page you intended.

Bot - any computer application designed to perform nondestructive tasks on a computer system without the user's intervention. Bots can range from small programs that download and install other programs automatically (without the user's knowledge) to programs that perform coordinated attacks on Internet websites.
There will be a test on these definitions later, but to make things easier until you have each committed to memory we will just lump all of the different bad computer programs together and call them Malware. There are a few different ways that Malware can wind up on your computer: you could install it without knowing as part of another application (usually happens because you illegally downloaded something using Limewire or as part of a Torrent file), you could unintentionally install it thinking it was something else (again, Limewire or Torrents, but also email attachments and popups on websites), it could be automatically installed from a website through an active exploit in another application already running (Flash player, Firefox, etc) or it could replicate itself through removable media.

So how do you stop all these little bugs from getting on your computer? As luck would have it, I put together a list of simple methods to ensure your computer stays bug free, in order of effectiveness. In case you got confused by that last bit stating "in order of effectiveness", let me make it easy on you, DO ALL OF THE FOLLOWING. Or keep paying people like me gobs of money to clean your computer for you.

1. Follow the instructions outlined in the article Computer Security 101 - Part 6 - User Permissions.
2. Install and regularly scan using a reliable Antivirus program on your computer. For home use I currently recommend Trend Micro, for corporate I recommend Symantec Antivirus Corporate Edition (Endpoint Protection).
3. Install and regularly scan using a reliable Antispyware program. Many of the antivirus programs are including other forms of malware in their detection base, but having something dedicated to spyware detection and removal is still a good call. For either home or corporate I recommend Spybot Search & Destroy.
4. Check for and install updates and security patches for all programs on your computer. Microsoft can do this automatically for Microsoft programs (Microsoft Update) as can other applications, but some programs like Flash or Shockwave players need to be updated manually. Update and update often.
5. Do not go to mainstream social networking sites that allow user uploadable content (Facebook, MySpace, etc). If you go to these sites you will get Malware infections. Period.
6. Do not open email attachments from people you do not know. Do not open compressed file attachments (ZIP, RAR, etc) from anyone.
7. Do not share removable media with people or between multiple computers. Think of your thumbdrive in the same terms you do safe-sex and ask yourself, "Do I really want to put my thumbdrive into that computer without knowing where the computer has been?"
8. Rule #7 goes for downloading online content through programs like Limewire or Bit-Torrent files. You do not know where those files have been and are just asking for trouble.
9. Follow the instructions outlined in the article Computer Security 101 - Part 6 - User Permissions.
10. Do not go to mainstream social networking sites that allow user uploadable content (Facebook, MySpace, etc). If you go to these sites you will get Malware infections. Exclamation Mark.
On the subject of antivirus programs, there are many on the market. Some people hate the ones I have mentioned screaming "bloatware" or sighting some review from a fringe computer magazine. These are the same people who think Firefox is inherently safer than Internet Explorer. Facts do not affect these people, and thank the gods for that because I make a killing off cleaning the malware from their machines after they install some fringe antivirus program (I now charge double per hour on their repeat cleanings when they refuse to listen and install some free antivirus program instead).

A note on antispyware programs as well. Spybot Search & Destroy is one of the exceptions to the rule on "you get what you pay for," because it is free and it outperforms every other program on the market. Despite being free, they do accept donations and I strongly encourage you to make a small donation just so we can keep this great product around. Just make sure you download it from the Safer-Networking.org website and not just whatever website Google search pulls up.

These are the basics that will help keep your computer safe from Malware, although really it comes down to a bit of common sense. Unfortunately, people rarely use common sense when it comes to their computer systems and that is why I continue to make the big bucks.

Stay safe out there.

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