Computer Security Part One: Viruses, Malware, and Root Kits

Thursday, 15 Mar 2012, 12:44:00 AM

Scott Bly

There are many things you can do you do to protect yourself online.
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There are many things you can do you do to protect yourself online.

One of the most frustrating events in computer life is to be hit by a horrible virus. If you’re a Windows user, then the odds are good that at some point you’ve seen your system slow to a crawl, send out mass spam emails, or worse, completely crash. Viruses and worms spread on their own; spyware/malware gets installed on your system to run; and worse – root kits literally hide from Windows and become invisible.

If you’re a Mac user, then you’ve probably been spared this expensive indignity. But the times are changing, and Mac users are exposed to more security vulnerabilities daily. And Apple’s success is a tempting lure for the hackers of the world to dream up new attacks on those who play within Apple’s carefully constructed sandbox.

The question is: what do you do to protect yourself?

First: Practice safe Internet habits. This is mainly common sense. If an unfamiliar website offers you the “Happy Fun Toolbar,” do not click on it. It’s neither happy nor fun. This applies to Windows and Mac users alike. Windows systems are more vulnerable, but Macs can fall victim to malicious software as well. The same principle applies to email attachments. If you don’t know who sent it, don’t open it. Even if you do know who sent it, be careful.

Second: Use good passwords. On your computer’s user account, be sure to have an active password. With no password, a malicious attacker can gain access without having to work very hard. Use a password longer than five characters, and be sure to combine upper and lower case letters and numbers. Symbols are a good idea, too. Also, don’t use the same password for every website or email account. Mix it up.

Third: Antivirus and anti-malware software are critical on Windows systems. If you access the Internet without it, you’re begging for an expensive problem. For home users, there are a number of perfectly acceptable free software packages available. For business, it’s a good idea to pay for software because of the management options that are frequently included, especially if you have a server. On the Mac side of the world, it’s starting to become a good idea to run antivirus software if you have a newer Mac. But if your Mac is a bit on the older side, then you probably don’t need the slow down, and the risk is simply not that great yet.

Next Tech Talk column we’ll discuss network security and wireless routers.

The following are links to a few articles that will help you to keep your computers clean and clear:

This link to a tech blog is a couple of years old, but the email practices are still great ideas:

http://techtoggle.com/2009/01/13-steps-to-avoid-email-viruses/

This is a link to an article from PC World about how to avoid malware while browsing the web:

http://www.pcworld.com/article/210891/how_to_avoid_malware.html

Here are two links to articles about good password habits:

http://mitto.com/blog/2009/2/4/4-common-and-dangerous-password-habits.html

http://www.compukiss.com/articles/how-to-create-a-good-password.html

And last but not least, here are a few of my recommendations for antivirus software:

Windows users who have a valid license are eligible for the free Microsoft Security Essentials, available here:

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-US/windows/products/security-essentials

My favorite free antivirus/antimalware software was just updated. Avast is free for Home users. Avast also offers a paid Internet Security Suite, business security software, and a version of antivirus for Windows Home Server. Here is a link to the home software:

http://www.avast.com/en-us/free-antivirus-download

Avast also has arguably the best Android smart phone security software:

http://www.avast.com/en-us/free-mobile-security

Mac users can use the free Mac AntiVirus from Sophos:

http://www.sophos.com/en-us/products/free-tools/sophos-antivirus-for-mac-home-edition.aspx

Sophos is also my current preferred software suite for business antivirus including file servers and email servers.

And if you've gotten hit by a critter on a Windows computer, MalwareBytes AntiMalware is the best tool around for removing the infection:

http://www.malwarebytes.org/

Check in next time for helpful information on network security.

Scott Bly is the President of IT Freeway, a Santa Monica-based, small business computer consultancy. He teaches seminars at MacMall in Santa Monica and is the co-chair of the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce Technology Committee. His debut young adult novel “SMASHER” is being published by Scholastic/Blue Sky Press in Spring 2013. You can reach him via email at scott@itfreeway.com.

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