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Protecting Your Laptop: A User's Guide to Viruses and Other Malicious Programs

Regardless of how careful a computer owner may be, computers get infected with viruses and other types of malware, another word for malicious software, every day. These infections are inevitable as most people with computers connect to a network, go online, surf the Web, check emails or download files while using their computer. Even sharing infected discs can spread malware from one computer to another. Each attempt to connect to the outside world increases the chances of getting infected. Important files and programs can be corrupted, private information can be stolen and the malware can be distributed to other computers. Downloading a reliable antivirus program, keeping it updated and performing regular scans can help protect the computer from viruses, other types of malware, and being hacked. It is also important for users to try to get updated on security issues to learn about existing attacks and how to better protect their computer systems.

What is a virus?

Viruses are made up of computer codes which attach to programs and files on a computer. As it attaches to the program or file, it alters the code to whatever it is attached, corrupting files and programs in the process. Worms function in the same way as viruses do. The only exception is that a single worm does not attach itself to multiple programs or files. Much like its name implies, a Trojan Horse disguises itself to appear like a useful program. Once installed, it allows hackers to steal the owner’s information. Trojan Horses do not spread to other computers. Instead, one has to manually download the program and install it on the local hard drive to work. Rootkits are the most difficult to deal with. Much like Trojan Horses, installing a rootkit in the local hard drive allows a hacker to gain access of the system. The major difference between the two is that rootkits allow hackers to gain control of the computer’s operating system. Spyware is another intrusive malware. The presence of spyware in the system is identified by a bombardment of pop-ups and installation of toolbars among others, bogging down the computer. Knowing the intricate differences of each type of malware and other possible causes of system failure can help owners determine if their computer is infected by some form or malware or acting oddly due to other reasons.

  • Computer Virus Fact Sheet: This PDF file from the University of Houston-Downtown defines what a virus is, how it works and affects systems. The file also contains a rough estimate of the number of viruses that currently exist and how many are discovered on a monthly basis.

  • Trojan Horse Program: This document file explains in detail what a Trojan horse is, the origin of the name, how they are distributed, its effects on the system and how to avoid getting infected.

  • FTC Consumer Alert: Spyware: The US Federal Trade Commission has devoted a part of their website to informing consumers on what a spyware is, what it does, how to remove it, and how to prevent future attacks.

  • What is a Virus?: This webpage from the University of Texas contains interesting information on the history, myths, and jokes regarding computer viruses.

What are hoaxes?


Hoaxes are entirely different from viruses and other types of malware. A hoax generally consists of a warning or a threat which does not really exist. These are normally harmless messages but rely on the human tendency of being gullible and fearful. It convinces the receiver of the message to propagate the message to more people. To be on the safe side, receivers are advised not to automatically forward a message that they fits the description of a hoax. Spending a few minutes to research online to see if a similar hoax exists can help prevent the spread of the hoax. Online directories and websites are available which list these hoaxes.

  • Virus FAQ: The Trinity College website has an article that can help computer users determine whether their computer has been infected by a virus or if it is a hoax.

  • Hoax Busters: The website includes a list of known hoaxes being distributed around the Internet.

  • Police Notebook Virus Hoaxes: The University of Oklahoma has designed a website that helps inform computer users on what to do when receiving a possible email hoax.

How do I know if my computer is infected?


Signs of a virus infection are diverse and vague in some cases. Some of the symptoms are similar to that of hardware failure or incompatibility issues; this includes error messages, frequent crashes and computer restarts. Antivirus programs may stop running or are disabled for no apparent reason. One clear indication is seeing new icons appear on the desktop even though there were no programs recently installed. Check the Task Manager and look for suspicious files running in the background. Another way to check is by clicking Start and typing services.msc under the Run feature. In both cases, any suspicious filenames should be checked online to see if any other users are experiencing the same problem.

  • Computer Viruses: The PDF file lists a few symptoms of a virus infection. It also includes three useful tips on how to avoid running into problems with viruses.

  • Virus Protection: This article from the Southern University Law Center lists the distinct effects and symptoms between a virus infection, a worm, a Trojan infection, and a hardware or software failure.

  • Fake Antivirus Warnings: This article from Oregon State University informs readers on what a fake antivirus alert is, what it can do, how to prevent infection and examples of fake ads.

How do I get rid of a virus?


Removal options vary depending on the severity of the infection. In most cases, a reliable antivirus program with updated definitions is all that is needed to remove the infection. Unplug any connection to the Internet before performing the scan. If the scan produces no significant results, it is time to do a manual search of the symptoms. There are various virus libraries available online. Simply type the symptoms into a search engine to find information on what could be causing the problem. If nothing seems to work, another option is to do a complete reformat of the entire system. This will leave a clean slate. However, users will also need to reinstall all of the programs. Remember to make a backup of all installers and important files before reformatting.

  • Caught a Virus?: This link leads to an article by PCWorld which helps consumers determine whether their computers have been infected by a virus, other types of malware, software or hardware compatibility issues.

  • Reinstall Vs. Virus Removal: This article from the University of Minnesota lists the advantages and disadvantages of removing viruses by means of using software against reformatting the entire computer.

  • General Virus Removal Instructions: Harvard Law School provides a short how-to guide to removing viruses. Steps include disabling the System Restore feature, downloading Windows updates and scanning for infections using antivirus software.

  • Viruses & Data: The University of Connecticut’s School of Business has listed steps on protecting data, preventing virus attacks, and removing viruses. It includes information on how to create backups of bookmarks and removing viruses from USB thumb drives.

How can I prevent viruses?

Users will need to be more careful to prevent or reduce the chances of getting infected. This includes installing the most current updates and patches for the operating system and the antivirus software. Be careful when it comes to opening attachments. If it comes from an unknown source or if the filename appears suspicious, delete immediately. Create a backup of all important files as often as possible. In case an infection occurs, it will easy to restore to the last known working configuration. Avoid using personal discs and USB flash drives in public as these types of media are great carriers of viruses.

  • Virus, Worms and Spyware: This article from Indiana University describes the differences between different types of malware and how they affect the computer. It also includes a list of things to do to reduce the chances of becoming infected.

  • Free Vs. Paid Antivirus Programs: This article from TechWorld lists the advantages and disadvantages of using free and paid antivirus programs. The article also lists some of the recommended brands of antivirus programs on the market.

Where can I find additional information on computer security?


  • Microsoft Security Intelligence Report: Microsoft has provided users a reference guide on different types of computer threats. These include vulnerabilities, exploits, malware, email threats, and malicious websites.

  • Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section: Details how computers are currently used to commit various crimes. The website also details existing laws, policies and cases regarding computer crime and allows victims an avenue where they can report the crime.

  • United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team: The US CERT website contains information for both technical and non-technical users regarding vulnerability issues or phishing incidents. Users may also report similar incidents on this website.





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