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How you can protect your computer from viruses and malware
Posted October 30, 2009
When you buy a car, it has certain safety features built in. After you drive it off the lot, you might find that the manufacturer slipped up and either recalls your car or requests that you go to the dealer's service department to have a faulty part replaced. In addition, you need to drive defensively to keep your car from being damaged in daily use.
Your computer is similar to your car in terms of the need for safety. It comes with an operating system (such as Microsoft Windows) built in, and that operating system has security features. Sometimes that operating system has flaws, and you need to get an update to keep it secure. And as you use your computer, you're exposing it to dangerous conditions and situations that you have to guard against.
Threats to your computer security can come from a file you copy from a disc you insert into your computer, but most of the time, the danger is from a program that you download from the Internet. These downloads can happen when you click a link, open an attachment in an e-mail, or download one piece of software without realizing that malware (malicious software) is attached to it.
You need to be aware of these three main types of dangerous programs:
- A virus is a little program that some nasty person thought up to spread around the Internet and infect computers. A virus can do a variety of things, but typically, it attacks your data, deleting files, scrambling data, or making changes to your system settings that cause your computer to grind to a halt.
- Spyware consists of programs responsible for tracking what you do with your computer. Some spyware simply helps companies you do business with track your activities so that they can figure out how to sell you things; other spyware is used for more insidious purposes, such as stealing your passwords.
- Adware is the computer equivalent of telemarketing phone calls at dinner time. After adware is downloaded onto your computer, you'll get annoying pop-up windows trying to sell you things all day long. Beyond the annoyance, adware can quickly clog up your computer. Its performance slows down, and it's hard to get anything done at all.
To protect your information and your computer from these various types of malware, you can do several things:
- You can buy and install an antivirus, anti-spyware, or anti-adware program. It's critical that you install an antivirus program, such as those from McAfee, Symantec, or Trend Micro, or the freely downloadable AVG Free. People are coming up with new viruses every day, so it's important that you use software that is up-to-date with the latest virus definitions and protects your computer from them. Many antivirus programs are purchased by yearly subscription, which gives you access to updated virus definitions that the company constantly gathers throughout the year. Also, be sure to run a scan of your computer on a regular basis. For convenience, you can use settings in the software to set up automatic updates and scans. Consult your program's Help tool for instructions on how to use these features.
- Install a program that combines tools for detecting adware and spyware. Windows has a built-in program, Windows Defender, which includes an anti-spyware feature. If you don't have a Windows computer, you can purchase programs such as Spyware Doctor from PC Tools.
- Use Windows tools to keep Windows up-to-date with security features and fixes to security problems by running Windows Update. You can also turn on a firewall, which is a feature that stops other people or programs from accessing your computer without your permission. Find both these settings through the Windows Control Panel under System Security.
Nancy Muir is the VP of Content and Curriculum for Look Both Ways, an Internet safety company (ilookbothways.com) and the author of over 50 books on computers and the Internet. Nancy has taught technical writing and Internet safety at the university level, holds a certificate in Distance Learning Design, and has been a senior manager in both the software and computer publishing industries.