Computer Threats

Computer Threats and What to Do About Them

An estimated 30,000 new threats to your computer appear every day, but this article will help you understand the four major types of threats and what you can do to protect your computer and data.

Categories of Threats

Threats fall into four major categories:

  • Viruses and Trojans
  • Malicious Software
  • Spyware and Adware
  • Rootkits

Virus, Trojan, and Worm are terms that you have probably heard of.  Maybe you have heard of Spyware or Malicious Software. You probably haven’t heard of Rootkits.  Here are some definitions for you.

A virus is a program that infects another program by adding computer code that goes to work when the infected program is running.  This basic action of infection gives us the widely used term of virus.

A Trojan is a program performs unauthorized actions on computers such as deleting files or stealing confidential information.  A Trojan is not a virus in the traditional sense because it does not infect other programs. Trojans disguise themselves as regular software such as toolbars, antivirus programs, or weather reporting programs. Once in place on a computer, they can bring in other unwanted software.  Trojans can cause damage far exceeding that done by traditional viruses.

Worms exploit operating system vulnerabilities to spread themselves.  The worm got its name from the way it can crawl from computer to computer using networks and e-mail. This is particularly dangerous in an office environment where many computers can be rapidly infected. Worms are known for their high-speed manner of spreading.

Malicious Software
In the last several years a new category emerged which is defined more for its malicious intent. This type can take the form of a virus, worm, or a Trojan that is intent on doing damage to the computer or gathering unauthorized information such as credit card numbers, confidential data, and bank account numbers.  Probably the worst type is known as a key-logger that actually captures your key strokes so that even your passwords are vulnerable.

Spyware and Adware
Spyware and Adware are software that collect information about users without their knowledge. They can monitor your web browsing activity and report that activity to advertisers.  For example, this type of software could detect that you are visiting Amazon, Borders, and Barnes & Noble sites. They could sell this information to the “xyz” bookseller who could then try to approach you.  Spyware could also redirect to sites of its choosing, change settings on your computer, and perform many other unwanted activities.

A rootkit is a collection of malicious programs that can be used by hackers to collect information, remotely run the computer, and perform many other unauthorized activities.  They can mask malicious programs to prevent detection by anti-virus programs.  Rootkits modify the operating system files on the computer and alter basic functions to hide the rootkit’s presence thereby making it difficult for anti-virus programs to remove the threat.  You should seek professional help in removing these threats.

Five Symptoms of Infection

  1. Your computer starts running very slowly because unwanted programs running in the background use up the computer’s resources.
  2. Since the “bad guys” creating these programs are not necessarily adept programmers, you may see error messages for their programs reported by the operating system.
  3. If the programs you have installed for protection cannot get their updates, get turned off without your knowledge, or produce error messages, the computer is probably infected.
  4. While browsing the Internet, you may see pop-up windows or be taken to web sites not of your choosing.  You may not be able to connect to the internet at all nor receive e-mail.
  5. Finally, if you see messages telling that your computer is “infected” but are not coming from software that you installed, you have an infection. These programs are trying to get money from you, get your credit card information, or both.  Do not respond to them and get help in removing them immediately.

What Can I Do to Protect My Computer?

Most computer users know that a good anti-virus program is a necessity and not a luxury anymore.  While many products offer an all-in-one solution, my experience has shown it is better to use multiple products each aimed at one particular type of threat.

My recommendations and why:

AVG Anti-virus is a top quality product with a smaller impact on the daily operation of your computer.  They offer a free version for consumers and a low-cost paid version that offers more in-depth protection.  This software primarily targets viruses, Trojans, and worms.  For these reasons, Byte Savvy has chosen to partner with AVG in this area.

 If you have another favorite anti-virus program, by all means use it instead.

Note: Do not install more than one anti-virus program as they will conflict with each other.

Spybot Search and Destroy is a free anti-spyware program that will scan and remove spyware and adware threats.  It has an optional resident function called Tea Timer that I do not normally install. This feature monitors changes to the computer’s registry and can be annoying with the amount of information it provides. This could also possibly interfere with the operation of anti-virus software.  You should have the program check for updates every time you run it.

MalwareBytes is a free program that targets malicious software.  You should have the program obtain the latest updates every time you run it.  The paid version ($25 for a lifetime license) allows the program to be scheduled for scans.

Your anti-virus software can be scheduled to run when you are not normally using the computer. I recommend daily scanning.

Spybot and MalwareBytes should be run manually about every week or two.  Performance will be degraded while the scans are running so plan accordingly. By running these programs manually, you will know that they are working properly and you will actually see the results.

What Best Practices Can I Follow?

  • Run the protective software regularly.
  • Install all the latest Windows Security updates.
  • Avoid installing toolbars unless you really need them.
  • Be cautious of clicking on web site ads.
  • Avoid free sharing sites for music and videos.
  • Only open e-mail attachments that you are expecting to receive.
  • Be wary of messages labeled “Sent from a Friend.”

About Dick Buchanan

I started working with computers some 25 years ago when my wife, Carol, and I purchased our first PC which was a Kaypro IV CP/M machine. This lead to studying computer science at Seattle Pacific University and becoming a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE). During this time I have worked for The Boeing Company, IBM Global Services, and Microsoft. I currently own and operate a local computing services company called Byte Savvy located in Kalispell, MT
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