Computer Viruses

As a computer user, you face a major challenge in keeping your computer free from destructive viruses.

A virus is a program or piece of code that is loaded onto your computer without your knowledge and runs against your wishes. Most viruses can also replicate themselves, which is dangerous because they can quickly use all available memory and bring the system to a halt. Some viruses are capable of transmitting themselves across networks and bypassing security systems.

In 1987 a virus infected ARPANET, a large network used by the Defense Department and many universities. As a result, a number of antivirus programs became available to the public.

We can distinguish between general viruses, worms, and Trojan Horses:

  • Viruses are designed to spread from file to file on a single computer.
  • A worm is a special type of virus that can replicate itself and use memory, but cannot attach itself to other programs. It is designed to copy itself from one computer to another over a network.
  • A Trojan Horse virus contains a hidden surprise intended by the programmer but totally unexpected by the user. Trojan Horses are often designed to cause damage or do something malicious to a system, but are disguised as something useful. Unlike viruses, Trojan Horses don't make copies of themselves. Like viruses, they can cause significant damage to a computer.
A virus hoax is a message sent via e-mail intended to scare people about a non-existent virus threat. Users often forward these alerts thinking they are doing a service to their friends, but merely waste other people's time and effort. The increased email traffic can soon become a problem in Internet access systems.

Most viruses enter your computer system through an attachment to an email. Contrary to what is widely believed, the attached files can infect your computer even if they aren't opened. Some new viruses can attack your system even if you merely open an email. Your computer can be infected even if the email attachment is merely resident on your hard drive but has not been activated.

So it's best not to open any suspicious email messages and avoid opening ANY attachments if possible. If the file is important to you, have the person transmit the information in some other form. For example, instead of sending a .doc document by attachment, have them create an HTML document to link to the .doc file (your browser can open the .doc file in Word).

Viruses can appear in many guises, the most common being:

  • .pif files (program information files)
  • image files

Viruses are becoming more virulent as the imbeciles who create them turn more perverse in their creations. Some viruses will completely take over your computer, revising crucial files to control the operation of your programs. They can cut off your access to the Internet and to your key programs, making it impossible to update your virus protection software. They send infected email messages and attachments without your being aware of it. They can destroy your hard drive or peripherals such as your modem.

Here are some guidelines for keeping your computer free of viruses.

1. Try to avoid people--on the Internet and otherwise--who are inherently vindictive or malicious. This is not always possible because some virus predators attack people indiscriminately. But if you get into conflict with someone who is a psycho and has computer skills, try to terminate all contact as quickly as possible.

2. Buy and install the latest virus protection program. At present the best anti-virus systems are Semantec's Norton AntiVirus and McAfee VirusScan. Both companies provide update .dat (data) files which contain the most recent information on viruses. These .dat files operate in tandem with your virus protection program to scan and clean your computer (hard drive and peripheral drives). Of the two anti-virus systems, I would recommend Semantec's Norton AntiVirus, Corporate Edition, because of its outstanding virus detection capabilities, its virus database, and its small programs that get rid of specific viruses.

Set up your virus protection software so it watches every file entering your computer--from the Internet or from a peripheral drive. Also configure your anti-virus program to update its virus definition files regularly--in order to keep your virus protection current.

3. Run your virus protection software regularly and often. If your computer has inadvertently become infected, have your anti-virus program immediately quarantine the file and then permanently delete it from your computer.

4. If your computer has become so infected that your anti-virus software won't work effectively to disinfect your system, then determine:

  • if you're able to disinfect your computer by yourself
  • if you need to find someone to help you disinfect your computer
You'll know that you have an infected computer if you suddenly can't perform certain procedures:

  • can't connect to the Internet
  • can't run your anti-virus software
  • can't run your email program
Finding someone who can competently disinfect your computer will be a challenge, since some technicians claim skills which they can't perform.

First, get as much information from the Internet about viruses in general and your particular virus (if you know which one it is) and discuss with your prospective consultant just how he or she plans to go about the disinfecting process. I had one supposed "specialist" tell me that he would connect his external drive and run his anti-virus program to disinfect my hard drive. I had already told him that the particular virus infecting my computer was invisible to any virus protection software.

I was fortunate in finding a highly skilled computer specialist who was not only able to help me disinfect my computer but helped me to set up a series of safeguard features to keep my computer from being re-infected.

5. Don't network your computers unless you have already installed the best anti-virus software program possible and set up the safeguards listed above. You don't want a single virus infecting more than one computer if you can avoid it.

6. Keep a backup computer on hand. When I experienced a deadly virus attack which infected two of my computers, the thing that saved me was having a backup computer. I was thus able to get out onto the Internet, get the relevant information about the malicious virus, and continue operating effectively.

6. If your anti-virus software detects infection, make sure the virus is not ony quarantined but destroyed. Then go to your software company and get whatever information they have on the specific virus that attacked you. Semantec or McAfee should have a small program which you can download and then run to purge the virus from your computer system.

7. Watch for information on virus infection vulnerabilities of specific software. For example, in the update below, Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office 2000 have now been admitted to have virus vulnerabilities which require a patch. Download the patch and load it into your computer as soon as possible.