Written by Louis Malcmacher, DDS, FAGD Tuesday, 31 December 2002 19:00
You've heard and read about computer viruses until you're sick of the word virus. If you have never encountered a computer virus, then you aren't sure what a virus could (or could not) actually do to your computer, you still aren't sure you'd know a virus if you met one in broad daylight, and you aren't absolutely sure that you know how to protect yourself against the wretched things. So why even worry about them?
You don't need to know what viruses look like, and you don't need to know what viruses can do to your files and your data. What you do need to know is that they're hard to identify, and they can mess things up royally. If your computer has been infected in the past, you know that you have lost data and that it can be an incredible frustration. You may also have experienced getting some e-mail from people from Indonesia whom you don't know, telling you that you have a virus. You then find out that a virus (or worm) has sent itself to everyone in your e-mail address book. Once it gets to all of your friends, the virus then sends itself to all of the people in their address book. The infection gets spread faster than strep mutans. There is no way to stop it once it starts, and your friends get really angry with you, vowing never to open up any of your e-mails again.
You need to know how to make your computer virus-proof, even if this scenario has never happened to you.
To start with, you need several different kinds of protection, and although most of the leading antivirus programs offer to supply all of them, you must make sure your choice is set up correctly to provide all of them. If you ever download files, you must have protection that automatically, without fail, scans all of your Internet downloads before you even get a chance to touch them. You also must have the ability to scan individual files that arrive as e-mail attachments or as FTP transfers. If you ever get files on floppies from other people, you have to be able to scan the files on those floppies as well. Another option, which is a very good idea to have, is something called background protection.
Background (or real-time) virus protection requires that you set up your virus program so that it loads and runs every time you start your computer, and it monitors every executable file you open, without giving you very much evidence that it's actually there and doing its job. You may notice a tiny slowdown each time you open a program, but that slowdown is a small price to pay for constant surveillance. Your program may also place an extra icon on your task bar. With a real-time antivirus program set up, you have true protection against viruses, even when you forget to use your other protection or when it fails to function properly.
For download protection, there are a number of options. There are antivirus programs that monitor download activity. And there are excellent download managers that can be set to seize anything you download from the Net and examine it before you get a chance to do anything with it.
When you receive an e-mail attachment or a file transferred to your computer by FTP, it is essential that you scan it for viruses before you open it. When you install your program, watch for an option that adds a scanning button to the context (right-click) menus in your Windows Explorer windows. When you receive a new file, open your Windows Explorer, find the file, select it, right-click for the context menu, and click the Scan for Viruses button there. If that option isn't available with your program, you should set up a shortcut to the virus program that will let you open the program and direct it to scan any file you want it to scan. If any part of this procedure is beyond your level of computer sophistication, you would be wise to get an experienced, advanced user to show you how to go through the procedure of checking a single file when you need to check one. The best way to ensure that every e-mail attachment is scanned for viruses is to have the antivirus program do it automatically as they are being downloaded and sent. This may take more time but is certainly worth the benefits.
When it comes to receiving e-mail with attachments, don't trust anybody, even if it is from your best pals! A virus could have infected their e-mail program and sent itself to you. So never open any e-mail attachment unless it has been scanned for a virus.
If you install the best antivirus software in the world on your machine, and you forget to use it or you have it set incorrectly, you have no real protection at all. In the time between your runnings of the antivirus software, a malicious virus can destroy your files and make your machine useless until you have cleaned it up and re-installed everything that was affected. When you install a good antivirus program, unless you are a very advanced user (with a very good memory), it's a good idea to accept the option of installing the background, real-time protection component. Then you just have to make sure that it is running every time your computer is running.
Fortunately, all of the good antivirus programs have ways of informing you that they're on the job. Some display an opening screen during the booting up of your computer. Most put an icon in the Windows system tray, and when it's there you know that your protection is active. Whatever your choice of anti-virus program, be sure the indicator is present every time you start your computer. If it doesn't appear, shut down and re-boot immediately. If it still doesn't show up, shut down and get help. Some virus programs are written to disable real-time virus protection on the next booting up of your computer. Then they can do their evil work without any opposition.
If you have the best protection program on the planet but you fail to get the updates for it when they are released, you're defeating the entire purpose of the program. An out-of-date virus data file is woefully inadequate protection if you're adding new files to your computer today. Check frequently at the address your program gives you for updates, and if the program is set up to check for updates only once in awhile, don't count on that to take care of things. Check on your own, and frequently. Above all, don't assume for a moment that a program you just bought or just downloaded has an up-to-date data file. And make sure you understand your programs instructions for installing updates, and follow them precisely. If you don't know how to update your program, find someone who can help you learn how. A very good antivirus program will check either daily or every other day for any new viruses out there, and will automatically download the protection for it.
There are lots of choices in commercial real-time virus protection (see Table). Some of the major programs are McAfee, Norton, and PC-cillin. My sage advice is that you should choose among the available programs based on any factors that strike you as important, such as frequency of updates, availability for download, ease of operation, speed of real-time checking, and price. The ones I use the most are Norton AntiVirus, which is part of the Norton Systemworks package, and McAfee Anti-Virus.
Don't bother choosing on the basis of advertised claims of superiority. These companies spy on each other shamelessly, and keep up with each other on a daily basis. If one is able to cite a laboratory test that shows it to be better than others, the others can counter with a more impressive claim the next day.
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