Personal Computer Security & Maintenance

 

What is Spyware?

Spyware is software that is usually installed on your computer without your expressed permission, which often gathers information found on your computer without your knowledge and either stores it or sends it back to someone else.

Certain forms of spyware can collect all sorts of personal information by recording keystrokes, keeping a record of what websites you visit, collecting username and password information, bank account information, credit card information, copying files saved on your computer, or anything else that might be construed as being useful for advertising purposes or identity theft.

 

What is Malware?

Malware is short for "Malicious Software", which is usually installed on your computer without permission and designed to infiltrate a computer and cause intentional harm. The term "malware" can include viruses, worms, trojans, rootkits, spyware, dishonest adware, and any other forms of malicious software.

Malware can cause harm by affecting performance, clogging network bandwidth, corrupting or deleting files/data, or causing undesirable issues with other applications or the operating system itself.

 

What is a Virus?

A virus is a form of malware, which can reproduce itself and infect other computers using the Internet, a network, or removable media (such as floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, or USB drives). Viruses usually take advantage of security vulnerabilities or the lack of adequate software security measures (such as the lack of anti-virus software).

The term "computer virus" has tended to be a catch-all term for malicious forms of software

 

How Infections Can Occur

Spyware/malware/viruses can infect your computer through a number of methods, which can include:

The risk of being infected by any number of these methods can be compounded by not having anti-virus software installed, not having a firewall running, and not keeping your software up-to-date. Spyware/malware/viruses take advantage of security holes and security exploits, as well as computers unprotected by security software.

  • Visiting infected websites, especially sites containing warez (illegally obtained software), or pornography
  • Downloading infected files from the Internet (be sure to download software from legitimate sources to avoid this)
  • Opening infected files attached to emails
  • Installing applications that have been bundled with spyware/malware/viruses (be sure to download software from legitimate sources to avoid this)
  • Installing rouge applications masquerading as security or anti-spyware applications.

 

How to Tell If Your Computer Might Be Infected

Any one or a combination of several of the following warning signs may indicate that your computer may have been infected with spyware/malware/viruses.

  • Your browser's home page has changed or will not save
  • Bookmarks/Favorites get added to your browser that you didn't add, don't want, or even recognize
  • Toolbars get added to your browser without your consent
  • Random pop-up windows appear. Some may be ads, others may employ scare tactics that entice you to click, such as "download application XYZ to remove spyware"
  • Your computer seems to run slower than before, or simply appears to run slow in general
  • Extra icons appear in the system tray next to the clock
  • Your computer starts freezing or crashing without warning and/or frequently
  • New files appear on your desktop that you don't recognize
  • Error messages keep appearing and/or the same error message appears repeatedly
  • Anti-virus software is unable open or is unable to start a scan

If you suspect your computer may be infected with something, it would be a good idea to run an anti-virus scan and scan with one or more malware removal utilities.

 

How to Update Your Operating System

An important step to help protect your computer against viruses and other security threats is to make sure you routinely update your software, especially your operating system and web browser. Updates from Microsoft and Apple come out monthly, and usually include important security fixes that are needed to help keep your computer safe.

If you aren't sure what operating system you are using, visit http://supportdetails.com/

Steps to Install Microsoft Windows Updates (Windows XP)

  1. Open Internet Explorer (this will NOT work in Firefox)
  2. In the address bar, type in: www.windowsupdate.com
  3. When the Windows Update site is displayed, click the "Express" button. It will take a few moments to check for updates.
  4. After the page shows a list of updates to install, click the "Install Updates" button to download and install the updates. Your computer may need to be restarted after the updates finish installing.

Steps to Install Microsoft Windows Updates (Windows Vista or Windows 7)

  1. Click the Start button.
  2. In the search box, type: Windows Update. Click the application named "Windows Update"
  3. In the Windows Update application window, click the "check for updates" link in the left pane.
  4. If updates are available, click the "Install Updates" button to download and install the updates. Your computer may need to be restarted after the updates finish installing.

Steps to Install Apple OS X Updates

  1. Click on the Apple menu (the apple icon in the top left of your screen)
  2. On the menu that appears, click "Software Updates"
  3. Click "Download & Install" to download and install the updates. Your computer may need to be restarted after the updates finish installing.

 

How to Protect Your Computer - Security Basics

Many types of threats against computers exist. Viruses, trojans, spyware, and malware all threaten your computer's data and security. There are a few good computing practices listed below which can keep your computer secure.

It's a good idea to scan your computer about once a month using your anti-virus software and malware removal utilities. Spyware, malware, and viruses don't always announce their presence, so by proactively running scans, you will help keep your computer in good shape and help keep your data safe.

  1. Keep your operating system and web browser up-to-date

    An important step to help protect your computer against viruses and other security threats is to make sure you routinely update your software, especially your operating system and web browser. Updates from Microsoft and Apple come out monthly, and usually include important security fixes that are needed to help keep your computer safe. Click here for instructions on How to Update Your Operating System.

  2. Use an alternative to Internet Explorer

    Internet Explorer is widely used for browsing web pages on the Internet, since it comes installed with Windows. Because of its popularity, certain packaged features, and the way in which it is integrated into the Windows operating system, Internet Explorer tends to be a high-profile target for spyware, malware, and viruses. There are a number of free alternative browsers available which you can download and install to mitigate many of these security issues, such as Firefox, Opera, Safari, or Chrome. Firefox is currently recommended for accessing SUNY Adirondack resources. Please see the "Compatible Web Browsers" Section for supported browser versions and download links.

  3. Install anti-virus software and keep it up-to-date

    Viruses and trojans are prevalent on the Internet, and it's often necessary to have software to scan downloads and email attachments to prevent infections from taking up residence in your computer.

    If you have any older, existing anti-virus software installed (especially if your subscription for it has expired), it should first be uninstalled before installing your new virus protection software.

    AVG, Avast, Avira, and Microsoft Security Essentials are some free anti-virus software packages that are available for Windows. ClamXav and Sophos Anti-Virus Mac Home Edition are available for Apple OS X, and ClamAV is available for Linux. You should only have one anti-virus application installed--having more than one installed at a time will cause program conflicts.

    If something is preventing you from installing/running an anti-virus application on your computer, it's likely that your computer may have been infected by something that is targeted to disable your anti-virus software. If this happens, there are some online virus scanners you can try running to help address the problem, such as Trend-Micro, Kaspersky, BitDefender, or F-Secure. Note that these should not be used as substitutes for anti-virus software on your computer--they should only be used as a supplement in case there are problems.

  4. Enable your firewall

    Most modern operating systems now come with built-in firewalls, which help prevent unauthorized access to your computer from the network or Internet.

    Some comprehensive anti-virus & security suites also include a firewall, which can somtimes supercede the operating system's built-in firewall. There are benifits and drawbacks to this depending on your level of expertise.

    There are also 3rd-party firewalls available for more advanced users. These software firewalls actively monitor incoming and outgoing traffic for applications running on or trying to access your computer. Some of these free firewall utilities include Comodo Firewall or ZoneAlarm Firewall. You should only have one 3rd-party firewall application installed--having more than one installed at a time will cause program conflicts.

  5. Install malware blocking utilities

    It's often a good practice to take measures to prevent malware and spyware from installing on your computer. Some trusted blocking utilities you can install may include SpywareBlaster and Spybot's "Immunize" feature (instructions available here)

  6. Install malware removal utilities

    Sometimes when you access infected websites or install programs downloaded from the internet, adware, spyware, or malware can sometimes secretly get installed. By running a scan with a good malware removal utility that is kept up-to-date, you can usually remove these items. Some free utilities may include Malwarebytes, and Spybot (instructions available here).

  7. Run monthly scans

    It's a good idea to scan your computer about once a month using your anti-virus software and malware removal utilities. Spyware, malware, and viruses don't always announce their presence, so by proactively running scans, you will help keep your computer in good shape and help keep your data safe.