How to Avoid Malware: Good Practices to Follow and Tools That Can Help

Guide to preventing or cleaning up malware infections on your computer. Web links to free personal-use software included.

In today's computer world, PCs are becoming the target for a lot of different scams. Your personal information is being constantly tracked in new and more creative ways every day. One of the most common is the advent of spyware or viruses. These two together make up what computer administrators call "Malware". Here are a few simple ways to reduce your chances of being infected.

1. Read your pop-up notices. When you are surfing the internet, you may frequently find boxes popping up on your screen. Often, these boxes can be as innocuous as a Microsoft warning that you are leaving a secure site, but sometimes they are telling you that what you are about to click on may install software to your computer. You may not know what a secure site is, but if a file is trying to install itself on your computer, you will need to know what it is. If the box is asking you to install something, make sure you recognize what the file is. Any sites that require a certain software to function will tell you what the software that is being downloaded is used for. If there doesn't seem to be a particular use for a file to be installed, do not install it.

2. Do not download free screensavers, web smileys or toolbars. These programs, while sometimes cool and interesting, are really only a means to get you to download spyware and viruses. They will ask you to install some sort of software that will setup the screensaver to your computer, but this software will nearly always include a program that can harm your computer or steal your personal information.

Some people like to install toolbars such as Google, Yahoo, MSN or Windows Live. These products are not inherently harmful to your computer and can be very useful. They make searching your favorite engine easier and can sometimes block pop-ups, but you should never need more than one of these. They will take up memory and can make your computer run slower. Sometimes their pop-up blockers can also block important pages that you need to have displayed such as work sites and online shopping sites. Most of the time, these toolbars come as part of a package of software that you want to install such as Adobe Flash or Java. When you're installing these, make sure to watch for toolbars that you do not need and uncheck the box that would install the toolbar. Most other toolbars are unsafe and can give you malware.

3. Make sure you have an anti-virus software and keep it up to date. Companies like Symantec and McAfee produce very fine virus software that companies will use. This software is normally purchased in a corporate environment and can be too costly for the average computer user. There are a few good freeware versions of anti-virus software that can be used. These programs are free for home use and can sometimes have corporate licensing available. AVG can be downloaded from http://free.avg.com/ and Avast! can be installed from http://www.avast.com/eng/download-avast-home.html. Both of these softwares should work on multiple versions of Windows and Linux. They both also come with scheduling that will scan your computer on a regular basis and will update themselves automatically as long as your computer is turned on.

4. Get a good anti-spyware software. While AVG and Avast! are good at helping you keep your computer free of viruses, they aren't quite as good at keeping out software that is more subtle. Spyware includes things like keyloggers that can track your keystrokes to computer usage trackers. Some of these softwares can steal personal information and some may simply use system resources which slow down your computer. Spybot Search & Destroy and Malwarebytes Super Anti-malware are both good programs to use to keep these kind of sneaky little programs at bay. You can get Spybot from www.safer-networking.org/ and Malwarebytes Super anti-malware from http://malwarebytes.org/. These programs usually won't update themselves or run on a regular basis, so you can run them yourself about once a week or run them when you've done a lot of browsing or believe your system may have picked up some spyware. You will need to make sure you run the update feature on these tools before using them as well.

5. Be very careful what sites you are browsing. Some sites have a higher probability than others of giving you spyware. Any adult sites have a much higher than average chance of installing software, so if you tend to browse these kind of sites, make sure you run an anti-spyware program afterwards and make sure you do not click on any ads while you are on these sites. Ads on many sites can install spyware as well, so be very careful which ads you click on and if you do click on ads, make sure you check for spyware frequently.

6. Get a hardware firewall. This one can be harder for regular users out there, but it does make security much easier. A hardware firewall is basically a piece of equipment that acts like a fence that closes intruders out of your yard. To the outside world, the firewall looks like a very simple computer that cannot install software. When anything tries to access your computer, they will run into this piece of hardware and try to install their programs on it. The firewall will keep your computer from being seen and accessed. If you know about computers, you can search for information online about how to purchase, install and setup these firewalls. If you don't know about computers, you can generally call your local computer store for help in setting these up. You can also ask a friend who knows about computers for assistance, but the set up is very important for correct function of the hardware. If it isn't set up right, it's like leaving the gate on the fence wide open. Many computer stores now have teams who can set up the firewall for you for a small charge.

7. Watch for suspicious behavior when you're browsing the internet. Sometimes you will see boxes pop-up that you don't expect. Sometimes they will tell you that you have a virus and they can clean it up. This is a popular tactic lately to convinence you to purchase their "anti-virus" or "anti-spyware" programs. If something pops-up telling you you have a virus or spyware, do not click on it. It is most likely trying to get you to click on it so that it can download more spyware. If you receive this message, try to get to one of the sites listed above for help in cleaning up the infection.

Some spyware will keep you from accessing sites that you try to go to. It can redirect you to the pages they want you to see or simply tell you that "Access was denied because the site could harm your computer." These are important clues that you have spyware installed. If you can't access a spyware removal site, try downloading the tool from a different computer and transferring the software to the infected computer via a cd or floppy disk. You may not want to transfer the files using a USB thumb drive as the infected computer can put the virus onto your thumb drive.

If you notice strange pop-ups coming up a lot, especially if they contain graphic images, this is another sign you might be infected with spyware. Some sites will also pop-up an image that will immediately be placed in the background of the current window. Always check these pop-up windows to verify they are not installing software on your computer.

Many site can give you spyware or viruses and cleanup can sometimes be a pain. If you can avoid the infection, that is the best way to go. Make sure you watch the notices that pop-up and know what they mean. If you get spyware or viruses, clean up is always easier if you catch it early. The internet can be as scary as the road these days and you always want to watch what you're doing to avoid having your personal security breached.

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Mark Cruz
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Sam Montana
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