Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ten tips to keep you safe from malware

Malicious software; spyware, malware, and viruses have become a great problem for many computer users, particularly those who running Windows and Internet Explorer. Here are some tips to prevent the automatic installation of malware and fake antivirus softwares.

What is "Malware", exactly?

Malware, short for malicious software, is software which is designed to secretly access a computer system without the owner's permission. The expression is a general term used by computer professionals to mean a variety of forms of hostile, intrusive, or annoying software or program code.

Above are some examples of malware software or ads designed to tempt people into downloading such software.The thing that makes malware a particularly insidious form of software is that it costs users money, and is extremely profitable for companies that make it.

How does this nasty stuff get installed in the first place?

There are a number of ways that malware (and other types of malware) get installed. Here are some common scenarios:

  • Banner ads, popup ads, or cleverly placed search results invite you to get a "FREE" scan of your computer (for viruses, registry corruption, or the like). In order to do this, you must download and install software that is, in fact, malicious software itself.

  • Users download "free" screen savers, music, games, or other small programs that are actually a carrier for a malware or virus payload, that quietly gets installed on your PC at the same time.

  • Ads or popups "disguised" as real application windows pop up warning people that they have problems with their computer, and attempt to trick them into downloading software to fix this. Although this ruse is extremely obvious to experienced users, beginner computer users still fall for it.

  • Hackers are usually paid for installing this software onto computers, and they will often craft trojans or other viruses that are distributed through spam, security flaws, or other means to get this software onto computers.
How to avoid installing malware and stay safe
  1. Antivirus software may help, but not much.It is a good idea to run some antivirus software, but don't let it lull you into a false sense of security -- most of these malware programs will effectively disable your AV software.
  2. Don't download and run programs that you don't need, or do not know what they are. Be very wary of what you are downloading, as many websites are designed to trick you into downloading a program when you think you are downloading something completely different.
  3. Do some research before downloading software, and be aware that what you are downloading is legitimate software. Note that fake software will often use well-known brands in the names -- "Security Tool" is an example of a malware program.
  4. Never give your credit card information to software claiming to fix your computer -- for a price. This is a strong indication of the shady or deceptive business practices used by malware.
  5. Never click on an advertisement or popup claiming that you have viruses or problems with your computer.
  6. Be very wary of software error messages that have spelling and grammar mistakes. Especially if they direct you to something that you must purchase!
  7. Read the address bar in the computer when you visit websites to ensure that it matches the site you are on. This alone can prevent you from falling for phishing scams where criminals try to trick you into giving them your login information for a particular Website or service.
  8. When installing normal software, it is a good idea to uncheck offers to install toolbars and extra bundled software that is not needed.
  9. Use Windows Update to ensure that your operating system is up to date with the latest security patches.
  10. Use a more secure browser, and keep it up to date. Google Chrome, for instance, has a very good security track record. Makers of malware and viruses usually target Internet Explorer, since it is so commonly used, and has many well-known security vulerabilities in older versions.
The above steps should all be part of your regular use of the Internet. By being aware of the risks, and being cautious, you will greatly decrease your odds of being afflicted with nefarious software trying to con you out of your cash.
These sorts of "Net Smarts" might not be obvious to someone who is less acquainted with computers and the ill-will of many "cyber criminals" out there, so it's a good idea to talk to friends and family and show them this article to keep them safe.