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Understanding Malware

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What is malware? What is a virus?

I think the best way to look at it is that Malware (or Malicious Software) is a catch-all term to describe software that is distributed to do unwanted things to your computer. This can include things like viruses, spyware, adware, rootkits, worms, scareware and probably any number of other terms. It can be confusing to know specifically what you’re dealing with, and what programs are best for dealing with it.

I wrote last week about anti-virus software and I would consider that the most important to focus on. That said, there are malicious programs out there that are focused on somewhat different things, like passively trying to gather information from your system or trying to actively get you to engage in a transaction to give up details like your credit card number. Anti-virus programs may deal with some attacks like this, but not necessarily everything and it can be good to have a backup application to cover some of these other threats.

There are two that I consider my go to programs.

Spybot – http://www.safer-networking.org/private/

Malwarebytes – http://www.malwarebytes.org/

Both have free versions and also offer pay versions that provide more complete protection. Both programs have to be manually run, unless you buy full versions that will allow you to schedule automatic scans.

Even though you have to do the scans yourself, these programs are two that I’ve found very reliable over the years for checking your system and removing many types of malware. I guess the best way to see it is your anti-virus program will protect you from the more traditional viruses and many other kinds of malware, while these programs are great backups to deal with more specific problems.

If you see your computer behaving oddly, if your anti-virus software hasn’t alerted you to anything, if you think you might have some malicious software, I would recommend running one of the above two programs. My personal preference happens to be Malwarebytes; it seems like a well maintained program and through the years it’s simply been the most reliable tool for me.

Please note, these are PC programs. I don’t know as much about Macs, though after a casual look, it seemed this kind of functionality is wrapped up with the more conventional anti-virus solutions. That may not be correct, so if any Mac users read this and have recommendations, please post in the comments.

For PC users, one useful bit of advice I can offer – if you run the program, reboot and the problems continue, try rebooting and going into safe mode. This can vary depending on what version of Windows you have, but in general you want to be tapping the F8 key on your keyboard just before the splash screen (the Windows logo) appears. You should get a menu and you can select Safe Mode from there. In some cases you may see two Safe Modes, with networking and without. You can choose either one but in many/most situations it won’t matter.

Safe Mode starts your computer with minimal services running. It won’t start any programs automatically and it’s generally a better environment to make sure nothing is interfering with your scans.

– – –

Whether we’re talking viruses or spamware, programs like these can only protect you so much. How you use the internet, your basic browsing habits, these are what really determine how at risk you are.

– If you get an email out of the blue asking you to click on a link to ‘verify’ your information, delete it.

– If a pop-up warning appears on your screen (from a program you did not purposely install yourself) saying you’re at risk and offering you a deal on their anti-virus program, you’re infected and you should run scans on your computer with one of the programs I’ve talked about.

– If your computer suddenly starts running very slowly or some programs don’t open at all, run scans…you may not be infected, but it won’t hurt to make sure.

– If you get an email saying you’ve won a big chunk of money, or if someone is asking you for help in getting money out of a foreign country, they’re lying. Delete the email.

– If you get an email that looks official, that has the right logo for a company you recognize…look for typos. Look at the return address. If anything seems off, delete it. Even if it really does look legitimate, if it’s not something you need don’t click.

These may be common sense to many of you, but a reminder never hurts.

If you have questions about this tutorial or would like to request a tutorial, please visit and post to the Tutorial Help & Request forum

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