5 Ways to Avoid Computer Viruses
Malicious hackers are getting smarter, but you can protect your computer — and your data — with these tips
On one side of the computing world are security firms, security applications and security experts. They are all trying to keep your data secure.
On the other side is a collection of individuals, hacking groups and criminal organizations focused on making money by stealing your personal information.
At the center of that war, with the most to lose, is you. Malicious hackers have cooked up new ways to target your data. For example, they’re exploiting holes in your Windows or OS X operating systems and sending you targeted emails that appear to be real, but that direct you to a malicious site that allows the hacker to install viruses that wreak havoc on your computer.
Viruses are malicious programs that run on your computer. They often take control of your computer and can do evil things, including monitoring your activities and sending reports to hackers. Viruses also can log your keystrokes to steal your passwords (a technique called keylogging) and may even erase your hard drive entirely. Viruses easily replicate across your computer — they install themselves in multiple folders under different names — making them difficult to remove.
Why are people looking to install viruses that steal your information? For them it's business (an illegal one to be sure). Depending on the type and quality of the stolen information (usernames and passwords to bank accounts are usually the most sought-after), hackers can make a hefty amount of money on the Internet black market.
Here are five ways to improve your chances of sidestepping computer viruses and threats against your data.
1. Stop running as an administrator. Each time you log on to your computer, you have a role attached. That role could be administrator, standard user, or guest. An administrator has the ability to do everything he or she wants, including install programs. A standard user has fewer rights and responsibilities and typically cannot install programs or modify applications. Guests have even fewer rights.
The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team says if you make it a practice to use your computer as a standard user, you’ll still be able to surf the Web, send emails and play with apps, but you won’t have the rights to install programs (you’ll need to log on to an administrator account for that). Since authorized user credentials are needed to install viruses, running as a standard user means malware will never reach your hard drive without administrator consent.
Limiting your own abilities to install software means limiting a malicious hacker’s ability to install files or applications that could wreak havoc on your computer.
2. Find solid anti-malware software and keep it updated. It’s imperative that your computer run anti-malware software that can seek out and destroy viruses, and automatically scans your computer, email and websites on a daily basis, according to the Information Security Department at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Once you’ve downloaded an anti-malware application, realize that it’s only as good as the viruses it knows to look for. Security companies often update their applications as they become aware of new viruses. Check your security apps often to see if updates are available and install them. Or choose the setting in those programs to have the applications automatically updated. Nearly all security applications come with an auto-update feature, and toggling that on gives you peace-of-mind knowing your security programs are always updated.
3. Be on the lookout for phishing scams. Phishing scams are running rampant on the Internet. Phishing refers to hackers creating Web pages that resemble legitimate sites (like your bank's website) but are designed to either steal your username and passwords or install malicious software (aka malware) on your computer. Phishing scams can also involve hackers sending you emails designed to get you to click on a link that takes you to one of these pages or downloads a virus.
One of the best ways to avoid phishing scams is to examine your address bar — the spot at the top of your browser that shows the Web page URL — to make sure you’re on the page you want to be on. For instance, if the site looks identical to your bank's site design but the URL doesn't match, you know you're on a malicious page. Hackers try to make everything look identical to the site they're spoofing, but it's difficult to fake how the browser displays a URL. And since the phishing site URL cannot precisely match the page hackers are spoofing, it's the best way to identify a fake.
Certain browsers, like Google’s Chrome, also include a feature that directs people to leave certain Web pages if they’re known to be phishing scams. Some anti-malware applications that analyze browser activity might also alert you to a phishing site.
4. Keep your operating system updated. One of the easiest ways to fall victim to an attack on your data is to not keep your operating system updated. Each month, for instance, Microsoft releases “patches” that fix security holes in its Windows operating system. Apple also will release patches from time to time. If you don’t update your operating system and install the fixes, there’s a possibility you’ll fall victim to attacks that those who patched their machines will not.
Furthermore, it’s a good idea to keep all of your applications updated. Many third-party software developers will release security updates that fix holes they’ve become aware of. Updating those applications as soon as possible closes another hole hackers could exploit.
5. Think seriously about password security. Do you use the same password on multiple sites? Are your passwords easy to break? Could someone easily figure out that your password to your email and bank login page is your dog’s name?
If you use unique passwords for each site, then the worries about hackers accessing your other accounts are relatively small, according to the National Cyber Security Alliance.
So, be careful with your password choices and make them unique. Better yet, use a random password generator that makes passwords for you that are difficult to break.
Related: How to Lock Down Your Home Internet