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Computer Care: Don’t let malware steal your PC

POSTED: August 25, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Back in the day, a simple scan of your computer’s hard drive was enough to thwart off most infections. Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Malware has evolved. It’s not just random pop-ups as it used to be.

There are now intimidating names such as rootkits, zero-day threats, keyloggers, redirects, drive-by downloads and phishing attacks. Good old adware and spyware are still around, too, though, not to worry.

Malware has gotten smarter. Those drive-by downloads are becoming ever-popular. Old-school advice to be careful what you click on doesn’t hold as true as it used to. You don’t always have to download or even click on something now to get infected. Often, by the time you open a web page or an email, you could be infected.

Malware has become more elusive. In HTML email messages or on certain web pages, tiny pixel-sized code can hide in frames within frames making it often impossible to detect. It’s not only us that can’t see it. Many security apps have trouble seeing it as well.

Drive-by downloads exploit your browser’s vulnerabilities and computer’s low security settings to find their way onto your system. Keeping your applications, browser, security software and operating system updated is the best defense.

Most computer users don’t, and those who prey on your system hope just that.

By definition, malware is bad software. It is programs, applications, utilities, anything that runs on your system without your knowledge or permission. It’s all bad stuff and often difficult to remove.

In the past few months, I have removed very few bona fide viruses from clients’ computers. It’s been various forms of malware that has been keeping me busy.

I have encountered fake antivirus infections, intimidating FBI warnings, false registry error notices and bogus programs that claim to speed up your system. Most will only remove money from your wallet, nothing else.

Having the proper utilities installed is also important. But allow me a moment here. I recently encountered a client with massive infections on her system who claimed to have protection. She did. The trouble was it never set to scan.

Once you get a security app, be sure it is configured properly. Set it to scan at a time when the computer is on, but when you are not using it.

Be advised that if you have an antivirus app, your system will be protected against just viruses. Most of those programs don’t look for malware.

Better protection is an all-encompassing Internet security suite that will look for just about everything. You may have to shell out a few bucks, as most free versions either look for viruses only or don’t have real-time protection. Some also lack a scheduler.

If you must stick to the freebies, supplement your protection with addition utilities. Malwarebytes or WinPatrol are two good utilities (there are others), but they have their limitations.

The paid version scans in real time. That means each website or file that is encountered is scrutinized as it appears. The after-the-fact method of scanning manually is often too late. You are looking for infections after they have damaged your system. The better alternative is to be proactive and catch them before they settle in.

My security app inquires whether or not I’d like to visit a website it deems unsafe. I usually follow its lead. When asked if I’d like to continue on to suspect-site.com, I just say no.

If you get an all-inclusive program, find one that incorporates varying methods of detection of malware. Some use whitelists or blacklists, while other use heuristics. This method is often better at finding new or unknown types of infections that may have similar signatures of known programs with malicious code.

There is a yet a different type of protection in programs such as Deep Freeze and Returnil. Systems that have these installed remain free of infection, but there are drawbacks.

Each time the computer is rebooted, it goes back to its default settings, rendering it impossible to be infected — and difficult to save anything. There are back doors built in, but as I mentioned, they could be tricky to use.

Another alternative is to use a program that utilizes a sandbox. This method isolates anything that may be hazardous to your system to a certain area of your hard drive. Like a sandbox on a playground, it is contained.

If you want to experiment with a new, unknown application, your system remains secure with it safe in the sandbox.

Sandboxie is offered in both free and paid versions with the former just about as good as the latter. You’ll get a nag screen after a month with free version (ignore it) and the paid version offers multiple sandboxes to secure more than one open app.

BufferZone is another similar app and along with Sandboxie, could be found at download.com. Read the editor’s, as well as users’ reviews of apps you may be interested in there.

Whatever method of protection you choose be certain to use it properly. Install it, configure it, use it and keep it updated.

Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly on the Business page and on gainesvilletimes.com.


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