One could make a case that today’s internet with all its viruses could be more contagious than a hospital bio-hazard bag. It seems like each week we hear about a new virus or computer attack. Have you heard about the “FBI virus” that locks out your computer and tells you the FBI found illegal software on it and you are required to pay a fine of $300 to release the lock? Have you heard of the “Virus Pop-Up” that tells you that your computer is infected and then takes you to a website where you have to pay $25 to buy their product to fix it? The bad guys are writing some very nasty code and as personal computer users, we can no longer depend on a single program to safeguard our computers and keep our data safe. In the next few paragraphs I am going to discuss some options you have that will help keep your computer safe and do it without paying a dime.
AntiVirus – Hopefully all of you are using some kind of antivirus. Sadly, I see big mistakes when it comes to using it. The first is: make sure you have a valid working version. Most people don’t realize that the free antivirus you get with a new computer is probably a trial and only works for 60 to 90 days. After that, it does not update so it quickly becomes worthless. Most antivirus products require you to pay each year or they stop working. If you find that your antivirus is out of date, there are some very good FREE antivirus products that are ranked just as high as the big paid-for brands. Check out AVG, Avast or Avira. They all offer a free version to home users and you can find download links on my free virus scan page listed at the bottom of this article.
Once you make sure that your antivirus is valid/working, make sure it is updated. Most antivirus products are programmed to update themselves because many home users just forgot to do it. Each week as new viruses come out, antivirus writers figure out how to stop them and release updates. If you have not updated your antivirus program in 4 weeks, you are vulnerable to pretty much any new virus that has come out since then. After you are all updated, run a manual scan each week. Antivirus programs typically only scan active files but viruses can hide anywhere so it is important to do a full-scan at least once a week. I have mine scheduled to run a scan over dinner time when I’m working at home. You can also schedule the full-scan to happen each week automatically. Just make sure your computer is turned on when the scan is scheduled.
Malware - There are so many OTHER things out there that don’t match the description of a virus that they are lumped into a generic category called Malware. Malware also has sub-categories now like “RansomWare”. A good example of Ransomware is the FBI virus. It is continued to called it a virus but it is not. It locks out your computer and ransoms it for $300. If you don’t pay, it continues to lock out your computer so that you cannot use it. Regular antivirus programs are not designed to fight this kind of evil code but luckily there is a FREE program that does; it is called MalwareBytes. MalwareBytes is designed to work WITH your antivirus and patch the holes it leaves behind. You can also find this on my free virus scan page listed below. The free version works great to fix the FBI and Pop-Up ransomware that is very active on the internet this year. I update and run a full scan with this each week, at the same as my scan and update for my antivirus software. There is no problem running them both at the same time.
Registry - Most people do not know this but Windows has a sort of “Table of Contents” that it uses to find all the files needed to run programs on your computer. Sadly, the bad guys know about this and they like to place bad things here so your computer will get infected again. Luckily there is another awesome free program that can fix this, it is called CCleaner. CCleaner is a registry fixer; it looks through all the entries and makes sure they point where they should and it knows what the bad guys like to leave behind. I recommend running CCleaner every month or two just to make sure the registry stays clean.
Firewall – Windows comes with a good firewall but if for some reason you want a better one, there is a product called “Zone Alarm” that offers a free version of their personal firewall. This product will send a pop-up to your screen if someone is trying to get into your computer or if some bad stuff is trying to get out. I do not think this is needed for most people but if you do a lot of online banking or feel you need extra protection, this is a strong option.
Passwords – Most of us like to use easy passwords and we use things like steelers#1 and sparky123 or Billy123. This kind of password is easy to break and if you are doing any banking at free wireless spots like Starbucks, you will end up regretting it. The best passwords are easy for you to remember, hard for anyone who knows you to guess, and are made up of a phrase with special characters. Some examples are: mybosshasnov1s10n (my boss has no vision but using ones and zeros in the last word) or MeganhasabigA$$ (this one is self explanatory). If you can fit a capital letter or two in there is helps. I show students how to crack wireless in class and they are amazed at how a password like “mountain123″ can be cracked in 15 minutes but a phrase like “Iwant$1,000,000″ cannot be cracked in the time we have for class. Moral of the story, come up with some creative passwords that people won’t guess about you. If you are a big Steelers fan, do not use “Steelersare#1″.
I hope this helps you get more enjoyment out of your computer time and helps keep your computer running smoothly. If you want to see the latest keyboards, stop by my Best Gaming Keyboard page. Here is a Free Virus Scan page with information to help you remove any computer viruses you may have and links to the best free virus removal programs including Malwarebytes and CCleaner that I mentioned above.
John McNamara has over a decade of IT experience and holds an MBA as well as many technical certifications including CCNA, MCSE and CEH. John runs an IT consulting company and also teaches several computer networking classes in the evening at a state college.