Saturday, August 8, 2015

Family Tech: Beware of malware and take precautions - July 7, 2015

We’ve heard about the hacking of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Anthem, Target and many others. They are not the only targets.

You are too.

We’ve heard of malware for so long and have grown weary of it but it has real potential to harm our PCs and our lives.

We need to understand the various kinds and what we can do to prevent infestations.

A virus is a piece of computer code which, once it is on your PC, can do nasty things such as delete data, encrypt your hard drive and run multiple copies of itself, thus slowing down your computer.

It might show ads on your screen, or unbeknownst to you, remove ads on webpages and replace them with ads which they have sold. This removes income from sites you value and diminishes the websites’ motivation to continue to provide the content.

Like a living virus, it can replicate itself and attach itself to other files, thus infecting them.

A worm, on the other hand, is another piece of code that does not have to wait for you to send someone a file with a virus. Instead, a worm can find its own way out of one computer and into another.

Once on a system, a worm may do nothing specifically harmful, although the effort of moving itself to another system can eat up CPU time and flood computer networks with traffic as the worm multiples and moves around looking for a system to infect. A worm can be built to do nothing specifically harmful.

In 1988, the Morris virus simply traveled around the internet, but it infected 10 percent of the computers connected to the net and slowed down worldwide traffic.

Or a worm can take command of the PC and make that PC act as a slave to a master system. Many spam emails are generated from these enslaved PCs. Yours could be one and you wouldn’t know. Your computer would continue to work the same, although perhaps a bit slower. These are the botnets we hear about.

A rootkit is an especially loathsome piece of code in that it gains the most powerful control over a PC. It can hide processes from other programs so that it can thwart the efforts of anti-virus and other programs that seek out malware and remove it. Once hidden on your PC, it can do significant damage.

Spyware software, once on your system, can record keystrokes, take snapshots of your screen, even turn on your camera and microphone so that it can hear and see what is going on around your computer. It can then send that information off to another system.

It also can send its creators your bank account numbers, passwords, emails, including sensitive business emails. And, it can send the contents of your contact list.

How does this malware reach your system? A virus or worm can be an attachment on an email you open.

These emails can be clever. They can appear to be from your bank and say the attached document is your statement. It can be from a store and the attachment is supposedly a coupon.

The number one thing you can do to safeguard yourself is to not open attachments from anyone you do not know and be skeptical of all attachments you receive.

The bad guys have gotten good at creating emails that appear to be from your friends. They may have already infected your friends and have gotten your contact information from those compromised PCs. They attach malware to those emails generated to appear to be from your friend.

A worm can come crawling into your system via defects in network code and other software vulnerabilities.

You might obtain a piece of software to something useful, but it also unleashes viruses and worms onto your system. These are called Trojan Horses because while you think you are receiving something nice, you are instead getting something bad.

There are things you must do to protect yourself. Have an up-to-date antivirus program watching your system. Have it automatically download new virus definitions and do a full scan at least once a week. Leave your computer on so it can do this in the middle of the night.

Computers themselves do not take up much power. The screens can be shut down separately on a desktop. On a laptop, you can set the power settings so the monitor powers down after a specified period of time but leaves the computer running.

Firewalls are either hardware or software than can prevent worms and other malware from coming from the internet onto your home network and into your computers. A hardware firewall is often part of the router provided by your broadband internet provider. Check your router’s setting to make sure the firewall is turned on.

Your broadband provider may offer antivirus and firewall applications. Check out their sites for details.

What to do if your think you have been infected is a topic for a future column.
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