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How to protect your computer from malware

By Charles Hopkins Published 09/22/2007 | Computer
As we sail through 21 century, internet becomes a way of living for many people around the world. No matter how you access the internet to check emails, read news, do shopping, or conduct business, there is no doubt that internet becomes a big part of our daily life. However, statistics shows that more than 80% of the internet users experience slowdowns in their computer performance in the past even if there is only one or two programs running on a T1 connection.

The most likely cause of loss of computer performance is called malware (spyware, adware, key-loggers, or drive-by downloader, etc.) that enter your system by various means, slowing things down to a crawl. This malicious software can gather your surfing information and send it to places you don't want sent or track your personal information for future use. Unfortunately, these malicious software programs are everywhere on the internet, including some "friendly" websites such as websites run by the government and the large, reputable companies.

As the web technology advances, viruses and spyware get smarter and harder to detect and kill, too. In order to protect your computer from malware you need to understand what they are and how they work.

Basically, there are three types of malware presented in this article because they are the most common problems we encounter:

1. Viruses
2. Spyware
3. Adware

Let's take a look at viruses first.

Viruses not only can damage your system but can be contagious to other people's system through yours. Through duplication, viruses can be sent to other people in your Microsoft Outlook mail list. Sometimes, virus can be embedded in other programs, such as the notorious Trojans, or hidden in an executable file through a well-wrapped email. Since viruses can be very dangerous to your computer, their entry should be prevented before they damage your system.

Unlike viruses, spyware usually is not an executable file and doesn't damage your system or wipe out your data; instead, they "spy" on your personal information, such as your web-surfing habits or even worse stealing your credit card information, then install tiny software, called cookies, to your computer without your permission when you download information from a website. They silently hide all over the system, usually in registries, cookies, or temporary files.

Similar to spyware, adware primarily gathers information about your surfing behavior so they can provide the ads and other related information you are interested in when you surf the web. This can be viewed as personalized marketing and can be very helpful if you visit a certain site frequently. It becomes a problem when too many cookies installed in your system and slow down your computer performance.

So what we can do to solve the problems with viruses, spyware or adware?

The best way to minimize and eliminate damage from malware is to frequently update anti-virus and anti-spyware software, properly set browser options, and surf wisely with common sense.

For anti-virus software, most ISPs offer some kind of virus protection but most of the time it is inadequate for proper computer security. Therefore, investing in good anti-virus software is a must for the health of your computer.

Norton is by far the most well known anti-virus software on the market. Its new version includes virus and worm protection along with spyware protection. It allows owners to set the "Live Update" to automatically make timely downloads of the so-called "virus definitions". Since new viruses are continually developed almost everyday, the anti-virus software uses "definitions" to identify and handle viruses. Frequent updates of the "definitions" is highly recommended.

McAfee is another leading brand for anti-virus software. Many of the features in this software come defaulted to fit the users' needs, including preset updates and weekly virus scans. It is a great software for novice users.

Other anti-virus software such as Shield Deluxe is also good for prevention of virus attack. This software is easy to use for anti-virus and anti-spyware. It updates and scans on a weekly basis with a pre-scheduled interface. It is also cheaper than the leading brands.

In addition to software, applying common sense to avoid your computer's exposure to viruses is also important. These include, but are not limited to:

never open emails if you don't know where they come from
don't run an executable file in your email or downloaded
from a website unless you know exactly it is safe
don't click "Yes" for a popup box when you surf the web
unless you know exactly what it is for

With regards to the anti-spyware software, PCTools Spyware Doctor has long been a PC Magazine Editor's choice for anti-spyware protection. It is a freeware/shareware with very thorough scanning. With its latest version, Spyware Doctor added anti-virus function as well. However, Spyware Doctor doesn't remove the spyware it identifies. It just prevents them from harming your system. Unless you buy the full featured software, spyware gets to stay in your system forever.

Webroot Spy Sweeper 5.2 is another piece of anti-spyware software that gets good ratings. Spy Sweeper 5.2 has similar functionality to Spyware Doctor 2007 but its user interface is more clear and concise. It is a good idea to supplement Spy Sweeper 5.2 with one or two free programs since no single anti-spyware software can catch every threat.

The free version of Ad-Aware by Lavasoft is also a good choice to supplement the primary anti-spyware software. It is not as robust as Spyware Doctor 2007 and Spy Sweeper 5.2 but it doesn't offer real-time monitoring in free version so it doesn't take many resources from your system.

At the browser level, you can minimize downloading certain types of spyware by going to Tools-->Internet Options-->Security-->Custom Level and selecting disable for

1. "Download unsigned Active-X controls"
2. "Initialize and script Active-X controls not marked as
safe"
and set Java permissions to "High Safety"

If this does not solve your spyware/adware problems, you can also disable the following two options:

3. "Active scripting"
4. "Scripting of Java applets"

The drawback is that you will limit the functionality of web surfing and may make your favorite sites unavailable. To overcome this, you can manually add your favorite site URLs to "Trusted Sites" under Security and uncheck "Require server verification (https:) for all sites in this zone".

Frequent updates and full scans of anti-spyware software should be performed on a regular basis. It is also recommended for a monthly Windows update to apply latest patches to your system. You can set up an automatic update through Windows Control Panel or within Internet Explorer under Tools menu.