5 Ways to Keep Your Computer Safe by Avoiding Viruses and Other Malware

Prevention is Key – Learning to Avoid Viruses and Other Malware

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If everyone who used a particular computer only ever used it for visiting known-safe websites, and those websites never got hacked, antivirus software really wouldn’t be necessary.

That’s an extreme example, but it’s just to make a point.

Sometimes people say “I wasn’t doing anything, and all of a sudden…I got a virus!” However, viruses and spyware generally require some sort of action on the part of the person using the computer.

No one ever just turns on their computer and it magically winds up infected. True, people can get hacked but that’s not necessarily a common occurrence. It usually all starts with some sort of infected file.

Viruses and spyware can be transmitted in all sorts of ways. Most the ways are easy to recognize and avoid, if you know what to look for. When you don’t know what to look for, it could be extremely easy to take one misstep that winds up being a disaster.

If you do wind up getting infected with a virus or spyware, don’t beat yourself up over it.

Around my 18th birthday, I received an email that mentioned something about Snow White on her 18th birthday with some attachment. The attachment was supposedly a screen saver. I didn’t know who the email was from, and I KNEW not to open attachments from unknown people, but given the coincidental timing of a “birthday” email around my actual birthday, I thought it was a friend messing with me.

It wasn’t.

Can you guess what happened next?

At the time, I didn’t know how to remove malware (malicious software) infections, I had access to no other computer, and I had the free version of AVG, which didn’t catch it. The malware disabled programs from running, so I couldn’t get online to research anything or download any other software.

In the end, I had to reformat (my hard drive) and reinstall (my operating system).

Nowadays, I almost never recommend that as a first course of action, but I had no choice at the time. I don’t want you to wind up in the same boat as I was. Especially since, at the time, I didn’t even have a Windows CD to do everything with. I had to get someone to do it for me.

Instead of waiting ’til the computer’s infected, why not learn how to prevent a malware infection to begin with?

1. Don’t open email attachments from people you don’t know.

This is advice that’s been around since Windows 98 and earlier. Since email first became big. However, as virus propagators have become craftier, people are still getting fooled.

It doesn’t matter if an email says “FedEx Invoice” or “PayPal Notification” or “You’ve received an eCard!” or anything – if you do not know who sent it or were not expecting it, don’t open it.

In the case of the FedEx Invoice, that’s a real email that I’ve seen before. Obviously, it wasn’t from FedEx. But if you sent something with FedEx recently, it may seem reasonable. However, remember some key things: Did you ever give your email address to FedEx? Did you already pay them? Did you sign up to receive electronic invoices? 

Questions like those are some that people forget at the time that the email is received. Other times people receive what claims to be an e-card. Is there any reason for this person to send you an e-card? Is the sender someone you know? Also, remember that real e-cards are NOT sent as attachments.

2. If you receive an email attachment from someone you know, make sure you know what it is.

Email can get hijacked, it’s even happened to me, and when that happens your entire email address list may be sent something. A lot of times it’s just regular spam, junk email. Other times, it could be a virus attachment.

If you don’t recognize the file type (.PDF, .JPG, .DOC, etc), or know why the person sent it to you, double check with the person before opening it.

Also, always try to pay attention to the normal writing style of the sender versus the writing style in the email. If the person normally writes in full sentences with proper grammar, a random email saying, “omg u gotta check thiz out!” should raise a red flag.

3. Watch what websites you visit.

This is one of the other biggest things people overlook. While the majority of websites are safe, many are packed with adware, spyware, viruses, and other malware. It is extremely hard to discern what websites are safe and which are dangerous.

The worst offenders are:

  • Adult websites
  • Gaming websites
  • Off-name antivirus and antispyware product websites
  • Websites offering cracks, hacks, serials, and key generators
  • Anything claiming to provide something free that might usually cost
  • Websites advertised via large, flashy, or generally obnoxious ads

With any of these types of websites, you’re almost guaranteed to find scams. They can still be avoided, but the percentage of bad websites will be higher amongst these types. Any time you try to search out really great deal, be prepared to weed through a lot of other stuff first.

I can’t and won’t recommend any sort of “reputable” key/crack/hack/serial websites, but there are many reputable gaming websites, freebie/special deal sites, and even adult websites.

  • The Free Site – Freebies, samples, special deals
  • Game FAQs – Game walkthroughs, tips, tricks, hints, and cheats.
  • Free ROMS – Free ROM games and game system emulators.
  • AVG – Free and Pro versions of antivirus software.
  • Avira – Free and Pro versions of antivirus software.

No, I won’t provide links to any adult websites either.

4. Beware of fake antivirus and antispyware software and utilities.

I have mentioned this before, but I simply can’t mention it enough. There are many programs masquerading as good that are actually bad. To the unfamiliar, it is unfortunately very easy to fall into the trap.

Some websites pose as virus removal instructions and then recommend that a certain software program is the ultimate solution and will clean the computer of basically anything. That’s a bad thing.

We’ve taken a look at various ways to recognize fake antivirus software (before you get infected with it), but here’s a quick recap:

  1. Anything making huge claims to clean your computer when no other program can is lying.
  2. If a website advertises a certain software program as being the ultimate solution, it’s probably bad.
  3. A search of popular tech support forums (Computing.net, BleepingComputer.com, TechGuy.org, MajorGeeks.com) implies the software is malicious or isn’t recommended by anyone.
  4. If the software is advertised via television commercial, or giant obnoxious ads, it’s probably bad.
  5. Any heavily-advertised software (not advertised via word-of-mouth) should be approached with caution.

It isn’t always just fake antivirus and antispyware programs that are to be avoided. Many other programs masquerade as registry cleaners and other system utilities. Always double check before downloading something if you aren’t absolutely sure.

This even applies to software that sounds recognizable, as many fake antivirus programs carry names that are a mish-mash of popular names and terms. For example, “Cyber Defender”, “Win AntiVirus Pro”, and “XP Security” are all names of popular fake antivirus software that sound legit but they aren’t.

5. Run a Google search of anything that isn’t familiar, look for Google suggestions regarding “virus”, “removal”, or “infected”.

Given the wide span of the internet, it’s impossible to compile a definitive list of every safe site and every site that shouldn’t be trusted. However, a little preemptive investigation may be all you need.

If you are thinking of visiting a website, downloading a program, playing a game, etc – especially if it falls into one of the categories mentioned above – run a quick Google search first. If Google Suggestions pops up “virus” or “removal” as you’re typing, research a little more before proceeding. If your search results lists lots of “infected” or “how to remove virus” listings – it should likely be avoided.

This isn’t to say that you should avoid every website without first researching it. Most websites are going to be safe. However, if you are planning to deal with one of the worst offending categories, exercise caution.

Even using all these tips, something could still sneak in. In fact, if a trustworthy website gets hacked, it could turn into a dangerous website overnight. I’ve seen that happen.

Situations like that can’t be helped. And if you don’t know what is good or bad, you won’t know what to avoid. These tips will help you discern what is safe and keep your computer protected from everything else.

I’m typing tired again. :-P What do you normally look for to know when a website or program should be avoided? What sort of methods do you use? Please share!

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7 Responses to 5 Ways to Keep Your Computer Safe by Avoiding Viruses and Other Malware

  1. Mike says:

    Very good advice Heather.

    When it comes to investigating site safety, Reputable forums and malware related sites are often a good first call. Most of the reputable anti virus vendors offer a site verification service or a browser plug-in. They are however limited by the data in their databases. Google also has safe search option – for more info – http://www.google.co.za/support/websearch/bin/static.py?hl=en&page=guide.cs&guide=1224171&answer=510&rd=3

    Those are some of the regular tools for everyone… The other way I look at suspicious or known malware sites is not for the non-tech; a stand alone PC that can be infected without causing problems for the work boxes – and reformatted after being infected. Not always convenient so only get’s used when there is a strong possibility of malware – usually when fixing an infected system.

    Good work – Mike

    • Heather says:

      Thanks for your input Mike. I can’t believe I didn’t know about the safe search option! And yes, that is an excellent way to test for malware in a way that doesn’t cause problems if you have a spare PC and the ability to format and reinstall fresh. I wish I had that back when I was young and stupid! :)

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