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June 18th, 2009

In Part 1, we dealt with registry issues, fragmentation and “file bloat”; isses that arise within your own computing environment.  Read Part 1 here.

In Part 2, we’re dealing with issues that attack you and your system from outside, mostly over the Internet but also via infected or booby-trapped CDs, DVDs, floppies (for those who still use them) and USB thumb-drives.

Malware, spyware—what’s in a name?

All of these nasty-sounding things are harmful, but many people use the terms interchangeably, thus creating even more confusion. Let’s take a look at the major offenders in the “foreign enemies” list:

Malware: This used to refer rather narrowly to software, often just a few lines of code, intended to disrupt normal computer functionality. It has more recently evolved into the blanket term for any harmful computer code or software.

Spyware: This software is used to log and track users’ data and website visits, then make it available to the “spy” in some manner, often by using a second program of some kind. Some “legitimate” programs also engage in this activity.

Keyloggers: This kind of program captures typed keystrokes, including valuable user name/password combinations, as well as bank accounts and PIN numbers.

Adware: Often considered a kind of spyware, this kind of software will display pay-per-click ads without users’ consent.

Virus: The classic computer “Public Enemy Number One,” viruses are software programs that can replicate themselves and then infect other computers. These infections can range from relatively innocuous to downright destructive.

Botnet: This is an ad hoc network of computers, all infected by the same code and controlled by the malware sender. Botnets comprising hundreds of compromised PCs can be used to send spam or DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service) attacks.

Fighting back

As the number and kinds of attacks against networked PCs rose to new heights with the Internet explosion of the last 15 years, the tools for protecting, disinfecting and inspecting computers have advanced, as well. As opposed to even 10 years ago, the narrowly focused utilities (anti-virus, anti-spyware, etc.) have been outnumbered by all-in-one “white knights” that ride to the rescue and vanquish all kinds of foes.

Freeware programs from TrendMicro, AVG, Avast and Microsoft itself are capable and effective as long as you stay current with your “virus definitions” and updates. Some, like TrendMicro’s HouseCall, are online services, while others, like AVG Free, are standard Windows programs that you download and install. Both the online and stand-alone programs can be the free introductory version, often a “limited edition” with features missing from the paid programs. When purchasing these kinds of software “suites,” you can spend from $10 to $100 or more, particularly if you are looking for an enterprise-grade solution like Sunbelt Software’s VIPRE.

The price of a clean computer

The price of liberty, it was once said, is eternal vigilance. That’s also the price for having a clean computer that is free of the dangerous, destructive software discussed here. Other common sense habits can keep you safe, as well, like not downloading things willy-nilly, making sure to scan all removable media and restricting access to your computer when you are away from it. And once upon a time, Macintosh users could claim to be above the fray, but with Macs now using Intel processors and running Windows, Mac users need to have a strategy, too.

Of course, when you rent a computer from CRE, Rent a Computer, PC - ComputerRentalsit is guaranteed to be virus- and malware-free. We put every returned rental through a complete check-up, too, so the next computer renter will be as secure as  the last one. Adopt these kinds of habits at home or work, and your concerns about sabotage, spies and viral infections will be greatly reduced.

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