How to Keep Your Computer Network Safe From Crippling Pop-ups, Viruses, Spyware, & Spam, While Avoiding Expensive Computer Repair Bills
- Do you constantly get hammered by pop-up ads that come from nowhere and interfere with using your computer?
- Does your computer network run slow, act funny, or crash unexpectedly?
- Are you getting tons of spam from unknown senders?
If so, then the computers on your network are probably infected with malicious programs that could end up destroying your files, stealing your company’s confidential and financial information, and rendering your computer useless.
Three Most Common and Dangerous Threats You Must Be Aware Of
One of the most dangerous aspects of online threats is their ability to cloak their existence. Hackers and the authors of malicious spyware and malware programs go to great lengths to create programs that are difficult to identify and remove. They are also highly experienced at finding tiny, overlooked loopholes in your security to access and infect your network undetected.
That means a malicious program can be downloaded and doing its dirty work on your network long before you are aware of it. Below are the three most common threats you’ll need to guard against with a brief explanation of what they are:
- Spyware: Spyware is Internet jargon for hidden programs advertisers install on your PC without your permission to spy on you, gather information, and report this information about you and your online activities to some outside person.Spyware is NOT harmless; it can be responsible for delivering a boatload of spam, altering your web browser, slowing down your PC, and serving up a bounty of pop-up ads. In some of the more extreme cases, spyware can also steal your identity, passwords, e-mail address book, and even use your PC for illegal activities.Most spyware finds its way onto your computer network via file downloads including free programs, music files, and screen savers. While you *think* you are only downloading a legitimate program to add emoticons to your e-mails, you are unknowingly also downloading a heaping spoonful of spyware programs. All it takes is one employee downloading a questionable file to infect your entire network. Spyware piggybacks the download and runs undetected in the background collecting information about you and sending it back to its originator until it is removed. Although spyware has malicious components, it is not illegal, and it is not considered a virus because it doesn’t replicate itself or destroy data.
- Malware: Malware is short for malicious software and represents all programs, viruses, Trojans, and worms that have malicious intent to damage or disrupt a system. Malware is harder to remove and will fight back when you try to clean it from your system. In some extreme cases, we have had to completely wipe out all of the information on the computers’ hard disk and start with a complete re-install of the operating system.Among other things, a malware infection can corrupt your files, alter or delete data, distribute confidential information such as bank accounts, credit card numbers, and other personal data; it can also disable hardware, prevent you from using your computer, and cause an entire network to crash. Malware is designed to replicate itself from one computer to the next either through a network connection or via your e-mail account without your knowledge or consent.
Hackers: Hackers are computer programmers turned evil. They are the people who design the spyware and malware programs that attack your computer.Some of them have criminal intent and use these programs to steal money from individuals and companies. Some have a grudge against the big software vendors (like Microsoft) and seek to harm them by attacking their customers (you). Others do it purely for fun. Whatever the reason, hackers are getting more intelligent and sophisticated in their ability to access computer systems and networks.
Surefire Signs That You Are Infected With Spyware, Malware, and Viruses
Since most malicious programs are designed to hide themselves, detecting their existence not always easy. However, there are a few surefire signs that you have been infected:
- You start getting swamped with pop-up ads that seem to come from nowhere and constantly interrupt your use of the computer.
- Your computer is unstable, sluggish, locks up, or crashes frequently.
- Your web browser’s home page changes by itself and you cannot modify the settings. You may also see toolbars on your web browser that you did not set up.
- You get a second or third web browser popping up behind your main browser that you didn’t open or request.
- Mysterious files suddenly start appearing.
- Your CD drawer starts opening and closing by itself.
- You get constant runtime errors in MS Outlook/Outlook Express.
- You find emails in your “Sent Items” folder that you didn’t send.
- Some of your files are moved or deleted or the icons on your desktop or toolbars are blank or missing.
The Four Most Costly Misconceptions About Spyware, Malware and Other Computer Threats
- #1: Spyware and Malware are easy to remove.
Some spyware and malware CAN be easily removed using a program such as Spybot’s Search & Destroy.
However, not all malicious programs can be removed – or even detected – using the above software. Many programs integrate so deeply into the operating system that it takes a skilled technician several hours to fully diagnose and remove the malicious program. In some extreme cases, we have had no alternative, but to wipe the hard disk clean by deleting all of the files on it and re-installing the operating system.
Obviously this is NOT an ideal situation and we do everything within our power to avoid it. Unfortunately there are some malicious programs that are so intelligent that there is simply no other way of removing them.
Of course you can use Spybot as a first attempt at cleaning your machine; however, if you continue to notice that your computer runs slow, if you continue to get crippling pop-ups, or any other of the tell-tale signs discussed earlier, you will need to seek the help of an experienced computer technician.
- #2: It is my computer’s fault that I continue to get attacked by spyware, malware, and viruses.
In all cases, malware, spyware, and viruses are a result of some action taken by the user (you or an employee). Remember, cyber criminals are incredibly clever and gain access to your computer via some of the most innocent and common activities you are performing; that is why it SEEMS as though it is your computer’s fault.
For example, one of your employees could innocently download an emoticon software program. Emoticons are the smiley faces and action characters that you see at the bottom of many people’s e-mails. In doing so they also (unknowingly) downloaded a payload of spyware and malware to your network.
Other deadly programs to avoid are free “enhanced” web browsers, screen savers, and just about any “cute” programs you come across that are free to download. Always read the terms and conditions before downloading ANY program to look for clauses that allow them (the software vendor) to install spyware programs on your computer. Employees should be restricted from downloading any of these programs from the web and educated to the dangers of these programs.
Installing programs is not the only way a hacker or malware program can access your computer. If you do not have the most up-to-date security patches and virus definitions installed on your computer, hackers can access your PC through a banner ad on the web that you accidentally clicked on or through an e-mail attachment that you opened.
Just recently, hackers have even been able to figure out ways to install malicious programs on your computer via your Internet Explorer web browser EVEN IF YOU DIDN’T CLICK ON ANYTHING OR DOWNLOAD A PROGRAM. Microsoft is constantly providing patches to their operating system software and all it takes is one missed update to leave you completely vulnerable.
Finally, you should COMPLETELY AVOID any and all peer-to-peer file sharing networks. These sites are the absolute WORST online activities you can participate in for your computer’s health because they are pure breeding grounds for hackers, spyware, malware, and other malicious attacks. Again, most of the infections we see come from employees accessing these websites for personal use on company machines.
- #3: If my computer network is working fine right now, I don’t need to perform maintenance on it.
This is probably one of the biggest and most deadly misconceptions that most business owners fall victim to. Computer networks are just like cars. If you don’t change the oil, change the filter, rotate the tires, flush the transmission, and perform other regular maintenance on your car, it will eventually break down and cost you FAR MORE to repair than the cost of the basic maintenance.
There are certain maintenance checks that need to be done daily (like virus updates and spam filtering), weekly (like system backups and a spyware sweep), and monthly or quarterly like checking for and installing security patches and updates, disk defrag, spyware detection and removal, checking the surge suppressor and the integrity of the hard drive, and so on.
Your computer repair technician should be adamant that you have regular maintenance done on your computer and should offer to set up automatic virus definition updates, spam filtering (to avoid viruses), and automatic system backups that are stored on an OFF SITE location (this protects the backup from fire, flood, or other natural disasters).
If your technician does not press you to let him do this for you, then RUN – don’t walk – out of their office. Lack of system maintenance is the NUMBER ONE reason most people end up losing valuable files and incurring heavy computer repair bills. If your technician isn’t offering you these services, you need to find someone else to support your computer or network for two reasons:
1. Either they don’t know enough to make this recommendation, which is a sure sign they are horribly inexperienced, OR
2. They recognize that they are profiting from your computer problems and don’t want to recommend steps towards preventing you from needing their help on an ongoing basis.
Either reason is a good one to get as far away from that person as possible!
- #4: The firewall and security tools provided in the Microsoft Operating System are all the maintenance and protection I need.
Again, this is a terrible misconception. Microsoft does NOT include ALL of the security features to protect your data from viruses, hackers, and data loss or prevent your PC from running slowly. As a matter of fact, there is no one single vendor that provides ALL of the system security features you need to keep your computer and files safe from harm.
Security and protection from these malicious attacks takes a multi-faceted, layered approach. Let me outline exactly what you need to make sure your computer is completely protected…