How to avoid computer viruses

Despite there being a £38 billion industry dedicated to protecting computer systems and networks, viruses still get through.  In most businesses and organisations there are several layers of defence between you and the virus, but at work or at home, you are your PC’s best defence against viruses.  You’re probably thinking you stand no chance against a group who make their living out of writing viruses; but there’s quite a lot you can do to protect yourself, and none of it involves any specialist IT knowledge.  All you need is an understanding of the differences between the virtual world and the real world, and the rest is common sense.

Email attachments aren’t like a parcel in the post

If you received an unexpected parcel in the post, you’d probably think “What the hell, I’ll open it.  What’s the worst that could happen?”.  It’s important to realise that email attachments are not like a parcel in the post.  Opening an email attachment is more like opening an unexpected parcel and finding a bottle of something identifiable inside, and then drinking it.  You wouldn’t do that, because you wouldn’t put something in your body if you (a) didn’t know what it was and (b) it had arrived in suspicious circumstances?  That’s the approach you should take to attachments you get sent in an email; what’s inside isn’t a passive parcel, it’s an active ingredient which could make your computer very unwell indeed.

you are your PC’s best defence against viruses

I can trust anything my friend sends me

You can probably trust a parcel from a friend or family member (if you recognise the postal code and their handwriting), but email doesn’t work the same way.  Remember, we’re talking about a virus.  If you meet up with a friend and they’ve got a ghastly cold, friend or not they might still pass the infection on unintentionally.  With a computer virus, it’s the same.  They might not intend to send you an email with the virus in, but the virus will do it anyway.  So if you get an unexpected email from a friend, which doesn’t look right, and the way they’ve phrased their sentences is suspicious, don’t open it.  Call them, text them, or just send the an email asking if that odd message you received was from them.  You might be the first person to tell them they’ve been infected with a virus.

If you’re careful where you go you won’t get in trouble

If you’re careful when you’re out at night and avoid certain areas which everyone knows are a bit suspect, then you can reduce the risk of becoming a victim of crime.  The internet hasn’t been like that for years, though the myth still persists that if you don’t visit porn or hacking sites then your computer won’t get infected with a virus.  Unfortunately, due to the flaws in software used by perfectly legitimate websites, you can be infected by pretty much any website you visit.  Examples this year include www.bible.org, www.nbc.com, www.msn.com and www.php.net.  All of those reputable sites ended up pushing viruses onto the PC of every visitor who came to their site.  So make sure your operating system (Windows, iOS, Mac, Linux), and the applications which run on it (web browsers, email clients, office software, file readers) are up to date.  If there’s a new version from the vendor, you should get it.  And secondly, make sure you run an effective anti-virus which is up to date.  For businesses (and Mac users anywhere) I’d recommend Sophos Anti-Virus, and for home users I’d recommend Kaspersky Internet Security.

the myth still persists that if you don’t visit porn or hacking sites then your computer won’t get infected with a virus

If you have nothing to steal you have nothing to fear

In theory, if you were so poor you had nothing worth stealing, you might be able to leave your door unlocked with a sign over it saying “Nothing of value is left in this house”, and save yourself the bother of locks, contents insurance and all the other protective measures.  The same cannot be said of your computer.  Even if you’ve never every shopped online, never banked online, and never entered any financial information into a file on your PC, you still have something to steal.  Your internet connection. Your email account. Your social media accounts.  All of these things, while they have no direct financial value, are valuable to hackers for two reasons;

  1. They can use your PC and your accounts to spread malware
  2. They can sell access to your PC and accounts to others who want to spread malware

So never assume your PC isn’t worth anything to a hacker.  If you’re reading this blog post, then at the very least you’ve got an internet connection, and that is of use to someone.  As above, the best thing to do is keep your software up to date, and run a good anti-virus package, and trust in those to keep you safe.

Even if you’ve never every shopped online, never banked online, and never entered any financial information into a file on your PC, you still have something to steal

If you remember that the internet isn’t like real life, it’s a place with very few boundaries, rules or restrictions.  This makes things possible which would never be possible in real life; but on the other hand the lack of boundaries make the unwary more likely to fall foul of criminals of various stripes.  As the medieval cartographers put it, when labelling unknown lands, ‘here be dragons’.

Richard Bartlett

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