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Safely Navigating the Internet

October 2nd, 2013 by Garrett Baltezegar

I often have people ask me, “What’s the best antivirus program for me to use?”  For a while, I would refer them to Norton, Avast!, Microsoft Security Essentials or any other antivirus that was getting good reviews at the time.  Then one day, I managed to get a virus on my home computer – only the second one I’ve ever had.  That’s when it hit me:

Protecting your computer from viruses (and malware in general) is more about safe browsing habits than which antivirus you use!

The majority of antiviruses are signature-based, meaning they refer to a database of “fingerprints” that these viruses have that enables the antivirus to detect them.  This database is what is updated every time an antivirus goes through the update process.  Other antiviruses use a more advanced method of detection, called “heuristic detection.”  This process allows the antivirus to examine the actions of the virus.  Here, we have a measure of protection against new viruses that might not be in the signature database.  However, even antivirus programs with both signature-based and heuristic detection abilities are not enough to guarantee that a virus can’t harm your computer.

The reason is simple; for an antivirus to do its job, the virus must already be on your computer.

The antivirus program on your computer can’t detect the virus before it gets there.  This is why even the best antiviruses (both paid and free) only block about 90-95% of malware, according to av-comparitives.org (and these are some of the higher numbers I’ve seen among antivirus studies).

 

So now you understand why having an antivirus doesn’t guarantee your computer is protected.  What can you do to prevent your computer from getting a virus and save money on virus removal services?  I have created a list of steps you can take to protect your computer – and therefore your personal information – on the internet.

 

First, update your computer regularly.  We all feel the pressure from having to do more in a shorter time and with fewer resources, and it’s easy to overlook your computer’s health.  It is important, however, that when your computer notifies you that there are updates available, take the time to install them.  There is a reason those updates were issued, whether they fix a small glitch or protect you from new malware.  Pay special attention to Java, Adobe Reader and Flash Player updates.  These applications tend to be a target for attackers, and are often updated.

Second, be aware that computer malware can come from any website.  I hear this often, “I don’t understand why I have a virus on my computer, it’s not like I look at adult websites.”  The reality is that viruses aren’t limited to these types of sites: your computer can get malware from any website you visit.  The malware may even disguise itself as an antivirus program, alerting you to an “infection” on your computer.  If you pay close attention to this alert, you should see that it’s not the same antivirus program you have installed on your computer.  If a popup appears on your screen, and you are unsure of it, click the red X button in the upper right hand corner of the screen to close it out.  Do not click “no” or “cancel,” because these buttons don’t always work properly, and may actually allow the malware to run anyway!

Third, turn on the pop-up blocker in your web browser.  A lot of recent attacks have taken advantage of the fact that pop-ups are not being blocked by the web browser, and can allow malware to install on your computer.  Also, most web browsers have a way to exclude websites from the pop-up blocker so it doesn’t affect those sites you visit on a regular basis.

Fourth, be suspicious of unsolicited email.  Attackers are utilizing email communication to spread viruses as well!  They can create email that looks like it came from your bank account, requesting that you visit a website to “confirm your account.”  Also, attackers are frequently breaking into email accounts in an attempt to steal the victims contact list, so they can spread a virus through an attachment to an email.  Be especially cautious if you receive an email from someone that contains an attachment you wouldn’t normally expect to see from them.  It doesn’t hurt to call them to confirm that they did, in fact, send the message in question.

This is just a list of some steps you should consider taking to protect your computer and your data, and isn’t intended to be used in place of an antivirus.  Being aware of what is going on with your computer will benefit you in the long run, and ensure that your computer stays clean and free from malware!




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