For the sake of this brief article, we will use the term ‘Virus’. But in actuality there are many types of ‘viruses’ which are better classified as Trojans, Worms, Malware, Adware, Spyware, etc. At some other time I will go into further detail on the nuances of each, but for now we’ll simply call them ‘viruses’.
The chief objective and motivation that keeps people inspired to create newer and better viruses is.. Money. The home PC is an entry-way into not only a home, but a bank account. It is the two-edged sword of convenience versus security. The way some viruses seek to get your money is by way of creating a need and then charging you to meet that need. Just like the ‘Far Side’ cartoon that shows a homeowner looking at a brick on his living room floor with a note attached that says, “Got broken windows? Call Joe’s Window Repair at..”, in the same way some viruses infect your PC and then offer to remove the same infection they are responsible for putting there.
The alerts, sounds and flashing text with scrolling lists of ‘infections’ are nothing more than a very annoying animation. There are not 837 infections.. there is just usually two or three, usually from the same virus-writer. But they offer to remove the annoyance if you just send them your credit card information. NEVER DO THIS. Once you send out your CC info to one of these flashing ‘virus’ alerts, call your bank and cancel your card. Within a short time that card number will likely be sold in data-packages on private auctions via chat to persons who buy and then use the numbers to make illegal purchases with your credit.
The next big motive for viruses being created is.. Data. The only thing worse than an annoying virus popping up is the virus that you never know is there. These are the smart ones that sit silently, never disturbing your PC usage but they are in fact ‘keyloggers’ which are recording every keyboard tap you make. Every website you visit, every username/password you enter.. banking, credit union, social security number, driver’s license number.. it sits there recording it to an idle ‘text’ file with a customized suffix to prevent detection. Then, on a regular schedule it ‘uploads’ that very small but informative file in less than 20 seconds, a mere blip and out goes your info to a server where it is ‘harvested’ and packaged to be ‘scoured’ with syntax software that looks for numerical patterns (16 digits for credit card #’s, 9 digits for social security, etc.) and those thousands of files are then sold to the highest bidder on the international market. Or it is used to steal/duplicate your identity for someone else’s use.
Another reason viruses are created has to do with.. zombies. Yes, some viruses seek to make a zombie of your PC during the late night hours when you are not using it. I always recommend setting your Screensaver/Energy settings to put the PC into ‘Sleep’ mode after 3 hours so it is not accessible after you go to bed from the Net. ‘Standby’ mode can be awakened with the right virus or even a slight bump of the mouse. But most PCs in ‘Sleep’ mode require a push on the power button or space bar to come back to life. But, back to zombies. With this infection your PC becomes a Mail-Server against it’s will in order for the virus-writer to e-mail out massive Spam campaigns and hide their own tracks by tracing the e-mails back to your IP address. They make money providing the service to businesses for the advertising while using your PC as the fall-guy. Ever have a close friend send you ten e-mails about Viagra? That’s what happened.
The fourth reason viruses are manufactured by some people has to do with a conception of “taking on the Man”. This might be for vengeance or simply to prove it can be done. The supporting argument from these hackers is that they are providing a ‘service’ by showing that certain firewalls and closed systems can still be hacked and then exposing it so it gets fixed. But, human nature being what it is, some of these same hackers find a way ‘in’ and exploit it to cause havoc just for the sheer satisfaction of creating mischief. This could be anything from hacking a Facebook account to causing the ‘K’ key on your keyboard to make a beeping sound when used, but only on the 15th day of the month. (I actually had that virus about 15 years ago.) Inserting a ‘worm’ that systematically deletes data with over-writing is another old-school favorite, but not as common these days.
Two of the most insidious, destructive ‘viruses’ to come out in 2009 are very, very troubling.
The first has to do with Extortion. Once the virus has gotten in, it quietly gathers document and image files and encrypts them in batches. Once it has encrypted enough ‘hostage’ files, it discloses itself to the PC User and essentially states that if money is not paid online within a certain time.. one batch of files after another will be permanently deleted. This first surfaced in Japan, that I know of but hasn’t been spreading very well and seems somewhat ‘contained’ by even the most average Anti-Virus. Most likely because it makes itself known quickly as it attempts to encrypt the files.
The second has actually ruined lives and sent innocent people into huge legal battles. This is a ‘zombie’ type of virus that make use of the victim’s PC during the late hours (when left ‘on’ and connected via DSL) in order to act as both a peer-to-peer server and storage location for child pornography. It does all this without the owner’s knowledge.. harvesting, storing and distributing the images from one member of the porn network to another.. using the infected PC to cover their tracks while storing the files remotely. Should the FBI trace the sending IP back to the innocent victim’s PC.. the legal battle to prove innocence begins when the PC with the images in confiscated as evidence.
“How Can I Stop Them?”
Before you think about unplugging your PC forever, remember.. most all of these infections could have been prevented. Here is a quick list of things you can do to practically isolate your PC from infection. In the last 15 years I have been online, I would say I’ve only had perhaps less than a dozen minor viruses get in by following these basic rules;
* As mentioned, set your PC to automatically go to ‘Sleep’ mode after 3 hours. Or manually shut down the PC before going to bed. Having it ‘Off’ 8-hours a night is equal to knowing that for 4 Months out of the year you are 100% protected from any infection because the PC is turned Off 33% of each day.
* Have ONE reliable, Updated Anti-Virus Suite running at all times. An experiment done where 20 PCs were hooked up to the Net straight out of the box with zero Anti-Virus running, on average were infected within 2 hours from roaming ‘bots’ that look for unprotected ports. Another mistake I’ve seen on many PCs is one PC with three Anti-Virus programs installed. They actually “trip over each other” trying to do the same job at the same time. Choose one good Suite and delete extra ones. Personally, I recommend NOT using either Norton or McAfee. They have a great support system and reputation, but are also very bloated programs and can sometimes hamper performance to achieve security. Another thing to consider is that since they are packaged into most new PCs.. virus-writers expect them to be there and write programming to disable them. Going with Microsoft Security Essentials, Eset’s NOD32, Trend Micro (full version) or AVG Free are better choices in my opinion.
* Use Spybot. Spybot is compatible with most Anti-Virus suites but focuses specifically on Spyware and Adware, often finding things that even good Anti-Virus doesn’t catch. Update it and Scan with it every Month or when funny things start happening.
* Only run Limewire on a ‘Limited’ account when kids are using it. Being on a Limited account offers some minor extra protection from virus installation. Kids tend to just click and download once they see the name of the song they want, not looking at the actual filesize. A true MP3 at 3 minutes or so will be around 1.5 to 4Mb in size, depending on sound resolution. If a Limewire song title is only 857kb or so.. it’s a virus titled as a popular song for click-happy kids (or adults) who aren’t paying attention. A much better alternative to Limewire is BitTorrent since Torrent sites offer positive/negative reviews from users whether the file is clean or not before downloading.
* Allow ‘Windows Updates‘ to install the required patches and updates to your operating system. So many people cancel these Updates, not understanding what they are. Microsoft is constantly supplying fixes to security issues and they are easily installed via ‘Windows Updates’ for free, so take advantage of it.
* Change the Schedule Scan time for your Anti-Virus to sometime during the day. So many times I find the scheduled time set for 3a.m. when the PC is likely turned off. That is good for preventing infections, but not good since the the PC is always Off during that time and never gets scanned. Other people tell me they see the Scan begin, and then Abort the scan rather than let it complete. Not a good idea either.
* Change the ‘Default’ password to your Wireless Router and use the WEP encryption to create a ‘key’ for your wireless home signal. This is not hard to do, but it’s not easy for most novice users either. Instructions came with your router or you can get the instructions at the manufacturer’s website easily. Leaving the Wireless Router in Default and with no WEP key means any neighbor or person parked in front of your home with a laptop can use your bandwidth and possibly access your files via File Sharing without your knowledge.
* Back Up your data. I do both a back-up to an external drive on a schedule.. and I have an off-site back-up that goes online to a server away from my home, encrypted and with a password. I recommend Carbonite.com for online backup as it’s the easiest and most affordable. See the video on “Backing Up Your Data” for more details on this.
Protected properly, you can surf with confidence. These suggestions will go far in safe-guarding your PC from infection. If/when you see something acting strangely, close down your browser and programs.. then do a ‘Complete/Full Scan’ after Updating your virus definitions. Happy surfing! 🙂
Author: Henry The PC Guy
Since 1983, Henry The PC Guy has been working with the most basic of computers and continued to today’s Win10 operating system. From 2007 until 2012 was the owner/operator of ‘Up&Running PC Repair’ in Southern California until moving to a life in the Philippines in 2012. He has been building websites since 1993 and is well versed in various aspects of blogging, vlogging and podcasting.