8 08 2011
Looking after your Computer
Being the Geek in the family I get regular calls, texts and emails asking me for computer advice. Along with the regular tasks such as assisting a family member or friend with their home office, I also get the:
“My [some-type-of-family-member-that-your-not-related-to] told me that their computer is [doing-some-sort-of-weird-thing], I wondered if you could help. Oh yea they [live-miles-away-so-you-cant-actually-see-the-machine]”
So after writing the standard email for the hundredth time explaining the benefits of anti-virus software and a firewall, explaining that there is little I can do for a virus ridden laptop from 200 miles away I thought that writing some advice on here might just maybe prevent another good machine getting ruined! A computer ravaged by viruses is never a good thing, not only for its owner but also for others; many heavily virused machines are members of bot nets. For those that don’t know a bot net is a network of compromised machines that an unscrupulous person (what the media calls a hacker, but my take on that is another story) can use to perform their nefarious tasks against other machines. Bot nets are the ammunition used by these nefarious organisations (such as those who have recently been in the news) use to take down websites of government organisations (and computer games companies as appears to be the flavour at the moment). So an infected machine can do harm to another’s machine without ever being connected to it; bot nets are also the source of a lot of the email and forum spam on the internet.
The last issue I had to deal with was a machine that was running “really slowly, and it keeps crashing”, on closer inspection it had three different anti-virus programs running. Unfortunately all three were fake, it is a common situation the user thinks they have a virus so they “Google for a solution” and end up downloading viruses that are pretending to be a solution. Another common cause of “fake-scanner-itus” is the unsuspecting user clicking on a banner/popup that proclaims “Virus Detected – Click there to remove”, that in turns brings in a virus scanner that is in fact a virus. This particular machine was so badly infected that I ended up backing up the users data (what little I could access) and rebuilding the machine from scratch. A time consuming process that would have cost him a lot of money had he taken it to somewhere such as PC World. There are some simple steps that a computer owner should take to ensure that they do meet the same nasty end. These steps apply to more than just viruses, but also the stability of the machine so it is worth a read even if you think you are safe!
Virus Scanners and Firewalls
When you buy a new machine you often find that it comes with a free trial of a popular security suite (such as McAfee or Norton), these are all well and good but after a few months the trial expires and leaves the machine at risk. Some users may click on the “buy it now” button and upgrade to a full years subscription, others do not and leave themselves at risk. Currently McAfee Total Protection 2011 costs £31.99 and Norton Internet Security 2011 costs £24.00, a little pricey some might think. The solution to both your security needs and those of your bank balance is one of the popular free Security Suites; my recommended solution is Comodo Internet Security (link to a download). Comodo is as secure (if not more so) than any of the paid for products out there, it contains no annoying adverts and is easy to use.
Step 1: Install a free security suite such as Comodo Internet Security
Spyware and Malware Protection
For those of you that do not know what Spyware / Malware you may wish to read the Wiki pages (linked to) or you could just trust me when I say that they aren’t good. It is often Spyware / Malware that steals a user’s credit card details or passwords. It is important to protect yourself from these treats along with the more commonly known Viruses. There are as you would expect some programs out there you can pay for to protect you against these threats, but of course there is one that I would recommend that won’t cost you a penny. The great guys over at Safer-Networking created the excellent program Spybot Search and Destroy (link to download), Spybot immunises your computer against known threats, and also makes sure that you don’t inadvertently visit sites that are known to be purely malicious (fake virus scanner sites, etc). There are a few instructions for using Spybot but I won’t write about them here, I will just provide you with a place to download them (only one page!).
Step 2: Install a free Spyware / Malware protection suite such as Spybot Search and destroy
Microsoft releases updates to all it’s products on a regular basis, these updates are served (in most cases automatically) to your machine as and when they are made available. These updates generally fix security of usability flaws in Microsoft’s products, once in a while they do go wrong but Microsoft is getting better at preventing that (can’t remember a big problem in the last two years). So if you see your machine asking to “Install Windows Updates” or “Restart to finish installing updates” do let it perform the update, you will be better off for it. If you don’t think your machine is updating check the settings for updates in your Windows Control Panel.
Step 3: Keep Windows updated.
Along side the windows updates you also need to think about the other programs you use, such as Firefox, Flash, Java, Games, etc. It is important to keep these up to date just in case they become the victim of a hack (security flaws etc). Flash and Java are of particular importance as security flaws are found and fixed regularly. Checking for updates one at a time can be very time consuming, but there is a solution that should update a fair few of your more important programs for you. Ninite is a free tool that will install and update many different programs that you likely use, you simply pick the programs you want to install / keep-updated and then run the file provided. Ninite will then install the programs one at a time without you needing to click your way through all the screens, if the program is already installed it will look for and download any available updates. After a week or two you just run the same Ninite program and it will update any of the programs it installed. You can click on the image to the right to see my suggested set of programs.
Step 4: Stay up to date (with Ninite if you wish).
Eventually it all comes down to brains (zombie….. no no not that sort of brains), if you see a link or site that seams to be too good to be true it most likely is! If the site offers you to download the new block buster movie before it is released on DVD (or even in the cinema) then 99.99% of the time it’s a fake that will just fill your machine with viruses. Download sites like Limewire / Kazza and Bearshare are also filled with nasty programs so beware!
You could have the best security out there, but if you choose to bypass it but running a dodgy program (and telling your firewall to allow it!) then you don’t have a chance!