All desktop or laptop owners have been there.
The nice, new, peppy computer that once whizzed through programs at ease begins to chug. And chug and chug and chug to a painstakingly slow crawl.
Before you direct obscenities just at your computer, be sure to thank spyware, viruses and Internet scams as well, as they are the likely culprits that turned your beautiful machine into an expensive paperweight.
Spyware creeps onto your system and collects private information and alters the way some of your programs function. Some popular tactics of spyware are to monitor Internet surfing habits, redirect browser pages and install additional software, usually without the consent of the user. These tricky lines of code get executed when a user installs a legit program and the spyware is piggybacked and also installed in the background. Another way to receive spyware is to click on deceitful pop-up advertisements or fake alert messages or download an Internet browser add-on.
There's one Web site out there every computer owner should know:
It's the home of US-CERT.
According to information from the organization, the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) is a partnership between the Department of Homeland Security and the public and private sectors.
Established in 2003 to protect the nation's Internet infrastructure, US-CERT coordinates defense against and responses to cyber attacks across the nation.
The Web site is a treasure trove of information for the technical and non-technical computer user interested in safe computing.
Recent vulnerabilities in software are listed, so swift action can be taken. Announcements and technical papers are released nearly every day. Current news on software upgrades and patches are discussed in detail.
For the non-techie, downloadable publication titles range from "Home Network Security" and "Protect Your Workplace" all the way to "Virus Basics."
For those more in the geek set, topics include titles like, "Intercepting proxy servers may incorrectly rely on HTTP headers to make connections" and "Rockwell Automation ControlLogix 1756-ENBT/A EtherNet/IP Bridge cross-site scripting vulnerability."
While the technical jargon can be overwhelming, it's good to know folks are running radar on the information superhighway.
US-CERT, located near Washington DC, is the operational arm of the National Cyber Security Division at the Department of Homeland Security. It is a public-private partnership.
A virus works in similar fashion as a piggybacked spyware piece of code. Commonly, a virus can be opened by an infected e-mail attachment that poses as a Trojan horse. It pretends to be one type of file when, really, it is not. So, that great picture of Anna Kournikova in your e-mail attachment might turn out to be a virus in disguise. The viruses can be attached and hidden in many different styles of files. Once installed, the virus can replicate itself and spread through e-mail contacts or other means to infect other people's computers.
Defeating Spyware and Viruses
Luckily, there's a way to combat these types of privacy-invasion programs. Popular commercial programs in Norton Anti-virus from Symantec and McAfee VirusScan Plus are available online and at most computer retailers. Both software packages include various protection methods against spyware and viruses and cost about $40 at the brick-and-mortar stores.
Another helpful alternative is AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition. The company has been in the computer protection business since 1991. The free version of its product offers many helpful features, like its paid counterparts. Although not as inclusive as the paid versions, it does offer a solid foundation against the threats of spyware and viruses at a price that can't be beat.
Microsoft Security Essentials is also a free product and highly recommended. It offers protection and monitors your system for threats. Search Microsoft's site for more details.
But a great idea is to download a trio of programs that can work together in protecting your computer or clearing out any problems already there. Along with the AVG Anti-Virus Free Edition, a computer owner can download Ad-Aware Free by Lavasoft. As its name implies, Ad-Aware is a free spyware protection program. The free version can protect, detect and remove most malicious programs from your computer. Along with the two freebies, Spybot - Search & Destroy offers another powerful defender against spyware. Working in conjunction with the other free programs, a computer user should have a great line of defense against spyware and viruses.
The best way to prevent any spyware or viruses from infecting your computer is to install these programs - paid or free - on your system as soon as possible. Just after you first set up your desktop or laptop and before you connect to the Internet, install an anti-virus/spyware program. Once you're connected to the InterWebs, update your virus scanner or adware scanner. That way, you'll be protected against the latest types of malware.
THE BEST DEFENSE
There's one thing that is better than any paid or free anti-virus or spyware program on the market. The best line of defense against any malicious codes, viruses, spyware, worms or Trojan horses begins with you - the computer user - being a savvy Internet surfer.
Avoid going to non-commercial sites or web pages that you do not know much about. In the same line, staying clear of sites with questionable content would very greatly help your chances of keeping a clean computer. Peer-to-peer file sharing and explicit content web pages are more likely to contain a malicious code that can harm your computer.
Another helpful tip would be to not click disguised pop-up ads. Just because what appears to be a window pops-up on your screen, it doesn't automatically justify a click. Be familiar with what your anti-virus programs look like and know when they are running. Some sites like to fool a computer user with masked virus protection alerts. Don't fall for the trick.
Most e-mail programs like Outlook and online web mail sites already offer a built-in protection scheme to help combat against bad file attachments. At the same time, you are likely not the lucky recipient of a $1 million inheritance from a Nigerian prince. If you get a non-expectant e-mail from your "bank" it's better to pick up a phone and call in and inquire about the message. A handy bookmark to visit at least weekly is the FBI Cyber Investigations page.
The last savvy step would be to update. Update Windows, update Mac OSX, update your virus scanner, update your spyware program and update your Internet browser. The way viruses and other malicious content take advantage of your system is finding holes or security breaches. If you have the most up-to-date software package, it makes it a lot harder to infect a computer. Designate an "update day" and even if you have programs on auto-update, at least manually check their progress weekly.
It's a great feeling to first open up a new computer and have it run smoothly. So try to keep that feeling and keep that computer status. Being a smart Internet user and protecting yourself with helpful programs can help keep that computer running as nicely as the first day you bought it.
(Michael D. McElwain is a technology writer and can be reached on Twitter via @mdmcelwain or at his firstname.lastname@example.org e-mail address.)