This is the second posting in a three-part series covering common threats a user may encounter.
This series serves as a rough and ready guide, highlighting key features and trends relevant to most users.
Viruses have always loomed large in users’ minds as the poster child of malicious programs – heck, we even call it the anti-virus industry. In the last 10 years or so however, the number of virus infections has nosedived; our Labs, which once dealt with viruses routinely, now sees a proper virus infection about once or twice a month. Today when people talk of ‘viruses’, more often than not what they’re describing is technically a trojan or a worm, and they’re using the term in a general, ‘any malware will do’ kind of way.
That’s not to say viruses are extinct; we still receive a small, if persistent, number of queries about viruses. This may be because many businesses, households and users (both in developed countries and in recently connected developing ones) still use old, out-dated, unpatched machines or programs, or haven’t yet developed a security-conscious habits.
Whatever the case, virus infections will probably still cling on to life for a weary day after, so let’s take a look at them.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary’s bare-bones definition of a computer virus touches on important elements most users should know, so I’ll just elaborate a bit more on some key concepts:
Last week I compared a virus to a parasite, because not only does it ‘hide’ in another program, but also depends on its host to function. For the virus to run, the unsuspecting user must actively launch the infected program, which in turn launches the virus.
For this reason, virus writers usually create viruses that infect executable files (especially popular programs such as word processors or media files), which have a higher chance of being run; programs with files that get passed around a lot are extra attractive, since they can affect even more potential victims.
A good example is the Microsoft Office suite which, with their huge community of business and personal users, used to be a popular target for macro viruses. We still see queries related to this virus type, though thankfully far less than previously.
If you think of the common cold virus spreading from one person to another, you’ll have a pretty good idea of why this behavior can be so damaging. When a infected file is executed, it searches for and infects new files; if the newly infected files are launched, they find and infect new files in turn, like some evil Multi-Level Marketing operation. At worst, this pattern can lead to every targeted file on the system being infected.
The damage a virus can do by replicating and infecting new files is bad enough; its payload, a completely separate set of nasty actions, can be worse. The range of actions a virus can take is huge – connecting to a remote site, changing the desktop wallpaper, displaying silly notification messages, deleting data files…it really just depends on the virus author’s imagination and programming skills.
If you’re lucky, they’re not that good and you get failed viruses like Virus:W32/Stardust; if they’re good, then you get really nasty beasts like Virus:W32/Virut or Virus:W32/Sality.AA (one of the few viruses we still find regularly active).
With thousands of unique viruses out in the wild, antivirus companies find it necessary to divide them into sub-types. Unlike trojans though, viruses don’t fall into neat categories reflecting their actions; instead, they naturally fall into groupings based on technical differences in the way they infect a file – which is basically gobbledeegook to a user not interested in detailed analysis.
Gnerally, viruses can be divided into two groups – system infectors and file infectors. The majority of viruses are the latter and infect programs or data files. System infectors on the other hand write their malicious code to specific, critical sections of the hard disk containing the operating system, so that while the OS is running its normal routines, it’s also unintentionally executing the virus code.
Fortunately, for most users a virus’s classification is largely academic. For better or for worse, the sheer variety of possible effects each unique virus can have on a file or system makes it more practical to take each virus on a case by case basis.
So let’s go back to the original question that sparked off this series: do you really need to know if it’s a virus – as opposed to, say, a trojan or worm – infecting your computer?
Well, it helps to know because the two malware types tend affect your data and computer in different ways. As a (very) general rule, trojan infections is more about data theft and loss of control over the computer; virus infections tend to result in software disruptions or damage.
Trojans may copy and steal your data, but they don’t usually destroy the data file itself; they may stop programs from running but they don’t destroy the program. A virus on the other hand, insert its own code into a program or data file, and depending on how it does so, may either leave the host completely unharmed and functional, slightly disrupted, or completely non-functional.
Another difference between trojans and viruses that really affects the user involves disinfection. For one thing, a trojan is usually a single, discrete program – getting rid of it tends to be fairly simple, a matter of removing the malicious file and its residuals (registry keys, processes, icons, etc). Removing the trojan also generally doesn’t affect the integrity of other files on the computer.
Viruses are far more nebulous by design – they can be present in multiple files, in different locations. Identifying a virus-infected file may require scanning the entire computer to be sure every affected file is caught. Removing malicious code from an infected file or – if it can’t be saved, deleting the infected file entirely – can also be problematic if the damaged data is important or the program is a critical system component.
And this doesn’t even take into account the virus’s payload, which can produce a whole other set of worries.
Still, there is a ray of hope. If current malware trends persist, we may soon see adware or backdoors promoted to being the newest member of The Big Three, and viruses – as a distinct malware type – can finally be relegated to joining 3½” floppy disks in Computer Hell.
In the meantime, here’s some links to other, more in-depth resources on viruses:
Or partially available on Google Books:
Coming soon – Worms!
“The cloud” is a big thing nowadays. It’s not exactly a new concept, but tech companies are relying on it more and more. Many online services that people enjoy use the cloud to one extent or another, and this includes security software. Cloud computing offers unique security benefits, and F-Secure recently updated F-Secure SAFE to take better advantage of F-Secure’s Security Cloud. It combines cloud-based scanning with F-Secure’s award-winning device-based security technology, giving you a more comprehensive form of protection. Using the cloud to supplement device-based scanning provides immediate, up-to-date information about threats. Device-based scanning, which is the traditional way of identifying malware, examines files against a database saved on the device to determine whether or not a file is malicious. This is a backbone of online protection, so it’s a vital part of F-Secure SAFE. Cloud-based scanning enhances this functionality by checking files against malware information in both the local database found on devices, and a centralized database saved in the cloud. When a new threat is detected by anyone connected to the cloud, it is immediately identified and becomes "known" within the cloud. This ensures that new threats are identified quickly and everyone has immediate access to the information, eliminating the need to update the database on devices when a new threat is discovered. Plus, cloud-based scanning makes actual apps easier to run. This is particularly important on mobile devices, as heavy anti-virus solutions can drain the battery life and other resources of devices. F-Secure SAFE’s Android app has now been updated with an “Ultralight” anti-virus engine. It uses the cloud to take the workload from the devices, and is optimized to scan apps and files with a greater degree of efficiency. Relying on the cloud gives you more battery life, and keeps you safer. The latest F-Secure SAFE update also brings Network Checker to Windows PC users. Network Checker is a device-based version of F-Secure’s popular Router Checker tool. It checks the Internet configuration your computer uses to connect to the Internet. Checking your configuration, as opposed to just your device, helps protect you from attacks that target home network appliances like routers – a threat not detected by traditional anti-virus products. So the cloud is offering people much more than just extra storage space. You can click here to try F-Secure SAFE for a free 30-day trial if you’re interested in learning how F-Secure is using the cloud to help keep people safe. [Image by Perspecsys Photos | Flickr]
There's a scene in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" where the narrator imagines that Marshall McLuhan would suddenly appear to tell a know-it-all pontificating about McLuhan's theories, "You know nothing of my work." [protected-iframe id="8164e501b0d625fa954df540a20768bc-10874323-9129869" info="https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/YXQLknl7yNo?rel=0" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0"] The video above imagines a similar situation with our own Chief Research Officer, TED talker and legendary "Code Warrior" Mikko Hypponen. He overhears some online security tips then offers some of his own. The complete list of suggestions is: 1. Use security software. 2. Choose a company that cares. 3. Change your passwords. 4. Keep your devices clean and updated. 5. Be careful with free Wi-Fi. For more details, check out this page where you can try F-Secure SAFE for free. Cheers, Jason
There wouldn't be billions people online every moment of every day if everyone was getting scammed all the time. Online security is, in many ways, better than ever, as are the sites designed to attract our attention. But exploits and the crooks that want to exploit us still exist, enjoying advanced malware-as-service models proven to steal our data, time and money. And with the awesome number of people online, scams only need to work a tiny percentage of the time to make the bad guys rich. We're sure you're savvy enough to avoid most trouble. But for everyone else you know, here are 5 common scams to look out for. 1. Ransomware. This scam, which F-Secure Labs has been tracking for over 5 years, prospers because it offers incredible returns -- to the scammer. "It estimated it would cost $5,900 (£3,860) to buy a ransomware kit that could return up to $90,000 in one month of operation," the BBC reports. It works like this. You suddenly get a message saying that your files are being held and you need to pay a ransom to release them. Sometimes the scam pretends to be from a police organization to make them extra scary: Anonymous cyber-currencies like bitcoin have made the scam even more appealing. "That's what really enabled the ransomware problem to explode," our Mikko Hypponen said. "Once the criminals were able to collect their ransom without getting caught, nothing was stopping them." They really do take your files and they generally will give them back. Ironically, their reputation matters since people will stop paying if they hear it won't work. Mikko recommends four ways to defend yourself from this -- and almost every scam: Always backup your important files. Ensure software is up-to-date. Be suspicious of message attachments and links in email. Always run updated comprehensive security software. He adds, "Don't pay money to these clowns unless you absolutely have to." 2. Technical support scams. "In a recent twist, scam artists are using the phone to try to break into your computer," reports the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. "They call, claiming to be computer techs associated with well-known companies like Microsoft. They say that they’ve detected viruses or other malware on your computer to trick you into giving them remote access or paying for software you don’t need." Never give anyone who calls you unsolicited your private information or access to your computer. As a matter a fact, don't do that even if the call is solicited. If you feel the call may actually important, ask who they are calling from and then contact the organization directly. For more tips visit the FTC site. 3. Facebook freebies. Free iPad! Free vacation! Free gift card! If it's free, it's on Facebook and it comes from someone you do not know or trust directly, assume it's a scam. At best it's a waste of your time, at worst it could end up costing you money. Unfortunately, there are only two things you can do to avoid these scams. Don't follow people who share crap like this on Facebook and don't click on things that seem too good to be true. "There is no way a company can afford to give every Facebook user a $25.00, $50.00 or $100.00 gift card," Facecrooks, a site that monitors these scams, reminds you. "A little common sense here tells you that something is way off base." So be suspicious of everything on Facebook. Even friends asking for money. 4. Loan scams. Scammers are smart. They know that the more a person is in financial need, the more desperate she or he becomes. For this reason, loans of various kinds -- especially mortgages that are in foreclosure -- are often lures for a scam. Once they have your attention, they may use a variety of tactics to dupe you, the FTC explains. They may demand a fee to renegotiate your loans for lower payments or to do an "audit" of what you're paying. It may even go far enough that they'll ask you directly or trick you into signing over your house to ease the pressure from your creditors. There are many warning signs to look out for. Keep in mind that if you're ever in doubt, the best step is to back off and seek advice. You can also tell the person you're going to get a second opinion on this from a lawyer. If the person you're dealing with insists that you not or freaks out in any other way, it's a good sign you're being taken. 5. Money mule scams. These scams are a variation on the 419 scams where a foreign prince asks you to hold money for him. All you have to do is wire him some first. But in this case you may actually get the money and be used as a tool of organized crime. A money mule illegally transfers money for someone in exchange for some of the take. Many law-abiding people get drawn into this crime while searching for jobs or romance, which is why your should stick to legitimate sites if you're seeking either of those things. Greed and the lure lottery winnings and inheritances is also used as a lure for potential victims. Trust is the most important thing on the internet. Anyone who trusts you too quickly with offers of money or love is probably scamming you. Cheers, Sandra [Image by epSos .de | Flickr]