How to protect yourself from malware

Hackers or crackers or online criminals—whatever you call them—are working every minute of every day creating new malware that scam users more effectively. But most of these threats are new arrangements of old tunes. So with the right protection and a little savvy, you can avoid just about every digital threat you face.

(Note: This article is for busy Internet users who are looking for information on how to protect their PCs and their families from malware. For more about the technical side of malware, read Alia’s excellent series “A quick & dirty guide to malware”.)

What is the threat?

The first malware typically vandalized PCs and destroyed files. But since the early 2000s, the primary motive for malware creation has been profit. Online criminals are after your banking information or your credit card numbers or your computer’s processing power. In the worst case scenario, they may even be after private information that could be used to extort you or harm your business. And these sorts of attacks generally have both financial and psychological costs.

The true costs of malware can include your data, your content, your time, your effort and your heartache.

Want a few examples of malware mayhem? Spyware tracks you for advertising purposes and slows down your computer doing so. Keyloggers monitors your every keystroke in an effort to steal your credit card information. Scareware imitates anti-virus software in an attempt to extort a quick payment from you. Ransomware takes your files and demand a ransom in return. Rootkits can turn you PC into a zombie computer and use it to send out email spam or to host illegal materials or to join in attacks on websites. There’s even a malware that exists just to create a fake login page for your bank’s website to steal your account information.

How does malware end up on your PC?

Generally you end up with malware because you installed it. And whether you installed it or not, malware can only work if the program runs without being shut down or deleted.

Malware works like most scams — it requires some conscious or unconscious help from its victims. Thus online criminals have to know more than computer coding. They have to know what mistakes users are likely to make so they trick people who have probably NEVER fallen for a scam in their real lives. And the best criminals can convince even cautious users to make one wrong click.

How do you end up downloading and installing malware? Sometimes malware gets packaged in with more legitimate software. Sometimes simply clicking on a fake error message can trigger a drive-by malware download. And you’re certainly aware of the classic method of disguising malware in an email attachment.

You put yourself at risk when you’re downloading from a disreputable source or a peer-to-peer network of strangers. Seeking out “free” stuff on the Internet can cost you time and money. And this is especially true if you’re browsing and downloading without proper protection.

How to protect yourself from malware

1. Make sure your PC is updated and secure
I hope you’re reading this sitting down because I have quite shocking news for you: the software on your PC isn’t perfect. It may contain exploits or security holes that make it possible for your machine to be infected easily. Software companies know their programs are not perfect. That’s why they release updates. Microsoft, Apple and Adobe all release dozens of updates every year. You need to make sure you have these updates on your applications running or you’re increasing your risk of infection. Our free Health Check software is a quick and easy way to make sure your PC is protected.

Of course, we also recommend always running updated Internet security that includes anti-virus, spyware and firewall. Browsing Protection is another layer of security that can keep you from clicking on the wrong links. If you don’t have Browsing Protection, you can use ours. Check any link for free.

2. Be very skeptical of random pop-up windows, error messages and attachments
Modern browsers have reduced the burden of pop-up windows. But they do still exist. Most pop-ups are far more annoying than harmful. But you might think of pop-ups like broken windows into a neighborhood you were walking through at night. It’s a sign that you should be on guard.

Avoid clicking on any pop-ups that imitate your Windows error messages or error messages that come up when you try to close out of a page. (Force quit out of the program, if necessary.) If any software begins to install itself, close out immediately and run a scan of your Internet security software. You can also use our Online Scanner for free.

Avoid opening attachments at all unless you were expecting them and they come from a source you trust. If you can’t verify the source or feel anxious about a particular attachment yet have to open it, you can download it to your hard drive and have your updated Internet security scan the file before you open it.

3. Remove spam from your life
If you get a piece of spam, let your mail software know. Identify it as spam. You could also unsubscribe but unsubscribe link have been used on rare occasions to trigger a malware attack. Better to let your software handle it. If you have a friend on Facebook who spreads spam or bad apps, let them know. And if they continue spreading spam, unfriend them. You are responsible for your social network. Refuse to associate with those people who are not responsible for theirs.

4. Think thrice before installing any new software
Installing software should never be an impulse decision. Some people say think twice before downloading any software from a source you do not trust 100%. I say think three time.

At the very least, Google the name of a product you want to install. If you’re at all uncertain about whether to click download, consult with a tech savvier friend or your company’s IT guy.

When you install software, you could invite in a nasty predator that won’t leave until it’s done some serious damage. So think about installing software with a bit of the same sort of caution you use when deciding to let someone into your home.

5. Behave online as you would in real life
There’s an old saying in my family: “Don’t go licking the floors of a hospital.” What it means is: “Use your common sense.” You have a natural sensor in your brain that tells you when something feels dicey or unsafe. Trust your gut.

With the right software running and a willingness to step back when you feel uncertainty, you keep your PC and your life malware free.

Cheers,
Jason

CC image by Anonymous9000

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