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Simple ways to avoid viruses

Guest tech blogger Kelly Guimont offers some easy ways to protect your computer from viruses


Posted August 29, 2011 by Shawn "Doc Rock" Boyd

By Kelly Guimont
Special to Nonstop

Viruses. You’ve heard a lot about them and about what software to install to protect from them. Sure there are a number of fine software packages that will guard your machine against malware and viruses, but there are some basic, free things you can do to prevent from having to wade through scans and quarantined files.

First, the basics: What’s a virus? Well, it’s a form of something called malware, which is software (usually unknowingly) installed on your computer that can damage your files or use your Internet connection to send spam messages or do some other malicious action. Odds are you wouldn’t opt to make your computer part of a network that sends spam, and there are easy ways to protect from this sort of software ever invading your machine.

A good way to think of a computer virus is as a physical virus like the common cold. To keep your body healthy, there are obvious ways to minimize your contact with germs. Similarly, here are ways to keep your computer infection-free.

First, you can do easy things like install block pop-up windows in your web browser. It’s usually just a preference set in your browser. Here are links on how to set it up in Firefox, Chrome and Safari. Sometimes these are “pop-under” windows, which means they come up behind your main window and make it easy to inadvertently click them if you don’t expect them to be on your screen when you minimize or close your browser window.

Another common way malware is distributed is through email attachments. To minimize this, try to get less email. That’s an entire article in itself, but for now, we’ll go over some other ways.

• Make sure you aren’t opted-in to every place that wants your email address, and don’t display your email as plain text online. If you make your email address more difficult to find, it can keep the unscrupulous away. This can be as simple as listing your email address in plain text. For example you could list it as “my first name at the address for this website.” By doing this, automated processes that go looking for email addresses will skip over it.

 

 

• You can also protect yourself by deleting email from people you don’t know. And it comes from someone you do know, check the attachment to make sure it’s something you’d expect or normally receive from that person. For example, I often get pictures and movies of my niece via email, so if I get a message from her mom with a video or image attachment, I feel comfortable opening it. If there’s description or it’s an .exe or some other file, I would be suspicious. Don’t be afraid to reply to someone or even call them to make sure they meant to send you something.

• One last thing that can sometimes protect from malware is to avoid using Outlook or Outlook Express as your email client. If you’re currently using Outlook, you might want to consider switching to something like Thunderbird from Mozilla, who makes Firefox, or just move everything to a web-based service such as Gmail, Yahoo!, or even the webmail your ISP provides (if they have one; most do). This way, the only time you’ll actually downloaded something to your machine is when you click on it; nothing will just appear on your computer, which goes a long way toward keeping you safe from shady attachments.

Certainly there are specific things you can do to keep your operating system safe, but those are very different articles depending on the OS you are running. These are more general tips that work for everyone, no matter what configuration you have. Minimizing exposure is a lot easier to keep your system healthy and happy.

***

Kelly Guimont has been a technology fan for most of her life. While she does remember a time before the Internet, she does not prefer it. She can occasionally be heard hosting the TUAW Talkcast at tuaw.com. She also helps organize community events with a decidedly geeky flavor.

Comments


  1. Posted August 29, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Thank you @Verso, great post.

  2. MeiLinMiranda
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 9:34 am

    Excellent summary of simple precautions everyone should take whether they have virus software installed or not. Sometimes even pros forget to do these things, so this is a good reminder.

  3. Master_Dingo
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 9:34 am

    I am so desperately pleased with this article. I now don’t have to have “that” conversation with my mother about email! Now, ahem, if you’ll pardon me for a moment I have to forward this to a few people.

  4. octothorpe
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 9:46 am

    These are some great tips. Many viruses these days come in the form of trojan horses, ie. files that are made to look legit, but in fact carry malware. Never open a file with a .exe extension, and if you see an email from someone you don’t know, simply delete it without opening it. If it was really important, you would have either known the sender, or they’ll try to reach you again via other means (phone, IM, snail mail).

  5. JivaDeVoe
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Excellent article! Was just talking to my daughter (10 yrs old) last night about avoiding email viruses since she just got her first email account last week. Thinking I may email this to her to read as well!

  6. Posted August 29, 2011 at 9:58 am

    @Master_Dingo Please do, I’m surprised how many people get caught by weird email messages and they are obviously SPAM or Phishing emails.

  7. Posted August 29, 2011 at 10:10 am

    @JivaDeVoe Yep we gotta start them early and remind them often!

  8. GedeonMaheux
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 10:18 am

    A nice read from @verso. Any info people get about how to stop the spread of viruses is good stuff. You can never be armed with enough ammo when it comes to malware.

  9. groonk
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Thanks, verso . I need to save this article for when my parents hit the Internets. I’ve done well to block that day so far.

  10. groonk
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Thanks, verso . I need to save this article for when my parents hit the Internets. I’ve done well to block that day so far.

  11. themacmommy
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Important stuff here that can not be repeated enough. I have a question. I don’t use Outlook or Outlook Express but I never hear anyone say they like it. What is it about Outlook that makes it particularly unsafe that you recommend switching to Thunderbird or Webmail? Just curious. Thanks for the resource verso !

  12. vegasgeek
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 11:50 am

    With regards to Outlook, it has such a HUGE install base (comes pre-installed on most Windows computers) that it is a known property for hackers. If they are going to write malicious software, the likelihood that Outlook is installed on the machine is fairly high.

  13. vegasgeek
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 11:50 am

    With regards to Outlook, it has such a HUGE install base (comes pre-installed on most Windows computers) that it is a known property for hackers. If they are going to write malicious software, the likelihood that Outlook is installed on the machine is fairly high.

  14. vegasgeek
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Great post. With regards to email attachments, I’ve really cut down on the number of attachments I’ll open, even from people I know. Any sort of video or photo that somebody may want to send me, I’d rather they post it to Facebook or Youtube and then just send me the link. The amount of infected files I’ve received from people I know is just as high as from people I don’t know. The only difference is, the people I know don’t know they are passing along infected files. At least, I hope they don’t. :)

  15. jburrows
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Great post, Kelly! More people need to hear this. Thanks for showing that it takes really simple things anyone can do to help stop spreading computer germs.

  16. jburrows
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Great post, Kelly! More people need to hear this. Thanks for showing that it takes really simple things anyone can do to help stop spreading computer germs.

  17. caseorganic
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Some fantastic tips here! Thanks for sharing. I think that a lot of people are so afraid of viruses that they just give up. This piece will help them to realize that they have the information to protect their computers.

  18. nerdliness
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Great post! I’m a little confused about the picture, though… will McAfee help prevent ninja/cat burglar attacks, too?

  19. rarickmary
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    Great tips. This is the kind of article that should be taught in schools. I’ve been working on computers for a long time but I had no idea that Outlook made you vulnerable to viruses.

  20. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    @groonkverso I fee you my dad finally jumped on board last week and wen straight for the Youtube channel. He always taught me to go two feet forward. Check out his lovely videos of Hawaii http://www.youtube.com/hidefhawaii

  21. ericasadun
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Good job verso

  22. ericasadun
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Good job verso

  23. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    @themacmommyversovegasgeek is correct Outlook is a very easy target. Even though we Mac people have little to worry about for these issues so far i still try to used webmail as much as possible. Many people get lost in the ease of iPhoto and Picassa to email pics to family and just can’t get off of embedded mail clients. This we need to fix ASAP.

  24. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    @ericasadunverso Hi E, or better yet Aloha!

  25. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    @ericasadunverso Hi E, or better yet Aloha!

  26. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    @ericasadunverso Hi E, or better yet Aloha!

  27. michaelperozzo
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    The ninja with the laptop just brought all of my greatest fears to life. Also, glad I don’t use Outlook anymore! Wasn’t aware of the threat, just aware that it sucks.

  28. michaelperozzo
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    The ninja with the laptop just brought all of my greatest fears to life. Also, glad I don’t use Outlook anymore! Wasn’t aware of the threat, just aware that it sucks.

  29. michaelperozzo
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    The ninja with the laptop just brought all of my greatest fears to life. Also, glad I don’t use Outlook anymore! Wasn’t aware of the threat, just aware that it sucks.

  30. verso
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Thank you SO much for your comments everyone!

  31. verso
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Thank you SO much for your comments everyone!

  32. verso
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Thank you SO much for your comments everyone!

  33. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    @nerdliness I picked that picture because of my bad dreams :)

  34. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    @nerdliness I picked that picture because of my bad dreams :)

  35. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    @nerdliness I picked that picture because of my bad dreams :)

  36. tchaten
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Thanks Kelly for a great message that many need to read. Some basic stuff that sadly many have not learned.

  37. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    @verso You are a Rockstar!

  38. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    @verso You are a Rockstar!

  39. johnderosa
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Great article @verso . It’s funny how so many of our problems are often self-inflicted, isn’t it? The mail client we use, the things we download without thinking or the the mail we open without considering. It’s like we want to shoot off our big toes.

  40. mdhughes
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Good guides to staying out of trouble.

    Of course, the best prevention for viruses is: Use a Mac or iOS only. For Mac OS X, there’s been one “real” trojan, and no self-replicating viruses or worms; for iOS, there’s been none. The App Stores are the safest places to shop.

  41. mdhughes
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Good guides to staying out of trouble.

    Of course, the best prevention for viruses is: Use a Mac or iOS only. For Mac OS X, there’s been one “real” trojan, and no self-replicating viruses or worms; for iOS, there’s been none. The App Stores are the safest places to shop.

  42. Bonnyface
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Being a Mac user, I sometimes forget about viruses. But I have a Windows machine at work, so I’m glad for the refresher!

  43. dougcoleman
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Great advice @verso . I get so many unsolicited emails that aren’t always detected by my spam filters and being a curious sort, I sometimes open them “willy-nilly”. Thanks for the reminders.

  44. dougcoleman
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Great advice @verso . I get so many unsolicited emails that aren’t always detected by my spam filters and being a curious sort, I sometimes open them “willy-nilly”. Thanks for the reminders.

  45. Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    @Bonnyface I see I have to get @verso to post o my site before you come to visit me. I’m going to go weep softly in the corner :p

  46. Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    @Bonnyface I see I have to get @verso to post o my site before you come to visit me. I’m going to go weep softly in the corner :p

  47. Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    @mdhughes I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  48. Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    @mdhughes I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  49. Bonnyface
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    @docrock@verso Dude. Honestly. I didn’t know you had this site. I thought all you did was drink sake. ;-)

  50. Bonnyface
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    @docrock@verso Dude. Honestly. I didn’t know you had this site. I thought all you did was drink sake. ;-)

  51. psingleton
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Thanks for the clearly outlined and practical information, @verso . My mom is constantly clicking on nefarious links, then I end up getting bogus emails from her. I’m going to forward this to her. Also, I wasn’t aware Outlook came with greater risk.

  52. psingleton
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Thanks for the clearly outlined and practical information, @verso . My mom is constantly clicking on nefarious links, then I end up getting bogus emails from her. I’m going to forward this to her. Also, I wasn’t aware Outlook came with greater risk.

  53. psingleton
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Thanks for the clearly outlined and practical information, @verso . My mom is constantly clicking on nefarious links, then I end up getting bogus emails from her. I’m going to forward this to her. Also, I wasn’t aware Outlook came with greater risk.

  54. codesorcery.net
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Great point about hiding your email address. I’ve done that for years and it really helps keep down the spam and other unwanted email. Some web content management systems have plugins to help automate the hiding of your address, too, so that it looks normal and is clickable, but can’t be followed by web robots.

  55. Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    In the great malware arms race, a little bit of common prophylaxis can go a long way.

    Anyone who’s had to console a dejected friend or family member after they clicked on the wrong thing and got their system pwned knows how important this kind of basic knowledge can be.

  56. Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    In the great malware arms race, a little bit of common prophylaxis can go a long way.

    Anyone who’s had to console a dejected friend or family member after they clicked on the wrong thing and got their system pwned knows how important this kind of basic knowledge can be.

  57. CarrieLeighC
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    I always wondered if I was missing out on anything important by using web-based gmail instead of Outlook — I guess I’m only missing out on viruses! Thanks for the reassurance that I’m already doing the right thing.

  58. verso
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Because it has so much OS integration (much like mail.app on the Mac side), any time there’s a security hole in Windows that can be exploited, Outlook/OE can sometimes be manipulated to run code that takes advantage of that exploit. Outlook has holes too, but between the two your safest bet is to just skip the combination altogether if you can.

  59. flargh
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Great advice. I run a dual-boot computer that operates both OS X and Windows 7, so I need to keep virus definitions up to date, and make sure that nothing I’m importing from the Mac side of things may have an unexpected payload when it gets to the Windows side.

  60. themacmommy
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks so much for explaining the Outlook/OE issue. That is extremely helpful. I use Apple Mail as my main client but it’s all Google IMAP. I suppose that doesn’t count as using webmail though, but I never trust — nor do I advise my clients (both people and software) to use ISP-provided email service. I’ve had nothing but trouble with mine in the past. I also tell people to have an additional account, perhaps the ISP issued email, to use for spam if they feel they must sign up for all their mail order catalogs and stuff that generates a lot of subscription based messages.

  61. Posted August 29, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    @Bonnyface@verso Touche’

  62. jgamet
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Hey, Kelly, thanks for addressing the common issues that trip up so many people on the Internet. And an extra big thanks for telling it like it is in plain terms and without the hellfire and brimstone sensationalizing that so often goes along with malware and virus articles. Yes, it’s true: You rock.

  63. GeekInParadise
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    Great article overall, but the blurb on Outlook/Thunderbird is misleading. They both perform the same function, bringing mail from your service to the desktop, and Outlook has better integration with the Antivirus programs than Thunderbird. Opening an attachment in Outlook/Thunderbird is the same as opening it from the web, it doesn’t make you inherently more susceptible to viruses if you’re going to open it anyway, no matter where it is. Just be careful and mindful of what you’re opening and you’ll be fine for the most part regardless of what you use to view email.

  64. Posted August 29, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    @jgamet Hello Jeff. Thanks for your kind words. we missed you on sunday.

  65. jgamet
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 4:24 am

    Sorry I couldn’t be there. My schedule has been pretty busy.

  66. stuhelm
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Great post Kelly (@verso)

    I moved my parents over to gMail a few years ago, they were using ISP provided mail until then and one of the things they’ve seen is a huge decrease in the amount of spam they get.

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About Shawn "Doc Rock" Boyd

Raised on the East Coast, Doc came to Hawaii soon after graduating high school. Doc has been involved in technology since getting his first set of tools as a Christmas present at age 5. Since climbing out from behind the Genius Bar at Apple you now will most likely find Doc waxing rhapsodically on the virtues of saké, good food, soccer, super-cars and camera gear.

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