Hello. This stuff is getting a little old now... I'm going to be revising it in a while. Meantime, here is what I wrote a few years back.
My name is Martin Thompson and I have been working with computers of various sorts for over 20 years. This web page is aimed at helping with the most common PC problems.
Many computers these days are getting overwhelmed by virus attacks or pop-up advertising, their browsers hijacked by unscrupulous vendors. More critically perhaps, spyware can be stealing your credit card details or personal information and sending it over the Internet to who-knows who. Obviously, there are also the more mundane hardware and software glitches that need looking at. If you live in London, I can fix it. I can also produce web sites like this one, and am available for pretty-much any other computer-related work.
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These infect your computer, usually via e-mail or infected web sites or across a network connection. They reproduce themselves on your machine and then try and find other machines to infect, often by sending themselves out using your e-mail program (usually Outlook or Outlook Express, probably the two most vulnerable e-mail programs in the world). Viruses and the other parasites mentioned below slow your machine down usually, as well; indeed this is often the first sign that something is wrong.
- Use an anti-virus program! A paid-for one I prefer is Norman but others include Norton and McAfee. Before choosing an anti-virus program, it might be worth checking Virus Bulletin which runs a "VB100" award: get one that scores 100% with whatever operating system you are using. Current winners include Eset (NOD32), Kaspersky and Virusbuster. Norman was a winner at the time I bought my copy, and Norton usually does pretty well too. If you don't want to pay, free ones include AVG, Antivir and many others. But check them out on Virus Bulletin before trusting your PC with them. In general, you get what you pay for, OK? Also, if a virus manages to slip past and your PC gets infected anyway, be cautious about using the anti-virus program to remove them: often the programs can't repair the damage done by the virus but can only delete the infected files. If that happens to be all your documents, well, you will have lost everything... unless you have an uninfected backup somewhere. You can often find procedures described and clean-up programs to download at sites such as Symantec, but if in the end you are not clear about how to clean up the infection, it is time to get a professional in before you do more damage than even the virus has managed.
- Don't use vulnerable software. That means, don't use Outlook Express, Outlook, or Internet Explorer. These programs are vulnerable for two main reasons, as far as I can tell: a) they have not been written with security in mind; and b) they are so widely used that they are an obvious target. Alternative e-mail clients include Turnpike (which I use and which is a newsreader too), Eudora (e-mail client only), and the free Mozilla Thunderbird, which looks pretty good to me. As an alternative to Internet Explorer, consider Mozilla (you can get the browser and e-mail set-up combined here too - look for their "Suite"), or Opera which is nearly free (they display adverts in a little space near the top of the screen if you don't want to pay). Personally, I use Mozilla at the moment.
- Don't open attachments unless you are expecting them. Note that Outlook, Outlook Express and some other e-mail programs automatically open some e-mails in their 'Preview Pane'. This can lead to infections too. Switch off the Preview Pane (usually under the View menu) and decide for yourself whether a given e-mail is safe to look at.
- A decent e-mail program can "filter" e-mail based on its content. The proprietor of cyberdelix.net has discovered that you can block all executable files such as e-mail viruses simply by filtering and binning or rejecting any mail containing these strings in the body text:
- You might also block all attachments with a .hta extension, just for luck.
- If you need to receive an executable file from someone, get them to zip it up before sending it to you (and they must not make it self-extracting either).
These are close relatives of the viruses except that they don't usually reproduce themselves. Instead, these are programs that look like they are doing one thing, but in fact are also doing something else behind the scenes that you don't know about. Such as sending your passwords to someone else. Or your credit card details. Or any other information they find on your PC. Or, they could be attacking someone else's PC across the Internet, using your PC as a staging post. You could be sued for allowing this! A common trojan is Gator (a program that you think is keeping track of your passwords for you, but which is also making a note of web sites you visit and popping up adverts accordingly when you try and use the Internet). Trojans also commonly allow hackers into your system. Often they will just nose around, but they could destroy your documents or steal your data, or just store their own illegal pornography or stolen music on your computer (and you could get the blame for it if it is ever discovered). Some trojans try to take control of your modem (if you have one), and dial international premium-rate lines owned by the trojan-writer: you could end up with a massive phone bill and you would be liable to pay it.
- The solutions to trojans are pretty much the same as for viruses and most anti-virus programs block suspicious trojans too. However, some quite legitimate-seeming programs can be a problem too, so the best thing is to install and run (from time-to-time) a specialist trojan scanner, many of which are free, such as The Cleaner.
- Be cautious about what you install on your computer. If it is in any way dodgy, be suspicious.
- To block hackers anyway, you should have a firewall. Zone Alarm is free and easy to use. Some anti-virus "computer security" packages come with a firewall, so you can use that instead. You're not too worried about hackers? The average unprotected computer will be hacked within 3 to 5 days. Protected computers detect an average of 30 probes (looking for vulnerabilities) per day. Here is an article from the Washington Post. What have the hackers done with your computer?
Spyware programs are often pretty much the same as trojans except that usually you don't know that they are there. They are looking for data to send elsewhere. This could be a list of web sites you visit or some similar invasion of your privacy. The information is usually collected for commercial purposes such as showing you relevant adverts when you visit affiliated web sites, but they are also often used for sinister purposes, such as cleaning out your bank account once the login or card details have been discovered. Some versions of Kazaa (a peer-to-peer networking program that is used to "distribute" or "steal" music and movies over the Internet) also put spyware on your system.
- Again, take the usual precautions discussed above, plus some virus and trojan scanners can block some spyware, but they are, after all, virus scanners, not spyware scanners. So, use Ad-Aware, which has a free version and one other, probably Spyhunter, which costs a small amount. You could also look at Spybot - Search and Destroy which is free, but which requires some discretion in its use: you need to know what you can and can't delete to use this one effectively. Note also that Ad-Aware thinks that Spyhunter is spyware, so be careful not to delete any enigmasoft stuff if you are using both, and I recommend that you do, and maybe scan with a third one from time-to-time: no single scanner gets them all yet.
Similar to spyware, this sort of software can spy or, like trojans, can do other things too, but typically what they do is seize control of your browser (the vulnerable one, i.e., Internet Explorer) and make it go to pages of their choice, not yours. So, when you open your browser hoping it will come up on its normal start page (like Google or MSN or something), instead it goes to some shopping site, or a pornography page. And adverts keep popping up.
- The usual: be cautious when installing software and when surfing the Internet. Some anti-virus and related software described above can deal with some of it, sometimes.
- The software of choice for dealing with adware, though, is the free Ad-Aware mentioned in the previous section. If you want a bit more control over things than the free version gives you, you can pay for the Pro version. This allows automated scanning on boot-up, and includes "Ad-Watch" which blocks suspicious activity as it happens, rather than after the fact (the basic, free version only works when you tell it manually to do a scan). "Suspicious activity" includes all file downloads, though, so if you are trying to download something you can suspend Ad-Watch temporarily while you do so. Otherwise, I would recommend a manual scan about once a week, especially if children have access to the PC or if anyone that uses it likes exploring dodgy web sites, many of which can infect your computer directly once you connect to them if you have no software to block the attempted infections.
A ton of junk e-mail probably wastes a lot of your time and may expose people to unsavoury material. Easily solved!
- SpamPal is free even for commercial use. Use it.
Well, apart from the various parasites mentioned above, the main problems are usually some misconfiguration, bug or breakdown in the operating sytem (Windows, usually), or a hardware fault such as bad sectors on a hard drive, a memory glitch, or a motherboard failure of some sort. These can damage your data or even destroy it completely, on occasion. Without a backup, your data will go to data heaven (as will any business of yours that depends upon it).
The Most General Solution...Is to have a backup. Now as I work in IT I have seen the need for backups and I have looked around for the best backup solutions. As a result, I am selling one here: you have been duly warned!
Consider the following most common scenarios, especially in the context of a business, but they also apply to home users who stand to lose e-mails, artworks, photographs and so on.
- A virus or hacker destroys some important documents or adjusts your accounts so you could end up paying substantially more tax than you should unless you get all your work checked over again by somebody, at your expense.
- Your computer is stolen (but you have printouts of important matter).
- A fire or flood or other disaster destroys your computer and your printouts.
What would be the consequences for you or your business? Research suggests that when companies lose their data in a disaster situation, 50% never reopen and 90% go out of business within two years.
I believe that people need to consider their backup needs in the light of the three scenarios above, and make sure that their backups can survive any of them. Insurance will replace the computers and the premises, hopefully, but your data, your work, cannot be replaced by anybody. How do you protect against this sort of thing?
For many people, taking printouts is all they do, and it is certainly better than nothing, but it only works in the case of small problems such as the theft of a computer. But what if there is a fire? You can protect against this by taking your printouts off-site, but then you can't use them while you are at work! If you are smart enough to do daily backups onto a tape, you can make sure the day's tape is taken home by someone each evening and brought back the next day and preferably kept about their person all day so that if the fire alarm goes off, it leaves the building with that person. That provides some measure of protection against this sort of thing.
But... suppose the tax people decide you're up to something and the police come and take all your computers and documentation for their investigation? How will you continue to trade? They could seize your backup tapes too, or at least some of them. Hopefully you will have spirited away some of them, maybe one a month or two old will be at home somewhere. That would be something. Only a month or two's work lost, maybe. Can you afford that?
Well, what I am driving at is that while you should have printouts, and you should have on-site/take-home backups, you should also have "off-site" backups. These days, any business will be connected to the Internet, so why not just pipe your data, suitably encrypted, to a secure server elsewhere each evening? The computers will automatically keep your backups up to date to within a day. This is by far the best solution and it is not even expensive (a few pounds a month, for most small businesses). Get in touch with me if you want to know more.
Copyright © Martin Thompson, 2004-Date