Thursday, 5 June 2014

Don't Panic But ...

They really are out to get you. Malware producers, that is ('malware' = viruses, trojans, rootkits, adware, spyware, junkware, spam-bots, etc, etc). And they're probably winning.

There was a time when the vast majority of infected PCs I saw had no antivirus and were used by teenagers who regularly downloaded 'free' pirated music. There was one parent who I was seeing about every six months until I pointed out how much cheaper it would be to use a legal paid-for service to download his son's music, rather than paying me to keep cleaning the PC up.

Nowadays most PCs have some sort of antivirus, and most people have at least some degree of wariness about the internet, yet the proportion of infected PCs continues to rise.

On Tuesday I came across my first infected broadband router. It had been reprogrammed so that all internet access using it went via a rogue website first. Fortunately it had been crudely done and the user was sensible enough to notice that something was wrong and call me in. Also fortunately she was still using Windows XP, which made it easier for me to see the fingerprint of the router infection; neither her Norton nor my anti-malware tools could see anything amiss.

If you are interested you can see a description of the way the router had been hijacked on Jakob Lell's blog (subtitled "Technology changes ... insecurity remains", which could be an alternative title for this post).

Most users just seem to accept that their PC does strange things that they don't understand, and that it runs frustratingly slowly. If they do notice the latter then they see an online ad saying something like "Speed up your PC" and casually download it, clogging their PC up with even more junkware (at best) and making it go even slower.

Governments don't help to clean things up, instead they just add to the mess. China has long been known to use malware to steal advanced technology, spreading viruses far and wide in the process. Israel and USA cooperate to create malware to attack Israel's neighbours, incidentally catching the rest of the world in the crossfire. Now we learn that the US's NSA and our very own GCHQ are busy creating ever more sophisticated malware in their quest to spy on all of the people all of the time.

It's like the wild west out there, but with the marshals leading the worst criminal gangs.

Is there anything you can do? Up to a point:-
  1. Make sure you have a decent antivirus running, and that it is this year's version. My list of 'decent' antiviruses includes Norton, Kaspersky, F-Secure and AVG. I do not consider McAfee or Microsoft Essentials to be effective. Most antivirus programs include a year number as part of their title; Norton doesn't but has a 'New Version Check' in its Support menu. Unless you really think the extras are useful, I would recommend sticking with the basic 'antivirus' versions of these products - they are a fair bit cheaper and do the important job.
  2. Apply Windows updates and Adobe updates religiously. Unless you are really sure that you need it, uninstall all versions of Java. When downloading Adobe updates make sure you untick their 'optional offer'.
  3. Run a 'full scan' with your antivirus at least monthly. If you can't remember when you last did a complete virus scan then do it now: don't read the rest of the points, just do 1) and 2) above then run that full scan. It will take a while, but there are millions of infected PCs out there whose users just don't know it: make sure yours isn't one of them.
  4. Don't install registry cleaners or other 'go faster' tools. If you have any already installed I would recommend removing them. CCleaner (free) is an exception: it is a decent disk cleanup tool but don't use its registry cleaner unless you are really, really sure you know what it is doing.
  5. Similarly don't install multiple toolbars. Google or Bing or the BT one can be useful, but not the gimmicky 'something for nothing' ones.
  6. Avoid free downloaders - they are hardly ever useful with modern broadband and several add extra nasties to the downloaded programs.
  7. If you are still using Windows XP, double check your Windows Updates are installed and download and use Firefox or Google Chrome for your internet - the XP version of Internet Explorer (the big blue 'e' symbol) is far too vulnerable. This also applies, with slightly less urgency, to those using Vista.
  8. Keep backups of anything important to you, especially digital photos. Not only do computer drives fail sometimes, but there are now viruses known as 'ransomware' which encrypt all of your files and charge you hundreds of pounds for the key to decrypt them again (which they may or may not then provide).
  9. If you have a management program for your broadband router then use it to change the access password (and don't save the password in your browser when it asks) and, if you can find the option, don't allow access to the router from the internet (or the WAN as the option may put it).
You probably don't want to go paying a tech support person for every little oddity or slowdown on your PC, but do ask around to find a reputable PC support person in your area so there is someone you can call out when needed (it's the same general theory as plumbers - you don't want to wait until there's an emergency before trying to find one you can trust). If your PC is more than a couple of years old, you might find it useful to have it serviced - even without malware in all its guises, Windows itself tends to accumulate crud and slow down over time.

I think that PCs are wonderful things, which can open an amazing window onto the world - especially for older or less mobile users. It is a crying shame when unnecessary problems and malicious garbage prevent people from enjoying the benefits.

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