Staying Safe from Computer Viruses

I sleep with my television remote control. I know it sounds like an odd thing to be confessing in this column, but it's true. Some people need caffeine to jumpstart their mornings. Not me. My morning fix of news gets me going. While we're on the subject, I also fall asleep with the television on. I confess: I'm a news junkie.

Now that I've shared this mundane personal fact with you, you're probably wondering what it has to do with this "Internet Connections" column. As I go through my morning routine and Katie, Matt, Al and Ann do their thing in the background, I make serious note of any "virus alerts" they report during the morning news. These alerts have to do with health the health of my computer and our network of computers at our Kitchens.com offices.'

Viruses are serious business, and they could end up costing you a whole lot of money and many wasted man hours. The following information may end up saving you many headaches.

In this Internet age, viruses are normally sent to your computer via e-mail in the form of an attachment. An attachment is an additional document sent with an e-mail that you must open in order to see the additional information. Often, you can read the body of an e-mail without a problem; it's when you open the attachment that your computer becomes infected.

Computer viruses spread for social and technological reasons. From a "social" standpoint, May's "I LOVE YOU" virus spread because the first people to receive it were intrigued by its title and just had to find out who their secret admirer was. Once the virus is open, the "technological" part takes over, wreaking havoc on your computer system and spreading to others.

The ironic thing about viruses is that they are often forwarded to you from friends, family and co-workers (not on purpose, of course). If someone you've sent an e-mail to in the past opens an infected e-mail, often the virus is then forwarded to the e-mail addresses contained in their address book or in-box.

Scary, isn't it? Now, let's arm ourselves to avoid e-mails containing viruses.

Identifying the bug
Viruses come in a variety of forms. A Trojan horse is one of those types and, just like the original Trojan horse, this virus pretends that it's something else such as a screen saver or a joke program. People perpetuate the virus by sending it out to friends because they think it's funny or cool. Once upon a time, a relatively "harmless" virus called Happy99 was sent around. When opened, it displayed fireworks on your screen while it infected your computer system and then forwarded itself to your friends and colleagues.

Is there a simple way to decipher which e-mail is infected and which one isn't? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Don't let this discourage you, however.'

In general, viruses spread through attachment files. If you receive an e-mail attachment with a file type that ends with an extension such as .exe, .vbs, .cmd, .ink, .bat, .com or any other you don't recognize, DON'T open it! There is virtually no reason why someone would ever send you a file of this type. It may be a funny little program, but it could also be a virus. There's just no way to know. Sorry about that.

Halting the spread
Educating yourself and others in your company (especially if your computers are connected by a network) is the best way to avoid viruses. If you know what type of e-mails to stay away from, then the chance of infecting your computer or your company's network is greatly lessened.

Returning to my TV viewing habits, when a virus alert is reported, I immediately call the office. I leave a message for the first person to arrive in the morning, and he places a note on everyone's chair alerting them of the virus. Communication is key when it comes to avoiding viruses, which is why their presence always makes the news. At your next company meeting, take a few minutes to discuss how to avoid infected e-mails.

Another good defense is to install anti-virus software from top companies such as Network Associates and Symantec (or, you can search for other anti-virus software on the Web). Don't let these programs give you a false sense of security, however. They often can't stop newly released viruses, and in order to be truly effective, they require constant updating (usually about once a week). The recent "I LOVE YOU" virus was a brand new virus, and it spread across the world in two hours. Because it was a new virus, the anti-virus software didn't know how to stop it. Therefore, even if you had religiously updated your anti-virus software, it still could have infected your computer.

Sometimes, you may open an e-mail with a virus and you may not even be aware of it. Not to scare you, but you could easily have a virus on your computer at this moment. Some viruses cause damage by immediately causing your computer to become unstable. Other viruses sit fairly quietly and will cause continuous damage over time. Still others are fairly benign, and don't harm your system at all.

Treating the virus
If your computer does get a virus, go to an anti-virus software Web site, such as Norton's at www.symantec.com. There, you can learn how to fight the virus and what effects it will have on your computer and/or network.

If computer problems are beyond your ability to deal with them, make sure you have your ducks in a row in advance of any problems. Check the Web or the Yellow Pages, or ask friends for a local computer service provider. The sooner you rid your computer of a virus, the better your chances are of saving your hard work.

Making sure all of your data is backed up regularly is very important, as well. If your system is infected and files are deleted, having backups will save your company from many hours of file recreation.

While our government has become a lot more aggressive at fighting computer viruses and finding the people who created them, I, unfortunately, don't see an end in sight. So, while we wait for the silver lining to appear on our Internet cloud, I'm off in search of my news fix!

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