Help for the Computer User

January 19th, 2004

Malware and Other Annoyances
Joe Margiotta (flyfisherjoe)

Computers and the Internet have become such an important tool in our everyday life that it is no surprise it has become part of fly fishing, thanks to FAOL. The most common concerns and annoyances in using computers and the Internet are the files placed on our computers without our knowledge or by some sort of trickery. These are called malware, viruses, spyware, adware, browser hijackers, popup generators and some add-on browser tool bars. The marketing companies responsible for some of these usually get upset when their programs are placed in the same category as viruses. In fact, one such marketing company sued a company that makes removal tools (we'll cover those later) and got an a court order to stop them from calling their program "spyware," it could only be called "adware." Let's look at the similarities, how they differ and the thin line than separates them.

To start with let's define them:

Malware: the word comes from, Mal_ icious soft_ware. It can be any program, such as a virus, that causes damage. As far as I'm concerned, that damage can be in the form of lost computer software, data files and or operating system software as well a computer users frustration and loss of time that may result in damage to their health or pocketbook!

Virus: a program, sometimes hidden in another harmless program (Trojan) that propagates by placing itself in other programs and/or by emailing itself to other computers from the infected one. The virus program usually, but not always, performs some malicious function, like erasing or altering files. In some cases they may alter operating system files or wipe out your hard disk rendering your computer useless.

Spyware: a computer program that is placed on your computer without your knowledge or consent that gathers information about you and how you use your computer and sends it back spyware creator. This may include e-mail addresses in your address book and sensitive personal information.

Adware: a computer program that is placed on your computer "supposedly" with your knowledge and consent that gathers information and sends it back to the adware creator. You give consent by accepting a "free" something. That could be a search bar, smilely faces for your e-mail program, bonus points, discounts, etc. etc. At the same time you agree to accept this "gift" you are given a link to one of those long disclosures/policy pages that no one ever checks out. Most don't even notice the link. The adware program quickly installs but an uninstall program is, surprisingly, missing. But then why would you try to uninstall a program that you don't even know exists?

Browser Hijackers: They are similar to the adware but in addition they reset your browsers home or start page to one of their choosing that is filled with their advertisements.

Popup Generators: a program that is a form of adware that studies your web surfing interests and then downloads popup ads that are specific to you and displays them.

Addon Browser Toolbars: NOTE: not all of these are bad, but some are just part of, or the "bait" (should I say fly here?) for the other types of adware. Be very careful in accepting one to be installed. Read the fine print!

So it seems, the point that separates malware from adware is consent or loss. I'll let you decide whether on not you feel you gave consent and didn't lose anything if you end up with adware on your computer.

What can you do about it?

Do operating systems have anything to do with it? The most common, and therefore the most susceptible one is Microsoft Windows©. Although there is less chance of contracting these annoyances with a Mac©, or Linux©, it can still happen. The PC is far more popular and is the best supported in terms of amount and availability of software, so it naturally is the one with the most incidents. I have had Mac's in the past and now have many PC's using Windows and servers using Linux. I have never had a problem with malware or adware with any of these systems. You need to protect yourself no matter what operating system you have. There are many ways to do this. Let's discuss a few:

Common Sense: Most viruses are distributed through e-mail. There is a very bad piece of advise that keeps going around concerning viruses and e-mail. It is:

"Never open an e-mail attachment from someone you don't know"

Don't believe it! It's bad advice, which helps spread viruses! Also don't have your email program set open attachments automatically and launch the virus for you!

A typical virus that spreads by e-mail will first gather addresses from the address book on an infected computer. It will then send itself out to them using the address of the computer owner or the addresses in the book. The result is your friends get an e-mail that appears to come from you or a possible common friend with an attachment that contains the virus. If they follow the above advice they will infect their computer and the cycle will start again. The best defense against virus is to not open suspicious attachments. An attachment is suspicious when you are not positive what it is and/or you are not expecting it. Let your virus program help you make that decision.

Anti-Virus Program: Everyone needs to have a good anti-virus program that is kept up to date. NO anti-virus program is good if it is not up to date! The responsibility of keeping it up to date is yours, not the program. It is a good idea to check for updates every day as soon as you go online. Those of you who rely on automatic updating may be in for a surprise. They don't always work. Sometimes the update servers are busy, sometimes the download is bad. You may have programs that are scheduled for a certain time to update and you may not be online. All anti-virus programs will allow you to manually check for updates. Learn how to do that. It is wise to make sure you update every day before you check your e-mail.

To look at a worse case scenario let's say a new virus is discovered right after you update. Your software provider will put out an update as soon as possible. You go online the next day, you get you e-mail, your anti-virus software is not up to date and, guess what? As I said, this is a worse case situation and good anti-virus software employs technology that could catch it, but why take chances. Fact is, if you do not keep your software updated you will most likely be infected sooner or later.

There are many brands of anti-virus software. To name some: Grisoft's AVG©, McAfee©, Norton©, and Trend Micro©. More are available but these are the very popular and they all work, if they are kept up to date! I often hear people say, "I installed this brand and then changed to this brand and it found a virus the other missed." I say, if both are up to date with the latest virus patterns they both would have caught it.

One concern in choosing a package is the load on your system. Anti-virus programs just like other software, make demands on your computers systems resources. Some of these packages come bundled with many other, usually security oriented, but sometimes automatic reporting, updating programs, anti-spy, popup blockers, etc. etc. that get installed along with the anti-virus. It all sounds good but you need to ask yourself "do you really need and want all of that stuff running on your computer." And, even more important, can your computer run all that stuff?

Does it have the resources it needs? In a lot of cases you already have some of those things covered to your satisfaction. I have recently had several clients bring in their computer that were rendered almost useless in terms of speed and performance after installing one of those "complete Internet security bundles" that has a 2003 version going around cheap right now. It had installed far more security than they needed, bogged down their system with so many programs running in the background that they couldn't even use the programs they normally use everyday. They couldn't even complete the update of the software which involved very large update files for many programs. Of all the ones mentioned above, the one with the least system impact is AVG. If you have an older overworked system, I'd advise staying away from the big combo security packages.

Another advantage of handling each security issue separately is choice of what suits your needs and you systems ability. Another mistake some make that will bog down your system and possibly cause problems, like "illegal operations" because they are both trying to use the same resource at the same time, is to run multiple anti-virus programs. They are not designed to work together and you should direct your efforts to keeping one up to date. The more programs you have running the slower your computer will run. Don't duplicate efforts. Choose the one, best program to accomplish the task.

E-mail Programs and Browsers: Popular e-mail programs like Outlook© and Outlook Express©, have been and are exploited by many viruses. Good anti-virus software will have provisions for screening e-mail in these programs. There are many email client programs that don't have the same vunerabilities. One that is free and a very good program is Mozilla's Thunderbird©. It is similar to the one in the Mozilla© browser but it is a stand alone. The Mozilla browser is the technology that the Netscape browser is based on. They also have an excellent stand alone browser called Firebird. The great thing about these stand alone programs is they run without installation. Just download, place in a folder and run them. The regular Mozilla browser with intergrated e-mail and the stand alone Firebird, allow blocking of popup ads and are not vunerable to the hijack programs designed for Internet Explorer©. They also have many configurable security settings.

Anti-Spy: There are many programs designed to find and remove spyware and adware along with the tracking cookies they load on your computer. Many are free and have pay versions that will also prevent them. They, like virus programs, only work well if you keep them updated. Some available programs are not very good. I'll mention two popular and effective programs. Spybot Search & Destroy a free program that accepts donations. It does a good job and has an immunization feature. Ad-aware which only finds and removes in the free version, the Pay version also prevents. X-Cleaner Spyware Remover, a program that runs without installation. You can even run it from a floppy. It's available in pay only.

Firewall: Hardware and software firewalls can be a big help in protecting your computer when connected to the Internet. Hardware firewalls for home and small offices are inexpensive and although not 100% hack proof will dramatically decrease your exposure to hackers by hiding your computer. In combination with software it will block probes and prevent unauthorized communication between your computer and the Internet. Firewalls offer good protection not only from intrusion but the software usually offers screening of e-mail downloads and can prevent suspicious ones from executing. Popular ones are Zone Alarm and Outpost. Firewall software will often, at first, be too protective and may take a lot of adjusting. Some inexperienced users may find it frustrating. It is a good tool, don't give up.

There are many other programs useful in dealing with these issues but they are mostly intended for the more computer savvy. For example, a program called "Hijack This" is free and will tell you what is running on your computer helping you to find the things that shouldn't be. I won't go into any more here because I just wanted to cover the basics. The programs I mentioned are some of the ones that I use or am familiar with. I am sure there are many other fine programs out there that will do the job and it is not my intention to imply that they are only ones you should consider. To find sources for these programs just do a search on Google.

May your computing be as smooth and trouble free as your forward cast. (I hope that's not a curse!) ~ JM

If you would like to comment on this or any other article please feel free to post your views on the FAOL Bulletin Board!

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